Half Ranting in Response to a Rant about Supposedly Bad Translations

The other day I saw an interesting rant on the Facebook page of the mobile game company I have been freelance translating for this past year. A couple of fans were complaining about a game’s translation, and they got a fair number of Likes, so I guess many other fans agree with them. I haven’t played nor worked on the particular game that caused these fans so much anger, so I don’t know if they’re justified in some of their complaints. (Apparently the title they played was full of grammatical errors, which I have seen in this company’s first titles but I’m a bit surprised to hear it’s happening now and kind of wonder if this person’s getting their panties in a bunch over one or two typos. But I digress.) However, two of the complaints struck me as odd, both as a fan of various Japanese pop culture products and as a translator myself.

One complaint the fans had was that things were changed to be “less Japanese.” The example given was that of Golden Week. Apparently the English version of the game changed this to “spring break.”

I wouldn’t say the translation was changed with the intention of taking its Japaneseness away. I think it was changed simply to be more accessible to a Western audience, an audience which, by and large, does not know what Golden Week is. I think this is something that people who know some Japanese, or even a lot of Japanese, tend to forget. Especially if their circle of friends & acquaintances has the same interests as they do. It can be hard to believe that despite the anime & manga boom, there are still lots and lots of people in the English-speaking world who don’t give a flying eff about Japan, Japanese things, and/or Japanese culture. I don’t know how many people have asked me “So how did you like China?” literally 60 seconds after I told them I’d lived in Japan. I wish I were exaggerating. There are still plenty of Americans & Canadians for whom Asia=China and they will hear China when you say Japan.

Anyway, these people are still potential customers. They might enjoy exploring a game that was originally made for a Japanese audience if it’s made accessible to them. That’s what localization (as opposed to just translation) is. That’s what it’s for. There are also fans of Japanese things who aren’t going to make the sort of commitment required to learn all about Japan and its culture. And that’s okay.

As a translator, I want to keep the original intact as much as possible while still giving the new audience an enjoyable experience. So it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone knows what certain things are and not everyone is going to stop in the middle of gameplay to go look it up. If a game is not meant to be a Primer on Japanese Language and Culture, and if a localization choice makes the game more accessible to its new audience without causing conflicts within the storyline, then that localization choice is probably a good thing.

Personally, I have a general rule when I come across things that are unique to Japanese culture in something I’m translating. If I Google the thing in question in romaji and find the correct thing in the first page of results, then I will leave it in, but I will usually add a line or change another line so that I can naturally add an explanation of the thing in question so that even someone who doesn’t feel like Googling it can follow along. But sometimes, that’s impossible, either because it can’t be done without having the character say something extremely unnatural or obviously exposition-y, or because the original reference is so obscure there’s no information on it available in English for fans to even find. This leads me to the fans’ second complaint.

The other complaint that I found a bit odd in this rant was about the use of memes in the translation which were most certainly not in the original due to their nature as Memes Invented By Native English Speakers. As I haven’t played the game in question I can’t say this for sure, but I would not be surprised if the translator was merely substituting a Japanese meme that would be completely over most Western players’ heads with a meme they would actually understand and enjoy. I think memes fall under the same category as jokes; some jokes just don’t translate, and even when they do, they might require too much background knowledge to enjoy. Take this joke based on Chinese characters, for example:

木 means “tree.” Put two of them together and you get 林 meaning “woods.” Put three of them together and you get 森, “forest.” So what do you get when you put 6 trees together?

The first time someone told me this joke, I answered hesitantly, “Mori mori?” thinking 森森 but pretty sure that wasn’t really a thing. I also tried saying “Big forest,” thinking 大森, but that was also incorrect.

The answer is 六本木. *Rim shot*

Enjoying this joke requires that the listener know all the kanji involved and at least the place name Roppongi and the fact that it literally means “six trees”. Looking at the Western audience overall, how many people would get that?

If the original game made people laugh at a certain point, the translated game should make them laugh at that point too. That point is therefore not where you want to throw in a mini-lesson on kanji and Japanese place names. But at least that’s a fairly simple joke, and you could probably find it online in English. (Although Googling “What do you get when you put six trees together” didn’t yield results related to this joke, and I personally don’t like making people have to dig too far to get what their fun game is trying to do, namely make them laugh.)

A more obscure example: I once came across a line about putting tacks into someone’s pointe shoes as a prank. At first I thought it was a reference to something from the movie Black Swan. It apparently wasn’t. Then I thought it was a reference to ballet in general. I knew a professional ballerina once; she told me the world of ballet was absolutely ruthless. But after more digging, I found that the reference originated with a 1970’s drama called Akai Kutsu. But when you Google that in romaji, not only do you not get info about the drama, you get information about the nursery rhyme of the same name which is about a Japanese girl getting abducted by a foreigner and taken away from Japan. WTF?

But anyway, at that point I’d gone on probably a 30-minute exploratory tangent, and finding the info I found required fluency in Japanese. So I did the kind thing, and changed “tacks in pointe shoes” to “itching powder in underwear.” Both are old pranks. Had I left it as “tacks in pointe shoes,” the average English-speaker probably would have been confused about why a character who never mentioned ballet before suddenly had pointe shoes. But for a Japanese person, “tacks in pointe shoes” is understood as “an example of a mean prank.” Younger Japanese may not know the origin of the phrase, but they know the meaning because it’s just a part of pop culture now.

Sometimes translators make mistakes, and the editors don’t always catch every typo or mistake in what the translator wrote. But when people start virulently complaining about things like these, I wish they would take other fans into account. Just because you know what X thing from Japanese culture is doesn’t mean that others do too. Also, I wish people, especially people who aren’t bilingual, wouldn’t be so quick to get paranoid and assume the translator is cheating them somehow. That’s something that I also experienced a lot when I was working in a school, interpreting between Spanish and English. People have all sorts of misconceptions about languages and translation and they get angry at the interpreter/translator when what they deliver doesn’t match their personal misconceptions. (No, it doesn’t take twice as long to say the same thing in Spanish as it does in English. That might happen sometimes but it’s not a rule at all.)

Side note: So I was watching Jeopardy tonight and one of the clues was something like “This emperor had to renounce his divinity in 1946.” The reigning champion rings in and says “Who is Mao?” The correct answer was “Who is Hirohito?” Right when I was talking about people often confusing Japan for China!