This week we feature an article by Mirco Carlini about how gender awareness also plays an important role in video game localization and we want to do so by looking at some examples of the Italian version of the iconic Tomb Raider. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 edition of Multilingual Magazine

Gender related issues in video games are certainly a hot topic right now, and it is a topic that has been widely discussed, even more so in light of events such as Gamergate, a campaign of targeted harassment towards women in the videogame industry, that exposed a side of the gaming community that had best remained hidden. The perception of gaming as a “boys’ club” has endured since the inception of the medium itself, and while nowadays game developers tend to cater to a more diverse audience by being generally more inclusive, not only toward women but also toward minorities, the LGBTQ+ community etc., it is undeniable that during their by now several decades long history, videogames have had their fair share of issues with gender representation. In 1985, in the iconic Super Mario Bros, a mustachioed Italian plumber went through many hoops and stomped on many enemies to – naturally – rescue a beautiful princess that rewarded him with a playful kiss on the cheek once she was freed from the evil Bowser.  The damsel in distress trope, while certainly not new in literature or in art in general, is practically embodied in Super Mario Bros, a game where the player literally saves a damsel that is in distress. Countless examples could be made of negative gender stereotypes in video games, from The Legend Of Zelda to Resident Evil, but it is necessary to point out that gaming companies themselves didn’t shy away from presenting gaming as a hobby geared toward young males: the most famous portable game console of all time, the Game Boy, has the word boy in its name. You can’t get much more literal than that. And yet, contrary to what the public perception might be, girls and women have always been an audience for video games. It is likely they were not the intended audience initially, but they were an audience nonetheless. In 2019, according to a report by Newzoo, women accounted for 46% of gaming enthusiasts, so it is now evident that the female audience is interested and engaged in the medium. During the past decades, the biggest hurdle that women who wanted to play videogames had to get past was representation. As female characters were usually a prize, a sexual object or – in the best case scenario – secondary characters, it was difficult for a girl or a young woman to get in the shoes of a male protagonist, that would be usually embodying the stereotype of a bold, muscular action hero that enjoyed wielding big guns. It is easy to see that in a medium that has immersion as its main point of differentiation, this is not ideal.

Enter Lara Croft

In 1996, Core Studio, based in Derby in the United Kingdom, developed a game that would change this scenario forever. Published by Eidos, the first chapter of the acclaimed Tomb Raider saga, other than being innovative as a technological showpiece, introduced the archeologist Lara Croft, a character who is probably second to Mario in being synonymous with video games.

Lara Croft achieved immediate, global success, and was featured in magazine covers, ads, books and movies, in addition to spawning a saga that spans more than 20 years and includes 19 games. Lara was bold, charming, funny — and yes, sexy. She appealed to the male audience as much as to the female one, and certainly her design was exaggerated in that she appeared in a tank top and shorts and her body had unrealistic proportions. But she was strong, independent and fearless. Jumping ahead a few years, 2013 saw the release, by Crystal Dynamics, of a reboot of the saga, again titled Tomb Raider. In this new title, Lara’s design was toned down, and her figure was more realistic and attainable, which is certainly a plus. But, on the other hand, she was made more fragile, “feminine” and, as the developer put it, more “human.” The plucky and witty action heroine was gone — replaced by, well, a normal human being. Sensible, fragile, scared. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, of course, but seeing Lara cowering and running away in a game world dominated by men certainly feels like a step back, making her look, in some respects, like another damsel in distress. Apart from this, the script, written by Rhianna Pratchett, is pretty good at not falling into trite gender stereotypes, although Lara’s witty banter and playful mocking of her enemies is mostly gone, highlighting that this character is younger and inexperienced.

What about localization, though? It is often said that a localized video game should reflect the look and feel of the original text, conveying the same meaning. It should be aware of the cultural constructs of its target and not least be inclusive toward women and minorities to foster a diverse and richer gaming community. So it only felt natural to try to analyze the Italian localization of the Tomb Raider series of video games. Since video games are a medium that, as has been said, needs to promote and demonstrate inclusiveness, and this particular series has been divisive on this very aspect, it is useful to see what changes made during the localization process may or may not introduce elements that are potentially problematic regarding gender issues. It’s interesting to gauge the impact that localization and the choice of a single person can have on inclusiveness.

A case study

My original case study on Tomb Raider involved an analysis of the whole series of games. For brevity, I’ll focus on the 2013 reboot that was mentioned just above, because it is the most significant example of changes in the text that can create gender-related issues.

At many points in the game, Lara’s mentor, Roth, addresses her as “girl.” This is, inevitably, translated into Italian as piccola, which could be back-translated to “babe,” “honey” or some other epithet of this kind. This makes the Italian version sound more condescending, making Roth’s view of Lara as a young, weak woman more pronounced in the localized version. Aside from being her mentor, Roth is kind of a father figure to her, so this form of address might imply darker undertones. This happens in more than one instance, but it is exacerbated in a very significant exchange between the two. Roth has been hurt, and Lara is tending to his wounds. He is surprised at her abilities and asks her “Where does a young lady like you learn to do a thing like that?” implying his surprise at seeing such a young person perform such a difficult task.

In the Italian version, he asks her “Dove hai imparato a fare queste cose, piccola?” again employing the word piccola. This, again, changes the tone of the sentence drastically, making it more patronizing and using an adjective that some could consider sexist in this particular context, particularly as Lara is not romantically involved with this person. It is worth noting that in some other cases when Roth refers to Lara as “girl,” the Italian localization chooses simply to omit it, or to use “Lara” instead. This is a proactive choice that helps to avoid the pitfalls of using language that can veer toward being gendered or offensive.

It is of course worth noting that neutralizing the text for the sake of neutralizing text is not advisable. If a character that is visibly constructed as evil or ill-intentioned throws insults at the protagonist in the source text, the best course of action would be to keep these unaltered in the localized text. The problem arises when an insult that was not meant to be gendered in the original script becomes so in the localized version. This very same scenario occurs later in the game, when the main “bad guy” of the game, a cult leader named Mathias, wants to kill Lara to take revenge for the death of his brother, whom she killed earlier. He exclaims: “This is for Vladimir, outsider!” with the intention of remarking on the fact that Lara, who came to the island where the cult resides, is a stranger to them — an outsider. The Italian localization’s word choice in this instance is rather baffling: “Questo è per Vladimir, puttana!” where puttana could be translated as “whore” or “slut.” Other than being a mistranslation that misses the mark on what Vladimir was trying to say, it introduces a gendered insult that was not present in the original text. The intention of the character was not to insult Lara because she is a woman, but because she is someone that meddled in their shady business.

The Lara Croft reboot and the 1996 original. Aside from tech advancements, Lara is now more slender, realistic and feminine. Image by Adrian Wilings,

Finally, it is worth noting that throughout the Italian localization of the game, Lara’s cussing is definitely reduced. In one scene, Lara, fearing for Roth’s life, yells at him: “Don’t do this to me, you northern bastard!” while in Italian the sentence is “Voi del nord e la vostra testa dura!” (“You northern people and your stubbornness!”) which completely omits the swear word. While it is true that Italian relies less on cussing than English, insults and swear words uttered by the male character are usually kept intact in the localization, suggesting that Lara’s language has been softened because she is a woman.

In general, the new Tomb Raider games, even in their English version, tend to emphasize the fact that Lara is a woman. In the earlier titles, the fact that Lara was a woman was, apart from her exaggerated features, secondary. Lara was a superhero archeologist, capable, strong-willed and funny, and she just happened to also be a woman. In one of the rare cases in the original Tomb Raider game from 1996, she is addressed by a male character who emphasizes the fact that she is a woman: “What’s a man got to do to get that kind of attention from you?” She quickly remarks “It’s hard to say, exactly, but you seem to be doing fine.” She embraces the fact that she is a woman and plays on it on many other occasions. This is almost completely lost in the new games, where Lara is first and foremost a woman, and then she is an archeologist.

While this is a negative from an inclusiveness standpoint, the fact that the Italian localization, in more than one case, emphasizes this fact even more is something that can be seen as worrying. This is especially true in an industry that, while certainly making strides toward greater inclusiveness in the future, is still struggling to some extent. Actually, circling back to the damsel in distress trope, it is worth noting that, in the latest instalment of the Mario series, Super Mario Odyssey, released in 2017, the evil Bowser kidnaps the princess again (and intends to marry her against her will), and Mario has to save her once more.

What can we do about this?

The previous examples may simply result from a lack of attention, or a misguided attempt to make the script more edgy. Nevertheless, it is clearly the translator’s responsibility to ensure that he or she does not introduce gender-related stereotypes, insults and so on. This is especially true when they are not present in any way, shape or form in the original text. We, as translators, should ask ourselves at any given moment, “Is this sexist? Is this racist? Is this derogatory to someone?” because we cannot rule out that in many cases such translation choices are borne of unconscious decisions that are shaped by our perception of society. The intent may not be malicious, but the result can be.

While insults present in the original text and uttered by a clearly amoral or evil character must be kept as is, on the other hand, we, as translators, can in some cases tone down particularly sexist or otherwise offensive choices of words, even when they are present in the original text. It is one thing to preserve the message and the intention of the original text, but by asking ourselves “is this really necessary?” we can definitely keep the strong intent of the original word choice by omitting the sexist or racist undertones. Of course, we all know that there are client guidelines, project specifications and a plethora of other things to be mindful about, but it is also undeniable that being a translator should and must mean being able to make choices that will result in a more inclusive final product, for the benefit of everyone involved.

Many translation studies scholars such as Anthony Pym have long insisted on the social role that translation has to take, positioning the translator as a cornerstone of a process that has an effect on society. The translator is not an isolated entity or a machine (at least for now!), but he or she lives in a society that benefits from his or her craft. The oft-quoted cultural awareness, one of the key skills of the video game translator, if seen under this light, becomes specifically about recognizing which elements can be altered or toned down not just to adapt to the target culture, but to contribute to making the culture itself more welcoming and inclusive.

This concept is embodied, in translation theory, by the so-called cultural turn of the early 1990s. If translation stops being a mere linguistic activity and becomes a way of negotiating between cultures and identities, it needs to talk about politics, it needs to talk about race and it needs to talk about gender — because these are discourses that define the very identity of a culture. If, then, cultural awareness is a fundamental skill for a video game translator, the thought of being more inclusive should be automatically embedded in a video game translator’s forma mentis.

In an excellent article on the subject of gender issues in video game localization, published in the May/June 2019 MultiLingual, Cristina Pérez and Leticia Sáenz noted that some game companies employ “sensitivity readers” in the later phases of development to ensure that original and localized texts are free of prejudice toward non-binary people. This is a fantastic and necessary first step toward getting rid of any possible discriminatory language in video games, but ideally such a thought should start first and foremost from the translator, a thought that is certainly applicable in all fields of translation but especially in a field that is becoming more inclusive toward women, minorities and non-binary people. We as translators, as clichéd as it may sound, can make a difference.

About the Author
Mirco Carlini
lead linguist at Creative Words

Mirco Carlini is lead linguist at Creative Words, Italy, where he deals with translation, transcreation and localization. He holds an MA in specialized translation, at the University of Bologna, with a dissertation on gender issues in game localization. He started as a freelance videogame translator and he is passionate about the game industry and its many possibilities and challenges.