A reader sent me an e-mail a while back about the nature of translation versus localization. I was re-reading my reply recently and thought it might be nice to share on the site too.
The Reader’s Question
I was watching Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Floating Weeds’ on Filmstruck. […] There’s this moment near the beginning of the movie where one of the Kabuki actor’s handing out fliers for the show jokingly says he’s Kinnosuke/Kin-chan (a famous theatre actor in Japan) to a woman, but in the subtitles the English localizer decided to change the name to Toshiro Mifune when he is clearly not saying from his mouth the words ‘Toshiro’ or ‘Mifune’.
Clearly the original joke is the filmmaker’s true intention but the localized version is a reference to what an overseas audience may understand for context.
Why and how might a decision like this arise in localization and when is it okay to do and not do? Can you give examples from other games or movies?
Hello, and thanks for the insightful question!
Indeed, there are two main approaches when it comes to cross-culture translation: take the source to the reader (make it so the reader can appreciate the translation as if it had been written in the target language to begin with, aka localization), or take the reader to the source (keep everything as-is and just assume the reader understands the source culture/language, or provide lots of translation notes on the side somewhere).
The argument about which translation approach is correct or best has literally been going on for centuries (if not longer), so it seems like it’s one of those things that will always be around when discussing translation. IMO, both approaches are valid depending on what the purpose of the translation is and what the target audience of the translation is. There is no “okay to do and not to do” – it all comes down to the unique situation.
In the Floating Weeds movie example, it sounds like the DVD translation was done with a certain target audience in mind: audiences outside of Japan who enjoy Japanese films but don’t know enough about kabuki to catch the kabuki-themed humor that was originally intended. But the creators intended this to be a humorous reference, so the translators focused on translating the intention rather than the actual words.
If the translation had been written for kabuki enthusiasts, however, the translator probably would’ve left the original reference in since it wouldn’t go over anyone’s heads. Or if the translation had been written for academics/linguists to document, a direct translation would’ve been more appropriate too. Basically, there are always different factors to consider as a translator and it’s rare that you can make everyone happy.
In truth though, as a translator-for-hire you don’t usually get to make that call yourself – your employer generally decides what the purpose of the translation is and who the target audience is. Hopefully that makes sense.
As for examples from games and movies, there are too many to count but a common thing I’ve seen in 80s/90s movies was that the brand name “Twinkie” was almost never left as-is in Japanese translations of American movies. This was because the brand didn’t really exist in Japan and nobody would’ve easily recognized the name. So various translators would replace it with “snack”, “snack cake”, “sweets”, etc.
For games, one that comes quickly to mind is in EarthBound – a reference to omikuji was changed to “fortune cookie”.
Here are several other articles/write-ups that might fit what you’re looking for too, some in which references changed, stayed intact, or dropped altogether.
- ”Tomas Jefferson” in EarthBound
- Japanese proverbs in The Legend of Zelda
- An old, meme-like Japanese comedy bit in Goonies II
- Western movie references in the Japanese version of Bubsy
- Food references in Twinkle Star Sprites
- Food-related wordplay in Ace Attorney 3
As you can see in that last example, sometimes you have to localize things in games, or else the games become unplayable for the new target audience. That’s a unique part of game translation and localization not really found in other media.
I’m sure there are many more examples out there of this kind of audience-minded localization. Have you encountered any in games, movies, or anything else? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter – I’d like to show even more examples in a future, more in-depth article about the core ideas behind translation and localization!
If you liked this light look at translation theory, check out my book about EarthBound's localization - I cover similar topics in more detail.