Lost in Translation: challenges of localizing video games for a global market

“Elle regarde bien,” said an unnamed character in the French version of Final Fantasy VII.  Non-French speakers will input that line into Google Translate and find out it means, “She looks good,” probably referring to the attractiveness of Tifa or Aeris.  French speakers, on the other hand, will know immediately that this sentence is embarrassingly–both grammatically and semantically–incorrect.

This laughable mistake, according to Spiders CEO Jehanne Rousseau (developer of Faery: Legends of Avalon to be published by TriplePoint client Focus Home Interactive) is most likely attributed to the fact that the French version of Final Fantasy VII was translated directly from the English version.  Knowing Final Fantasy VII was originally written in Japanese, the French version is nothing more than a translation of a translation.  This of course resulted in a line that literally means “she LOOKS (with her eyes) well.”

So why would the French translators translate a Japanese game based on anything other than the original Japanese version?  Could it be the lack of people fluent in both Japanese and French?  Surely that cannot be the case.  Having visited the city of Paris myself many times, I look around and am surprised by the high population of Japanese in Paris, and I am NOT talking about the tourists.  Or am I?  Due to the high number of Japanese tourists who visit France every year, there is a high demand for Japanese speakers in Paris, those who can lead tour groups and work in shops.  Surely there must have been SOMEBODY fluent in both French and Japanese who could have gotten the job done without such a linguistic slip-up.  Jehanne Rousseau, born and raised in France, certainly does not buy the fact that there is absolutely nobody out there of that description willing to localize a Japanese game for a French audience, noting the growing number of East Asian immigrants in France.

So why didn’t Square Enix, then Squaresoft, find somebody like that?  Were French/Japanese bilinguals so rare back in 1997?  Does localization of all games still come across this problem of the inability to translate from a game’s original language?

At GDC Online 2010, I attended a seminar by Samson Mow of Ubisoft Chengdu about how to reinvent Western games for East Asian audiences.  Mow spoke not only of the language translation aspect of localization but also about the infrastructure and features translation of a game, concluding that audiences from different countries want a game not only to be in a language they understand, but also in a format they understand and prefer.  This means they not only want their MMORPGs to be in Chinese/Japanese/Korean but they also want them to be microtransaction-based, not subscription-based.  This only means one thing.  Even if game developers and publishers find the proper way to translate a game into another language, they will have only won part of the battle for a foreign audience’s approval.

Luckily, it has been over 20 years since we have seen anything as bad as Zero Wing‘s “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” but as technology breaks down the borders between countries, it is no surprise that the localization of a game requires more than just a passable language translation.  Almost any game made today will be played by gamers from every continent, and any game developer or publisher that is not well-versed in the game of total localization may find their fans saying their latest creation definitely does not “regarde bien.”