Lost in Localization – Look for the meaning behind the characters

Earlier this year the Laser Time podcast had an episode about video game localization. That is, taking a game from one country and culture, and translating it to suit another. The process of localization goes a further than simple translation, though, as the content needs to be adapted in a way that makes it meaningful in the target culture.

As a language learner you’ll already know – it’s often not possible to simply translate a phrase into another language, where it might not have any meaning. This is because the language we use is based on layers of culture and experiences that are unique to a society.

This point was illustrated on the podcast using a quote from a USGamer article called True Tales from Localization hell

…there’s something floating up in the air that [the original writer is] reaching for, to try to describe with their own tools, their set of symbols, which is Japanese. The Japanese language is a bunch of symbols to try to create a feeling in an audience. And this feeling can be shared by all speakers of Japanese because the symbols all create the same memories and the same feelings among Japanese speakers.

When original content is created, no matter what the language, the creator illustrates the idea using their own language. The words and language used is specific to the culture it is within.

A translator’s job is to use a different set of symbols for a different audience, but to do what? Now, are we recreating the symbols, the Japanese symbols, or are we recreating the original vision, the thing that was floating up in the air that the Japanese writer reached for to try to create?

In other words, when you localize something you don’t simply translate one language to another. But rather look beyond the language to the abstract ideas that created the original content. This is probably why language courses usually contain modules on culture – To truly understand a language you need to know the culture from which it came from.

The result is that localized content might change considerably from the original content, whereas a simple translation would probably be closer to the original, but lack some meaning in the target language. For a language learner, the latter is more desirable since you’d probably be reading the original language and using the translation as just an aid to further help you understand the meaning.

An interesting example in the podcast explains why it’s so difficult to translate the English phrase “I love you” into Japanese. The phrase, it seems, is a bit too direct for Japanese culture, so the task isn’t as easy as you might imagine (read 5th paragraph).

There’s also a bunch of some times hilarious translation comparisons from movies, TV shows and anime as they make their way from English to Japanese, and vice-versa. A fun listen, especially if you like some of the movie translation comparisons here on Chinese Hacks.