Localization is an art that’s often unnoticed because when it’s done extremely well you don’t realize the game you’re playing has been translated from another language. The Mario & Luigi series and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door before it feel natural in English with well placed humor. In this interview, we spoke with Nate Bihldorff, Localization Manager at Treehouse, about Nintendo’s approach towards localization.
The Mario & Luigi games are known for having a sense of humor, but jokes don’t always work well when translated in another language. How did you rewrite jokes for Dream Team? Could you give an example of a joke in Japanese and the English joke?
Nate Bihldorff, Localization Manager: We tackled Dream Team the same way we tackled the rest of the series—essentially, we took what was already an incredibly funny script in Japanese and gave it a couple of tweaks to make it fit better with our market. Luckily a lot of the comedy came from the way scenes are blocked and the wonderful animation work that Alpha Dream has done, so we were basically just putting frosting on a cake.
One example is Seabury, who is a terrible stand-up comic you meet relatively far into the game. His jokes were almost all based on Japanese puns—there was one where he joked about preparing some deep-fried seafood for the bros. because the name for his race (the Seadrings) sort of sounds like fried food in Japanese. We had to just junk it—I made a terrible joke about a “porridge parlor” being a “mush room” instead.
The Treehouse is known primarily for being Nintendo’s in-house localization team. Could you explain the group’s responsibilities, and what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
The Treehouse is actually a lot bigger these days and Localization still makes up a large part of the Treehouse, Product Development group. Other groups under the Treehouse umbrella include: Product Marketing, the AV group, and the Pokémon team. Localization’s day-to-day involves taking every game that comes out of our internal development groups in Japan (and quite a few from other sources) and culturalizing every aspect of them for the North American Market.
What are your influences when it comes to localizing games, not just books or movies, but other elements? Style Savvy, for example, uses 80s slang, Earthbound has plenty of pop culture references, and Kid Icarus Uprising has video game references.
Lines like the video-game references in Kid Icarus Uprising come straight from the Japanese script—we just massage and update them to resonate with our market. For most games, we try to keep the dialogue as timeless as possible, so we tend to avoid directly referencing anything topical or fleeting. I want games to be memorable on their own creative merits, not because they remind people of whatever lolcat meme is currently popular.
That said, certain games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf are meant to be populated by characters that remind you of the people in your life—for games like that, which are a bit more removed from a total fantasy setting, it’s OK to be a bit more modern with the references.
Is it different localizing dialogue for Animal Crossing since it has a village of animals instead of people? How did you come up with initial catchphrases and slogans to make characters feel unique?
I kind of covered this in the last answer, but even though these are animals, they’re meant to talk and act like people you know. The normal villagers fall into personality categories, so it’s not like every wolf has wolf-specific dialogue—instead, you’ll have a wide swath of animal types that are sort of lazy, or hyper, or cheery, or obsessed with exercise.
Of course, every one of those gets a catchphrase, and those ARE specific to that particular animal, so we got to go hog wild with those phrases. We’d basically sit in a room and brainstorm—“OK, this is a dog wrapped in bandages names Lucky… What exactly would he say? “Rrr-owch!” Perfect!”
More and more major Nintendo games are starting to see simultaneous or near-simultaneous launches worldwide, like Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land. When you have to prep a story-intensive game like Zelda to launch in English and Japanese at once, how do you coordinate with the development team? Do you have story input?
We’re in touch with the dev teams from long before formal localization begins, giving feedback on all manner of game elements, and once formal localization starts, we talk every day. As such, we’re constantly asking questions about the plot, background on characters, and even series etymology on enemy and character names. We feel a real responsibility to curate these worlds and preserve the vision of the developers, so I’m sure we get incredibly annoying as we pester them about whether, say, a particular enemy is related to a Moblin or an Octorok.
What’s the most interesting character that you’ve gotten to work on, out of all the games you’ve done?
That is an incredibly difficult question to answer, simply because I’ve worked on way too many games. Fawful [from the Mario & Luigi series] was the most fun to write, but he was sort of a one-trick pony…so as far as the most interesting character, I might have to go with Admiral Bobbery from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door—such a sad story in such a silly game. No wait! Maybe Ganondorf in Wind Waker. Or Luigi’s Waffle Kingdom adventure in Paper Mario? ARGH CAN’T DECIDE.