Video Game Translation: All Your Base Are Belong to Us

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The video games industry is enormous. In just a couple of decades, the market has matured – from a niche interest that nobody took seriously, into the second largest generator of revenue in the entire entertainment industry (or the largest, depending on who you ask). The global appeal of video games means that they exist without borders – and video game translation has emerged as an art unto itself, with talented transcreators producing excellent, seamless work.

A Patchy History of Video Game Translations

Like in film, games rely on immersion and storytelling. In video games, this immersion is almost always deeper than it is in movies and the investment in characters, especially playable ones, is almost always deeper.

For those unfamiliar with the emotional side of gaming, it’s similar to the way people connect with books. Books require imagination, time and a certain amount of work on the readers part, whereas a film audience is usually far more passive.

As a result, the emotional connection with books tends to be deeper. How many times have you heard someone say “the film’s not as good as the book” – even if the film adaptation is excellent?

The same goes for games. The interactivity and work put in by the player gives gaming an edge over any other form of entertainment. The level of immersion is deep, and game developers today recruit master storytellers to guide players through intricate, complex interactive worlds.

But it hasn’t always been this good – especially for international audiences. Although they had their humble beginnings in the USA, the most prominent video games in history all came from just one country: Japan.

Translations were notoriously bad. There wasn’t really any budget to make the games in the first place, let alone translate them afterwards.

Famously Bad Video Game Translations

All Your Base Are Belong to Us” is probably the most widely known case of poor translation in video game history. The Zero Wing quote became an internet meme long after it was released, because of how thoroughly it was woven into gaming culture. From there, it leaked into the rest of the world and wider culture. Most people have probably read or heard that quote without realising what it is.

Another memorable translation nightmare came from the relatively recent Sony Playstation – albeit through the indie-development platform Net Yaroze. The game Terra Incognita was, at the time, the most impressive homebrewed game made for the Playstation platform – but true to its homemade nature, it featured some of the worst translation work ever seen in a game.

There are plenty of people out there (this writer included) that find a certain nostalgic charm in these poor translations – and while they aren’t missed at all in today’s blockbuster games, they were certainly a memorable part of growing up with video games.

Culturally Insensitive?

Translating video games involves more than just changing the words to fit. The culture of the target region has to be considered – not so much that culture’s approach to the content of a game (which is a separate censorship issue), but rather to language and stereotypes.

In 1997, Final Fantasy VII launched on the Playstation to massive commercial and critical success. It’s considered a landmark moment in gaming. But it has drawn criticism in the way it portrays its only black character – the only character with lines in a forced, phonetic, urban patois, stereotypical of black Americans. Although the game is practically ancient by today’s standards, its cultural impact is still felt today – both positive and negative.

While the upcoming remake of Final Fantasy VII hopes to bring the game to new technology, time will tell if it brings it to a more culturally aware audience.

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