Think of videogame translators. Give them a face. In my opinion, they are soldiers. If the post-production of a game were a battlefield, translators would be specialized soldiers in camouflage, sent for reconnaissance in an unknown territory with little information on the enemy outposts. Their knowledge of the war scenery will possibly condition the entire upcoming battle. Their mission: to be undetected, whatever the cost.
Game translators perform strong mimetic actions, their work depends on their capacity to hide entire complex processes, like localization. However, this battlefield is not a boundary line, but a neutral place of mutations; there is no A-to-B but an original interpretation of both cultures and, of course, fiction. It’s easy to forget that localization deals with unique fictional universes, nearly always new and not ruled by the laws (social, biological or even physical) that we usually experience. It concerns original language, original culture and produces an adaptation of the source material. But is this definition exhaustive?
According to Ramón Méndez (1), pointing at the language of the country in which the game is developed as the original could be a huge mistake. Could we assert that the original language of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is Polish? Conversely, could developers of Assassin’s Creed II set Italian as the original language, ancient Greek in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and so on? When software companies have 10 to 20 teams spread across the world, local languages don’t always matter. This is one reason why conceiving a standard for gaming localization isn’t that simple. Since it’s part of a game’s post-production, a deep understanding of its specific (meta)narratives is required. It’s the summation of an unreal world and its real, new context, rather than a transfer between two local markets (which is also partially true). That means a lot of studying of the above-mentioned battlefield. Remember, the game translator is a camouflaged soldier, not a standard bearer.
Umberto Eco writes: “ […] Should a translation lead the reader to understand the linguistic and cultural universe of the source text, or transform the original by adapting it to the reader’s cultural and linguistic universe? In other words, given a translation from Homer, should the translation transform its readers into Greek readers of Homeric times, or should it make Homer write as if he were writing today in our language?” (2)
According to Eco, impartiality is quite impossible. The same piece can be followed by uncountable translations; some modernize the source text, others try to domesticate names and locations or, in case of poetry, even change metrical systems. However, differences between translation in literature and gaming are undeniable: while I might look for a specific translation from Greek classics or Chekhov, or even from a contemporary author, videogames have only one semiotic shot, mostly with no academic intentions. Game translations do not get old, they do not offer variations, they just live once, as much as the game. And games need to be sold on a large scale. So, is the user’s cultural universe the most relevant? Well, yes and no.
Game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write: “Many game designers eschew cultural approaches to their work, preferring craft-centric methods that repress the existence of games within larger cultural contexts. You might or might not choose to recognize that as a game designer you are a producer of culture. […] Regardless of your approach, the status of game as culture is not something to be negotiated or debated. They are indisputably cultural.” (3)
Beliefs, ideologies and values (4) of the source culture are an inescapable factor and they do play their role, even if implied. Trying to avoid a cultural approach to game design is still a rhetorical intent since designing itself leads developers directly to the idea of an experience players are supposed to live, with its morality system, in-game rules, language (in its larger sense) and context. As a production of culture, narratively complex games could not be developed in a totally aseptic environment. That’s why we can assert that designing means making relevantly moral choices (at least, good designing).
As the bridge between two cultures — and not two languages — localization is one of the last rings of a chain of relevant ad hoc choices; if a player’s experience goes through text, localization is implicitly part of that designing process. Or, to put it in another way, “post-designing”. In the same way soldiers need to stay undiscovered, post-design has to be indiscernible. It has to find its camouflage in a new environment as target culture hides its traps. Players around the world have to play, understand and accept the game: interface, in-world texts, visuals, everything matters. In the case of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, some of its gory or sexually explicit scenes had to be partially censored in the adaptation for the Middle East market (5). A relevant choice affecting artistic direction and coding which doesn’t pass unnoticed; nevertheless, it’s the sacrifice of post-designing different players’ experiences. Another (in)famous change can be found in Hitler’s character in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, who is called Kanzler in its German version, avoiding the Führer-word and other explicit references to Nazism like swastikas and so on. Even Hitler’s face has been redesigned. Historical memory of a country (and its law (6)) led to responsible rewriting, going deep to visual narration. Again: everything matters because content is language.
Now, let’s get back to our soldiers. Imagine them at ease, watching the unknown country familiarizing themselves with the landscape or the local language, like the allies did in Italy during WWII. Maybe they start appreciating the exoticism of the new temporary land and write letters to their family describing what they learn. The register used for their beloved ones will be different from the one used by their commander. No military terms, only plain but evocative descriptions. “I saw this church…”, “I heard a local song…”, “I learned a very curious word…” Now, imagine them trying a dish they have never tasted, something truly local with no counterparts in any other country, like panelle in Sicily or sirniki in Russia. A unique, untranslatable piece of culture. Likewise, translators recognize the uniqueness of fictional world-building and do not translate what doesn’t need an adaptation. Mystery can be a source of wonder and even emergent gameplay. To my mind, one of the reasons for The Legend of Zelda series’ success is its fascinating mythmaking including its fictitious languages. Hylian inscriptions are never translated nor domesticated: they are part of Zelda’s diegetic world, cryptic use of language is a conscious design choice. However, consistent literature on Zelda lore has been published, in which these languages are cracked. Many players have their pleasure in discovering and deciphering texts, symbols and Easter eggs from all Hyrule (7) and share them: lore generates knowledge, which in turn creates community. Translating this kind of language from the beginning would be pointless, as it would kill players’ interpretation and even the possibility of an emergent gameplay, not to mention that English — or Chinese, Spanish and so on — is not Hyrule’s official language. Preserving lore means protecting the fictional world, without which in-game culture could not exist. This is another moral choice of the post-designing’s process, the same that our imaginary soldiers make when they explore the local peculiarities of that neutral place of mutations which, in our case, is localization.
Localization is an invisible, liquid transformation, the ultimate stand of a game’s rhetorical autonomy, the hand that delivers the final message to the player, never completely unbound from game and narrative design.
(1) Méndez, Ramón. “La falacia del idioma original”. In Revista Manual, vol. 1. Palma de Mallorca, Spain: Dolmen Editorial, 2018, p. 34-36.
(2) Eco, Umberto. “Translating and Being Translated”. In Experiences in Translation. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2001.
(3) Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. “Unit 4: CULTURE”. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2004.
(5) Fakhruddin, Mufaddal. “CDPR Confirms The Witcher 3 Censorship for the Middle East”. IGN Middle East, 2015.
(6) Jackson, Gita. “Wolfenstein 2 Has A Strange Workaround For Germany’s Censorship Laws”. Kotaku, 2017.
(7) Kollar, Philip. “Zelda fans translate Breath of the Wild’s fantasy language and discover a hidden message”. Polygon, 2017.