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The importance of understanding different cultural nuances in games translation


Translating any work of art into a new language brings with it a wide range of challenges that must be overcome. It is not enough to merely convert the text word-for-word into another tongue, as there are usually a number of nuances and subtleties that you will miss if you take this approach. If you are not careful, this could completely change the meaning of certain sections of the work.

This is especially important in the world of video games. While this is not always the case, many games contain significantly more text than a film script would. There is also the possibility of having dialogue trees with multiple options, all of which need to be distinctive and carry a different meaning.

Getting this right is crucial. In order to produce the best work that you can, you will need to look out for some of the following roadblocks that can make a translation job twice as difficult as it should be.

Multiple meanings

If you’re accustomed to working in a language such as English, you will be used to most words meaning one thing and one thing only. This is not always the case – such as with ‘minute’, which can be taken to mean ‘small’ or as a measurement of time – but where there is a double meaning it is usually easy to understand it from context.

However, when converting a work into a new language it is easy to miss these contexts, and you could end up mistranslating a word by taking it too literally. This actually caused one of videogaming’s most famous translation errors, when a sentence from Street Fighter II was completely transformed from the Japanese to the English editions.

In the Japanese game, a character says: “If you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” However, a translator misinterpreted the characters for Rising Dragon and instead took them to be the name of a new character called Sheng Long. The English version therefore instructed players to defeat Sheng Long, a character that did not exist.

This is a great example of a simple error that completely altered the gameplay of Street Fighter II, with fans fruitlessly searching for a way to get past that level. This shows the importance of making sure that any instruction you give your players is clear and well-translated, otherwise your game could end up confusing people.

Censorship

Another hurdle that must be overcome is that of censorship. Dialogue that might seem completely well-meaning to you might offend people in another country, which could result in the game being given a higher rating. This will affect sales, as it will shrink your game’s potential market.

An unusual example of this can be seen in the 1989 side-scroller Final Fight. One of the bosses in the Japanese version was a sexualized woman referred to as ‘Poison’. However, this was deemed unsuitable for American audiences, so in the US release of the game all references to Poison use masculine pronouns.

Hearing the character referred to as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ sparked a debate about whether or not Poison was transgendered, which continues to this day. This kind of change is inadvisable, as it can be clumsy and cause more problems than it solves.

Cultural differences

Of course, there are some games that need to have text and dialogue changed from place to place so that they make sense in context. References to curry might be altered to something like pizza in the American release of the game, as curry is not associated with junk food in the US.

Similarly, a character might talk about playing cricket in a western game, but the Chinese release might talk about table tennis instead. This is simply a matter of changing the dialogue so that it evokes the right impression to players in different cultures.

The Pokemon games have done this a lot, perhaps most notably with the series’ villains Team Rocket. In the original Japanese games they were supposed to represent the Yakuza, but in the West that was changed to the Italian Mafia. As such, the group’s leader was renamed to Giovanni to suggest Italian heritage.
There are so many differences between cultures that translations need to be as flexible as possible so that the meaning of the game comes across correctly no matter what market you are selling it in. As such, you should constantly watch out for these potential pitfalls.