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 They might enjoy exploring a game that was originally made for a Japanese audience if it’s made accessible to them.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!

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8 thoughts on “Half Ranting in Response to a Rant about Supposedly Bad Translations

  1. I feel your pain. Being a translator can be ungrateful… Especially when it’s the client that wants certain changes, but in the end it’s the translator that is blamed of the bad choices. (Not really what you were talking about here, I know, but it’s what I’ve experienced the most on my end)

    It’s still a job that I enjoy though. Even if certain things about it will give a headache sometimes.

    • You bring up a good point! I haven’t had that problem with either of my main clients, but before I got those I had some experiences with clients who would send work along with notes and orders to translate certain terms as certain things. “Always translate X as Y” and such. The problem is that ignores that translation is context-dependent, and especially in creative translation, sometimes X can be better translated to Z.

      Hahaha, yeah there are certainly headaches that come with translation. As a freelancer though I am soooo happy I don’t have to deal with office BS like I used to. ^o^

  2. Great post. I’ve been thinking of getting into Japanese translation one day, and this is good stuff. Hope to see more of it!

    For both examples you gave (though the second one is a bit vague due to lack of info), I think you are probably right in that they did their best job to translate/localize, and these were not mistakes.

    I know personally I’ve seen alot of bad translation in Japanese Anime (some supposedly professionally done like on DVDs, some fan-subbed by amateurs), so I’m generally pretty “on guard” looking for mistakes when I watch nowadays. My guess is that maybe some of thees gamers also have been made sensitive to translation mistakes since they have happened often in the past (at least, they have appeared to be).

    As a final comment, I think for certain audiences it may be better to actually keep things like “Golden Week”, and have explanatory text somewhere out of the main text. Though people randomly renting a popular Japanese movie may not care about the culture too much, I know there are alot of people into Japanese Anime pretty deeply such that they care about the culture. Those people might already know about Golden Week, or a least want to know about it. But it’s hard to make a translation that will make everyone happy.

    • Hello locksleyu, thanks for stopping by & commenting!

      Yeah, I’ve seen some movies/anime that have subtitles with translation notes. I’ve also noticed that fansubbers tend to do this a lot more than professional productions. This makes me think that companies are much more interested in appealing to the audience at large, whereas fansubbers have niche viewers in mind. I myself make full use of footnotes in the fan translations I’ve done, but that’s not a luxury I have in my paid work because of the particular medium (namely, mobile phone games). Also because there’s a limit to what I can do as a freelancer rather than an in-house translator, but I don’t expect fans to know about that particular part of the equation.

      I completely agree that certain audiences would enjoy seeing things like Golden Week left intact in the translation, hence why I personally try to leave as much culture stuff in if I can add context clues naturally and a quick online search yields info in English for fans to find themselves, as I mentioned in the post. (Though the game I usually work on has slightly older fans, at least it seems to be that way from the ones that post online, and I think older fans are more tolerant of games that make them reach for the dictionary/Google with some frequency.) But the thing that struck me as odd about these fans’ complaint was not that they had a problem with the localization choice, but rather that they saw that choice as the company making the game “less Japanese” (those were their words). To me that sounds like an accusation of racism or whitewashing, which I think is a bit much in this particular case. But yeah, like you said, you can’t please everybody!

      • Thanks for the response! One further question, more related to your profession than this post specifically.

        What is the minimum credentials required for a translation job like that? If hypothetically someone was pretty skilled in translation but didn’t have any official credentials, would it be hard to get a job?

        • You’re welcome! I know I’ve learned a lot from the pro translators whose blogs/social media profiles I followed as I was getting into this, so I’m happy to pay it forward. 🙂

          As for your question, the short answer is: even in the games industry, it varies by company, and I think that as a general rule if they’re looking for freelancers and paying less they’re probably going to have less strict requirements as far as traditional credentials. However, I have never seen a company asking for something specific like a degree in translation. From what I’ve seen, and from what I read when I was researching this myself, whatever writing and/or translation sample you submit will have more weight than any diploma or certification. Just like you judge an artist by their artwork not their BFA, companies want to see what you can actually DO. You can go to the website of any major game company and if they have job openings in translation, you can see what their current requirements are. Likewise for translation agencies, should you choose to go that route.

          If you care for a longer answer, I’ll give you three examples from my experiences getting into translation.

          The first video game translation job I applied to was for an in-house translation position at a major game company in Tokyo. Their basic requirements were (IIRC) a college degree in anything, a love of games/otaku culture, bilingual fluency (with N1 JLPT certification being one possible way to prove your Japanese ability) and a strong creative writing sample in the target language based off of a prompt on their Jobs page. Their preferred requirements included past experience in translation/localization, voice over work, and coding. The first time I applied I submitted a crap writing sample (though I didn’t realize how bad it was at first; living in Japan can jack up your English if you’re not careful), the second time I thought my sample was pretty strong but I still didn’t make it past the document review phase. Of course, I don’t know if it was my writing sample that was bad, as the rejection letter they send is generic and offers no feedback. Maybe they didn’t want to hire from abroad at the time (I was freshly returned to the States, but the Jobs FAQ said submissions from abroad were acceptable), maybe they didn’t want to hire a woman. Who knows.

          The company I’m currently working for, IIRC, had the same basic requirements. The main differences with the first company were that they were looking for freelancers and they required a translation sample rather than an original creative writing piece. I picked a scene from a Japanese novel I liked, translated it, submitted my sample along with the other usual job stuff, and passed that phase. The next phase was a translation test. They sent me an actual game script and…I’m not sure if I had a time limit. Maybe a week? I don’t remember. In any case, I did that, passed, and here I am now. While I did have N1 certification and experience working in Japan (but as an Assistant Language Teacher), I didn’t have any translation credentials per se.

          Before I got work from the above company, for a while I was doing lots of work on the website gengo.com. This is, by far, the easiest way I know of to get into paid translation. Gengo is an anonymous, crowd-sourced translation service. You don’t even have to submit a resume. You just have to pass their translation test, which is timed. If you pass that, you just submit some paperwork (mostly to prove your identity so you can get paid) and you’re good to go. Work comes to you so you don’t have to look for clients yourself, and you can pick which jobs you want to take. That said, the pay rate is terribly low at less than 2 cents per Japanese character (when going from Japanese to English in the “Standard” category; after you’ve worked at Standard for a while you can take the Pro test which will raise your rate to…5 cents, I think. On jobs labeled Pro, that is). If you can translate at a rate of 1,000 characters per hour you’d be making a bit under 20 USD per hour, which is decent if you’re only looking for a little spending cash. (Keep in mind you have to pay self-employment taxes though; Gengo will send you a 1099 if you make over 600 USD with them in a year so if you do, Uncle Sam will probably come knocking for his cut.) There are a few other major downsides to Gengo, but…some of them are probably my own personal preference, and disclosing others might violate the terms of the non-disclosure agreement I signed, so you’ll just have to find out about those things yourself if you decide to join.

          I hope that info helps!

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