Why fan translations make me leery
Localization is really, really tricky.
I have played through games that have been localized poorly, don’t get me wrong. The original translation for Final Fantasy Tactics appears to have been made by a group of people for whom neither English nor Japanese was a native language; the same character or place will be referred to by two different names within the same dialogue. I played through all of Lunar: Silver Star Story despite the fact that it was laden with pop culture references that seemed dated ten minutes after launch. And I’m willing to bet good money that some parts of Transistor got mistranslated from whatever divine language the Supergiant folks speak.
But there’s a lot more to localization than just running a quick Google Translate on all of the words and typing out the resulting dialogue. Translation is hard enough on its own, but localization is both necessary to make sure you aren’t vomiting out incoherent word soup and a form of editing by necessity. Because there’s no such thing as a perfect translation of anything from one language to another. Hence why fan translations earn a bit of a raised eyebrow from me.
Here – a simple example. How do you say “I love you” in French? Most sources you’ll find will tell you that “Je t’aime” is the correct phrase, or “Je t’adore” if you’re being extremely affectionate. But even a straight translation would tell you that you’re not actually saying “I love you.” A literal translation of the phrase into English would be “I to you like/love” or “I to you adore/worship.” And those have very different connotations.
That might seem like a little thing, but “Je t’aime bien” would translate literally as “I to you like/love good,” which would seem to be more passionate, when a more functional translation would be more “I like you as a friend.” “Je t’adore” might technically convey that you adore someone, but it carries a very strong and almost reverent connotation, sounding less like the words of a devoted lover and more like a stalker.
And that’s not even getting into the gray areas. If I tell a friend who has just done me a major favor “I love you,” that does not mean I want to lie down and kiss them. If I say it to my wife, it means exactly that. Not to mention the cultural differences. I tell my wife that I love her all the time; in Japan, to my understanding, doing so would be considered odd and rude. Which would explain why to us, games with obvious romances can seem oddly sexless or full of teasing.
In the original Japanese version of Final Fantasy X, Yuna formally thanks Tidus during the ending sequence. In the English version, she simply says “I love you.” And yet the meaning is identical in both versions.
Localization is not the process of translating text but the process of changing it to make sense in a new language. It’s a matter of chancing cultural references to ones that the new audience will actually understand as much as possible (Persona 3 and Persona 4 are both set in Japan, but several references are changed so that American players understand what the teenage cast is on about). It’s about grasping the meaning behind the text, not just translating the text and putting the most obvious meaning in place.
This is where fan translations often start to falter. Because by definition, when you translate from the original dialogue, you’re changing it. Yes, you might be changing it to fit more closely with the literal meaning of certain words, but you’re still changing it. You can’t help but find phrases that can be translated multiple ways; there’s no way to translate something in a fashion that’s both completely faithful and doesn’t involve some degree of editorializing.
This is where localization becomes so very tricky. Because honestly, the original Final Fantasy VI translation is undeniably very different from the original. The question isn’t whether or not the English script for its initial release is completely accurate; the question is whether or not the translation we got is, in fact, a good localized script, especially when you take into account that several parts of the original script literally could not be translated straight.
And some fan dissatisfaction can come from strange quarters anyway. There was a big to-do when I was younger about Sega’s translation of Phantasy Star IV, which translated one character’s name as Rune and another character as Lutz, despite the fact that according to the complainants both should have been given the same name as the original character from the first game, Noah. Which is all well and good… except that the original translation was a direct name change, and “Lutz” is closer to the original Japanese name, while Rune’s name was very distinctly different from both. It was a perceived gap in translation that was completely spurious.
Even assuming that all of this is true, however – assuming that the localization deviates substantially from the original material without matching the writer’s intent – you’re assuming on a fundamental level that the original writing was good. Grandia got sort of held up as a storytelling adventure superior to Final Fantasy until the title was actually translated, at which point fans realized that it was at about the same level. TERA‘s original text was considered incredibly bland and dry; the localization added a great deal of needed flavor, and while it happily sacrificed accuracy, it gave a large number of characters more personality than they previously had.
That’s not even talking about thorny things like idioms, where a phrase might not literally mean one thing but a writer could use it in a wink-wink nudge-nudge fashion elsewhere. Look at how many Shakespearian jokes go completely over the heads of readers when he is, ostensibly, writing in the same language as the reader. Layers of meaning get lost simply because innocuous phrases translate literally one way but are understood by native speakers to mean something very different in context.
I’m not saying that fan translations are automatically bad. I’m saying that there are a lot of elements going on that make fan translations tricky, and that the knee-jerk reaction of reading the text in its native language and noticing that it’s different might not mean that things were changed as much as you might suspect. Localization is always a tricky beast, and sometimes what looks like a big change is actually just a matter of making things read properly in a new script.
Or it could just be a case of having a really bad translation. Everything’s complicated.