Aksys Blog – The “Interpretation, Not Translation” School Of Thought

By Mike Engler - Localization Editor . October 19, 2010 . 1:02pm

Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, it’s time to look at the more colorful aspects of the whole deal, mainly my job.



Once I get all of the raw translations, it’s my responsibility to make it read somewhat naturally as well as bring out the intent of any given dialog as opposed to just the meaning of the words. In other words, I belong to the “Interpretation, not Translation” school of thought. What does this mean, you may ask? Well, I was going to go into painful detail about this (in fact I did, but I deleted it all when I realized how long this was getting), but I decided to me nice and not bore you to death. Needless to say, there are a number of Japanese words and phrases that just cannot be accurately translated into English, and so it is the job of the localization editor to come up with a way to convey the intent behind the words, whether it is a threat, joke, or observation on a situation. And to the very tiny yet vocal minority out there: No, using the Japanese word is not an option as the vast majority of players wouldn’t understand it.


The biggest headaches almost exclusively come from the jokes in the script. Japanese humor is based on multi-layered puns and alternate readings of kanji, thus making a direct translation either impossible or horribly obtuse and incomprehensible.


This is where the localization editor’s personality tends to bleed into the script. I try my hardest to make sure the jokes I put in fit the character delivering it, but I do have a list of things that MUST be inserted into every game I work on (The amazing Mr. Tiddles and the holy battle cry of “Spoon!” are pretty much in almost every game I touch. Thanks Jess!). Also, my sense of humor tends to be slightly…stygian…for lack of a better term and this always results in a joke or two that completely clashes with the personality of the character saying it. While this wasn’t a major problem in Blazing Souls, it did make certain characters a bit more bitter and hateful than strictly necessary. In addition, my playlist and whatever book(s) I’m reading at the time will influence how certain lines are delivered/written/ massacred. I was listening to A LOT of SST/Blast First! stuff at the time, so you can imagine what frame of mind I was in while editing.


In regards to my approach to editing, I try not to stray too far from the Japanese and stay more or less true to the spirit of the original dialog, although there have been games where I had to do wholesale re-writing. I won’t bother boring with the details as they would…bore you. With Blazing Souls, I did take a few liberties characterization as the original Japanese was…dry…to say the least.


What I ended up doing was exaggerating certain aspects of each character’s personalities and made all of the female characters fiercely independent and somewhat stronger-willed than your average RPG female cast. I also slightly tweaked how everyone responds to the main character Zelos. And as for Zelos, he started out as the stereotypical RPG loner was ultimately a nice guy. He was also incredibly boring. To remedy this, I channeled my inner jerk and made him INCREDIBLY abrasive and abusive to those around him. However, I also played with how the other characters in the game react to him. To boil it down, those around him see Zelos as cute, like a Chihuahua pretending to be a Mastiff.


Sequence 01_18989 

I know I promised real examples and a journey through the recording process, but as this little outburst is now the length of short story, I will have to cut off here. However, in the next and possibly last entry, I will go into the recording process as well as any random things I might have missed. Oh, and feel free to ask questions in the comment section. I will try my best to answer, either in the next entry or by commenting on my own.


Oh, and to those who don’t know the meaning behind “Spoon!”, I weep for your unshriven souls.


Text Monkey
Aksys Games

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  • Rofl, xD, stuff like this makes me think that sometimes a game becomes better after the translation, more than playing it with its original language

    • Ereek

      A lot of the time, with these smaller games, it is. People cried about how “inaccurate” the Trinity Universe localization was, but they actually gave the characters more personality and made some of the jokes funnier for the English version.

      Of course, a bad localization can ruin characters. Rinoa from FFVIII was absolutely butchered in the localization process.

      • What was she like in the Japanese version?

        • Ereek

          She was actually more of a traditional woman. Less “annoyingly playful.” Her mother and father’s social status is more shown in her personality and she’s not just another girl.

          • mach

            Eh, not really. If anything, they actually made her LESS annoyingly playful in the English version, since they took out a lot of her made up words and babyish speech. And I really don’t think she came across as “just another girl” in either version of the game. She’s a sheltered, spoiled brat at the start of the game, partly because of her elite parents, and that shows through in English and Japanese, IMO.

          • Ereek

            Really? I disagree.

            In the English version, personality-wise, you can’t tell Rinoa apart from the more serious Selphie (Disk 2). Rinoa had a bit more flavor, be it good or bad, in Japanese. I also never really noticed her acting her social status in the English version, that was something that was definitely there in Japanese. The only comments I ever remember were actually from other characters and not Rinoa herself, and they were about Rinoa not taking the fight seriously enough.

  • Arcm

    Despite what most purists say I prefer tinkering around with the script if its a little “dry”. Lunar or basically any game Working Designs did back in the day had a sense of humor that I enjoyed.

    I enjoyed all the other games Aksys has brought over so I know I’ll enjoy this one as well. I <3 Blazblue

  • Ereek

    First of all, allow me to thank you again for this. I’d actually say two people working with “Engrish” to English is harder to work with than one person going straight for “Language X” to English.The fact that you gave them more of a personality instead of sticking with the bare bones and boring straight localization means I love you all the more. For a game like this, I’d sacrifice translational accuracy to make it more interesting. This seems to be an unpopular opinion here on Siliconera though.You just know some people are going to complain about any change. They even complained about the Prinny 2 box, which barely had any changes at all! In this, I feel bad for game localizers, because JRPG fans can be a ridiculously picky lot.

    • I absolutely agree. In fact, after reading your blogs on the Blazing Souls translation process, I decided to use an Amazon credit to pick it up. I always prefer the interpretation method of localizing in games, and hearing that it would have it made it worth ordering. (Granted, I probably won’t get to it for a couple weeks, but still.)

    • I’m torn between the two.

      On the one hand I would like to see a translation that is as accurately as possible. On the other hand personal experience with translating interviews had thought me that that the resulting translation would only be one step above babelfish in quality; you end up with incredibly weird sentences.

      On the whole, I suppose I would go for trying to stick to the original while slightly adjusting the text where needed in order to make it comprehensible (and sound natural)

      • Joanna

        Yeah I’m in the same dilemma as you. I’ve always appreciated a good localization -jokes, non-story related ramblings-, but on the other hand, I don’t want the localization to be too liberal and mess with characters and character relations. I think this is a very fine line to tread since dialogue, even ‘non essential dialogue’ directly ties into the character of the speaker. It becomes a game of how much liberty can be taken. So I’m stuck with this dilemma, but I guess ultimately, I’d much rather have a better spicer localization at the cost of preserving some/most characterization as long as it all makes sense (i.e. with the picture of the character, with what they have previously said/reacted).

  • SPOON! lol

    Is this game out yet? It seems like this localization blog of sorts really excites me for the game.

  • Feynman

    I enjoyed reading this. I much prefer the interpretation method of localization over strict literal translation. Whenever localization teams try to keep the text as 1:1 as possible to the Japanese version, we get the kind of godawful text seen in Ar Tonelico 2, and nobody wants that.

    I remember when NISA published Trinity Universe in North America, and somebody actually complained that a line in the game that contained the Japanese onomatopoeia for “stare” was changed to something that makes more sense to a native English speaker.

    Working Designs and Ted Woolsey are right. The purists are wrong, and are so focused on a “perfect” 1:1 translation that they can’t see the forest for the trees.

    If you’re covering recording next time, I actually have a question in that area. Occasionally, I hear a line in a game where the inflection is a bit off, or the wrong word is stressed given the context of the scene. Exactly how much context are voice actors given for any given line they’re reading? What kind of efforts and precautions need to be taken to ensure that the voice acting sounds natural in context of the scene, or even the overall game?

    • Ereek

      While I completely agree with the general point of your post, I’d say one or two times Working Designs overdid it a bit. They replaced text actually relevant to the story with a joke that had nothing to do with the story. It’s one thing to freshen up the script with jokes and add personality to characters, but another thing to omit certain story-related lines in favor of them.

      • Feynman

        That’s true, WD did have a tendency to go overboard now and then. Nevertheless, I’d rather have too much over too little.

  • Don’t have much to add other than I am strictly in the translation camp and pretty much am anti-interpretation. If I wanted someone’s idea of what was being said and not exactly what was being said, I’d just import the game and make guesses as to the meaning of things. Would probably be more accurate!

    I think interpretation shows a complete lack of respect for the source material. Something I would hope anyone translating anything would have.

    Also, the Tick is one of the best American animated shows ever.

    • Any time you read someone’s translation of anything in another language, you’re reading someone’s “interpretation” of what the original text said, especially when you’re dealing with two languages as different as Japanese and English. Take the English phrase “That sucks”, for instance. You and I know that means that something isn’t good, but a translation into another language would get you something like “that vacuums”, or “that inverse pressures”, which is absolutely meaningless. Part of writing, in any language, is context, culture, and linguistic usage unique to that language. You can’t “translate” things like that any more than you can describe what blue looks like to a person who’s been blind since birth. The best you can do is interpret them, and transpose them onto similar concepts in the language you’re translating to.

      • You’re “that sucks” example is a terrible example. “That vacuums” is not a translation of “that sucks” at all, unless it was referring to the act of literally sucking. The translation should be their equivalent of the same thing. All that example shows is a poor translation.That’s like saying that “hara ga heta” can’t be translated. It translates perfectly into “I’m hungry.” It does not translate into the more litteral “[my] stomach is poor.” Translating it to that would simply be bad translation. That is not interpretation.Furthermore, this guy is saying he’s changing characters personalities. where does that stop? Why not pull a Robotech and throw the script out and rewrite it from scratch. Maybe it would annoy me less if I knew zero Japanese, but since I do know some and I can hear these discrepancies between what is being said and what was translated, it can be quite annoying.

        • I once asked a man who had taught German for many years how one might say “That sucks” in German. He told me the closest you could come would be something akin to “It vacuums”. He might have been wrong, but I doubt it.

          “The translation should be their equivalent of the same thing.” suggests to me that what you’re advocating isn’t a one-to-one translation, but the use of “equivalent” terms. I don’t really see how you can determine what term is “equivalent” without some level of interpretation.

        • OK, you changed this a bit, so I might as well respond to it again.

          It sounds to me like you’re talking about translating ideas, or intent, which to my mind requires a certain amount of interpretation. Your example of “hara ga heta” could be translated as “I’m hungry”, but depending on the context you could also translate it as “Feed me!” or “My stomach’s grumbling.” To figure out when an how to translate a phrase that makes very little sense or sounds awkward in English, i.e. “[my] stomach is poor”, requires a certain amount of thoughts in terms of “How do I say this in English in a way that’s appropriate to this character and the tone of this story?”

          To me, translation means looking at a book or Jim Breen or something and saying “Ok, that word is ‘sword’,” whereas localization requires a certain amount of interpretation, but is pretty close to what you’ve described.

          • I think we both think of translation differently then :)

            You’re idea of translation is a very solid literal one. That is never ever a good idea. Intention is a better way to put how I think of it then. Context and intention mean everything.

            To me interpretation is changing things far too much from the original intention. And like I mentioned above, this translator mentions fundamentally changing a characters ‘voice’ or personality. To me that is just an example of poor translation. That is removing the original intention and creating something newly on your own.

            I suppose a balance of our two ideas might be ideal; or not. But, I believe it would be a better process than what I think Mike describes above.

            (Sorry for the massive edits, but as I let it sit and thought about it, I had more to add!)

          • Hah, find it amusing now that I realize who you are. I may disagree with your translation methods (seriously, changing a character’s personality does not sit well with me), but still, glad Aksys releases stuff that no one else will. Look forward to reading more of these pieces.

          • Well, Engler wrote this article, not me. His editing/translation methods aren’t necessarily mine as well.

  • Kris

    Wow, that’s awesome.
    I’ve personally always been a proponent of localization as opposed to translation, and it seems like you guys are doing that perfectly!
    Fascinating blogs, by the way. Keep it up!

  • urbanscholar

    I just like to take my time and thank translators for their hard work. Everytime I stop to laugh at a scene of piece of dialogue, I know someone worked hard to get it that way. Thanks for the hard work

  • tr1gun1212

    Putting interpretation vs. translation aside, as both can be valid ways to approach something depending on what it is and who the market will be, what’s with the wholesale change of characters’ personalities?

    It makes me wonder what the purpose of picking any one game is over another if the characters are changed. I mean, it seems if that route is chosen it would just be best to pick the game with the best gameplay or art, and then just completely rewrite the script.

    If the characters’ personalities are changed, I have to wonder what the point is of even keeping true to the plot. Many JRPG plots aren’t all that good – boring saving the world/universe by young adults, etc. If the point is to make it more “exciting”, why not change that too?

    If this is all in economic interest, then a lot of things could be changed to sell more copies, but I have to wonder what the point is of even doing it at that point. But going in the middle, and neither offering as close an experience as possible or changing it to maximize sales seems to be a strange middle ground that no one should really want.

  • Pichi

    Also in the came for interpretation over literal translation. I prefer to have more flare in the writing than the usual dry stuff. It should be in the spirit of the characters and make dialogue flows for the native speaker its released for. I feel like many RPGs translations today don’t do this often, and as a result, many think most are generic/not memorable.

  • The flexibility of localization is one of the things that make me appreciate foreign languages so much. Every time I read a line that was obviously not straightforward to translate, I think to myself how I would have written it.

  • I prefer interpretation over literal translation. Mostly because Japanese just…sounds so awkward and confusing when it’s translated literally…

    • Yet if you know enough of the language, when you listen to it you come to appreciate how efficient it is.

      • Yeah really, it is! But…it makes it difficult for me when I’m not entirely sure what is referring to what…

      • Joanna

        B-but I like my flowery descriptive language. Adds so much flavour what I say, write, hear and read.

  • Day2Day

    Oh dear, Aksys… “Spoon!”

    I find that the jokes bit is always something that translators harp on. I don’t speak any Japanese, but I do see where they’re coming from. The massive number of kanji lying around and the fact that many of them sound quite alike does make for many a pun, a luxury we don’t really have in English. I think it’s interesting, however, that the jokes that they do find to put in instead tend to be rather unlike the personality of the character making the joke, as it seems that if the translation was good enough that it would be a little easier to put a joke that fits properly in. Not a massive problem, because after Blazblue, I know Aksys has an excellent sense of humor, but one can’t help wondering what the original Japanese does say. Or even better yet, I wouldn’t mind having the original joke in there with a translator’s note, just to make sense of it…

  • epiphaniesarefun

    Very nice entry :) alas, I weep that the last entry is coming though, I truly enjoy this series of blogs!

  • Yesshua

    Huh. That’s interesting. Do the original creators ever read/experience your scripts once they’ve been localized? The changes you describe to the characters in Blazing Souls seem fairly dramatic. I can imagine that if I was a scenario writer or story director, I might be upset to learn that my vision (whatever it may be) had been dramatically changed. Has that ever happened to you?

    I mean, every story is driving towards some sort of theme, right? What happens if localization changes an element or stylistic decision that the game director felt contributed significantly to the end product?

    I’m not questioning your work though, you do what you feel is best with the resources you have, and I’ve always enjoyed your products. I’m just trying to see this through the creator’s eyes.

  • Yusaku_Matsuda70s

    I know this is impossible, but I have an idea that would be fun and funny if translators could pull it off in some game.

    Here’s the idea:
    Do TWO translations of the script. One fairly strict translation with no jokes/ flex added, one completely off the wall and as liberally funny as you, the translator can come up with, whether or not it’s anything like the original. Put them both into the game as options. “Original” and “Flavored”.

    Voila! You’ve pleased both the purists and free-thinkers. Plus, added replay value; a totally different story the second time around!

    • Actually, there’s probably a good chance you’ll just tick everyone off, because they’ll accuse the other side of taking away the resources (Takes time and people) to make their ‘version’ better.

      Or as someone out there has quoted correctly – You can’t please everyone at the same time.

      • Yusaku_Matsuda70s

        You mean like FFXIII? Dagnabit, you have a point. Ironic that when you go out of your way to please more people, you end up pleasing less.

  • Souji Tendou

    Okay, I have a question, what is “Spoon?”

  • Istillduno

    Changing character personalitys is just wrong, if the people porting a game over don’t think the characters are “spicy” (often read as annoyingly overdone) enough, why the hell is it being ported at all?

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