Why Japanese Gamers Laughed at Tomb Raider’s Translation


In what almost feels like a mirror universe, there’s actually a Japanese site a lot like Legends of Localization that’s run by a professional English->Japanese game translator – if you know Japanese, you can check it out here!

Anyway, on said site was an article about how the recent Tomb Raider game was the laughingstock of Japanese gamers for a short time, thanks to some early Japanese screenshots. Here’s an example:

Zelda clone

Even if you don’t know Japanese, you can probably see that there’s something not quite right here – this isn’t a line in the game. It’s just scene description text. This bit of text says something roughly like:

<Gasps in awe>

My impression is that much of the game has her in pain like this

And this one just says:


This came across as so unusual and unexpected that Japanese gamers laughed at these and all the other screenshots with comments like:


Why would you explain what’s going on in game subtitles

It’s for deaf people, duh

How considerate

A thoughtful translation for those with Aspergers


And here are a few more screenshots:

(While crying from the shock of having killed someone)
A surprised gasp
Gunshots litter this text!

Being a professional subtitle translator I’m used to seeing this sort of thing in closed captions… but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in games before, so it does seem a bit unusual. DO any games use these sort of subtitles? I’d love to know.

In the end, though, I think the final Japanese release took this extra text out, so all the online mockery was a temporary thing. Still, it’s an interesting phenomenon, and I wonder if anything similar has happened over here, where screenshots from an in-progress translation unintentionally caused a lot of laughs and bad press. If anyone knows of any instances, let me know in the comments!

UPDATE: Apparently the English release includes these too? I haven’t played it so I wouldn’t know, but that makes things even more interesting!
If you liked this post and know someone else who's a Tomb Raider fan, let them know about this article. I appreciate it!
  1. It’s interesting that you bring this up. I’m actually someone who captions TV shows for my deaf friends in my free time. As someone with hearing issues myself, I find the closed captioning to be woefully inadequate for the purpose it was intended. Really, the level of description given there IS good for closed captioning, though it’d also likely delineate who is speaking and how.

    I’ve noticed games frequently include subtitles, but rarely caption sounds, tone, etc. This makes them still rather unfriendly towards deaf gamers anyway. I realize it can be kinda hard to caption all sounds that are going to occur in a real-time situation, given that the devs can’t control what the player does unless all timing is 100% scripted. However, one must only look at Valve’s closed captioning feature for games like Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead/2 to see just how feasible it really is.

    Yeah, the screenshots probably got some ridicule for being something that gamers aren’t used to seeing, especially for mere purposes of translation, but if they were slanting more towards closed captioning, I have nothing but respect for them. I wonder if there’d be any way to find out for sure…?

    1. Biggest problem with Source’s “full” subtitles is they use the same window as normal dialog (at least with Half Life 2 series and Portal 1/2), and while the box is a fine size for dialog (which is mostly segregated from gameplay in Valve games) it’s too big for being it open all the time because of on going effects like [fire].

      Even as an amateur I get a strong feeling the translation is a bit wonky on its own or based on wonky English originals: Being that specific about why she is crying (the third shot) would be silly in any language. “感嘆して小きく息をのむ” seems weird as well (length).

      1. Yeah, I definitely get that the specifics are a little silly. But looking at the reactions of the Japanese audience, they even seem to openly mock deaf gamers (and those with Asperger’s, for whatever bizarre sense that makes). Obviously it’s the Internet and people say silly stuff that doesn’t really mean what they imply, but it seems to me there’s at least some implication that they’re interpreting this more as a captioning fail than as actual subtitles? I dunno. I can’t really comment on that since my grasp of Japanese is beyond tenuous!

        As for Valve’s captioning, yeah, it’s not a perfect solution, but thus far it is basically the ONLY solution I’ve seen any game use. You’d be surprised how helpful it is to just see something like “[fire]” when you have no other visual cues to indicate that there is fire somewhere. When you are playing a game with diminished auditory cues (or none at all), it makes it very hard to tell when something is happening. Unless I crank the volume to near-max, I can’t hear the musical tease that announces that a horde attack is coming or that there’s a Witch nearby, for starters. That said, it does tend to become obtrusive when large amounts of these cues are popping up at the bottom of the screen at once, but then how else would you know they’re there? It makes it hard for me to play a game and see someone turn their head to spot the source of a sound I never heard in the first place.

        1. I don’t doubt it’s helpful but moving it to s small box next to or opposite the hud would be a big improvement.

          1. Yeah, perhaps. I wonder if they’ll modify it any for Half-life 3? (cue eternal rimshot)

        2. It’s gross to know japan is as bad towards people with aspergers as people all around the world are, isn’t it? I would think syncing subtitle sound effects with gameplay would be quite easy, you can use the same thing that triggers the sound effect to trigger a subtitle string. I’m just a hobbyist game maker fooling around with rpg maker, but i’ll take what you’ve said about subtitles for sound effects as cool advice thanks.

          1. Sure thing, that sounds like a great idea! If you want, you can PM me on Youtube (linked from my name, natch) and I can show you samples of what I’ve done if you’re wondering about the kind of stuff I mean.

            Good luck on your endeavor, man!

          2. For the record, being from Europe I didn’t even know such a thing as Asperger’s existed before reading internet forums. Same with Ritalin – I’d say pop-use of the words “ADD” and “Ritalin” is a specifically American thing. Come to think about it, neither Asperger’s nor ADD seems to be terribly prevalent so it’s kind of surprising they’re such a big part of American troll-lore…

        3. They could be 2chan trolls. That site has its share of asshole Japanese folks who openly mock everything that they don’t approve of in video games. At least, that’s what I witnessed a few times.

      2. I don’t know if “感嘆して小きく息をのむ” is that silly, it’s just “little gasp in wonder”. Well, maybe it could be shortened to just “gasp in wonder”.

        I don’t know how complicated subtitles are in games, but I can’t imagine it’d be hard to just have one set of subtitles for normal dialogue and then another for deaf and hard of hearing. They can do that for movies on DVD, after all. There’s no reason to remove it in its entirety.

        1. I didn’t mean “incorrect” weird, I meant that there is surely a more eloquent way of putting that.

          I think “straight from the script” really is what happened here, because these would make perfect sense on a script despite how odd they look in subtitles (where “(Gasp)” “(Scream)” or “(Crying)” would look better, being obvious from the context)

  2. That site you linked to has, what looks like, an interview with you about the fan-translation of MOTHER 3! I can’t read Japanese, but I’m assuming it’s a translation of an interview you did in English.

  3. That’s a really neat site! I browsed it a little (with the magic of Google Translate, which did a surprisingly good job in making it comprehensible–we’ve come a long ways from the days of Babelfish) and it’s neat how he catalogs different gaming slang terms used in the West and explains them and puts them in context for Japanese gamers. I wish I could natively read his articles on translating stuff from English to Japanese, though, as they look fascinating. I love looking at my own language through the eyes of others. 😀

  4. I’d be disappointed if they took it out just because people found it silly. I have a friend who’s deaf, so I know that they certainly find it useful.

    Another thing that disappoints me about Japanese culture is that it seems a bit more deaf unfriendly than than the US. Like even when they have subtitles for their TV shows (which do have the noises subtitled for the deaf or hearing impaired) they often don’t have any subtitles on their DVDs/Blu-rays.

    1. Even in the US, subtitling seems to be an issue. It’s very hard to find a TV show or game that properly signals tone changes, who is speaking (especially if someone is offscreen), or sounds (again, especially offscreen). Very often, people seem content just transcribing the dialogue, which isn’t really adequate if you can’t hear all that other stuff, too.

      I have to wonder if there’s something that could be done with subtitling efforts for both TV/movies and games whereby a special option could be added for transcribing these cues?

      1. I honestly haven’t thought about that. I do a little amateur translation, and sometimes we’ll place the subtitles under the speaker, but this doesn’t always help to indicate who is speaking if the scene is crowded. I know one typesetter who uses italics to indicate lines spoken offscreen, but that can get confusing since italics can have many meanings.

        I don’t know what can be done about tonal changes though. For deaf captioning, maybe just add that meta data in front with parenthesis?

        (Jon) Looks like I screwed up!
        (Martha sarcastically) Oh real good job there!

        1. That all comes down to personal presentation, as no one way would be best, but I find it easiest to put parenthetical explanations of tone into the dialogue (especially if someone changes tone partway through a sentence, like grumbling under their breath). One thing that is notable, however, is puns based on pronunciation or sounds often have to be explained in captions, as they don’t quite resonate with the audience the way they’re intended. It can be a little weird to explain something like that, especially if it seems painfully obvious…

  5. I love the Japanese internet! Its like taking a time machine back to 1998. 🙂

  6. This might be a bit meta — but could you explain what he recently wrote about you and the site?


    1. Mostly the same thing as the top of this page I think: Saying it’s another site with the same concept. Mentions a bit of his background,

    2. Basically, since I had linked to that site and wrote briefly about it, the site’s maintainer did the same too. It looks like there are some other articles about me on there too that I had forgotten about 😛

  7. Broken Sword 3 had this kind of subtitles.

  8. The Netflixesque CCs are silly, but Japan isn’t one to talk. They frequently subtitle grunts, yelling, and other such noises that we wouldn’t waste time trying to enunciate.