Thursday, June 23, 2011

Videogame Translation

Growing up, the creators of the website were heroes to the twelve year old version of me. They created and ran a website about a video game I loved, and one of them had taught himself Japanese. Even though I spelled horrendously at the time, and I made the terrible decisions that young people do when their  prefrontal cortexs are not fully developed; the co-founders "reidman" (Reid Young) and "tomato" (Clyde Mandelin) would actually talk to me on the site's forums and IRC channels.

Reidman, incidentally this article is about Tomato, but the only
picture I ever saw of him was on his old site and was of him
and a girl on the floor of his kitchen drinking vodka.

I can vividly remember Reid giving me suggestions on purchasing my first bass guitar on the forums, and Tomato suggesting what books to buy in order to learn Japanese. The set of books he mentioned ended up costing a significant amount of money, and I settled for Japanese picture books from my local library. To this date I only know a handful of Japanese symbols for numbers, meanwhile I was failing Spanish class.

I never knew how Tomato got started learning Japanese, but I knew he was a translator for Funimation. Years later when work started on  translating the sequel to Earthbound, Mother 3 I learned that Tomato had worked on translating other roms.

Many game translators start out as fan translators. Perhaps that's why the translation scene is left alone by the game industry.  Tomato was one of these people, and a lot of that is chronicled in this article.In the article Tomato even talks about translating today:
"Yeah, whenever I'm playing a translation or watching something, I'm always on the lookout for new ways to translate phrases so I can improve my own translation skills. I even used to keep a notebook of neat translations for certain generic Japanese phrases."
"I also often try to imagine what the original text was by working backwards from the translation. It's a fun language game in itself. But unless I've played a game in Japanese already, I can't really say if a certain translation is good or bad."
I think that is great advice to anyone learning a language, but then I realized something else; if there is anything we can take away from this quote it is probably that Tomato is in such a great position not because he has an awesome job, but because he really loves his job and because of that he can put so much energy and effort into it.

One of my favorite sites to read when I was a kid was Tomato's Mother 2 to Earthbound and Back Again (original site here). The site is once again, an example of the love and dedication that goes into doing something you have a passion for. It is about the localization differences between the same video game released by Nintendo in Japan and America. Nintendo has been, and probably still is very strict about self-censorship. This is probably most likely to maintain their family-centric image.

In the American version of PunchOut
"Soda Popskini" would warn you to be
careful because he would be driving
home later. Censorship or no
censorship, he's still an asshole.

Tomato's old site is worth checking out just because it goes to show how much can get lost in translation. For example,characters in the game use certain Japanese written symbols which show they speak in a robotic voice, also the mayor of one of the towns in the Japanese version is named G. H. Pirkle, as well as there being a Bush Hospital. Around this time G. H. Bush was famous in Japan for vomiting on their prime minister. This was removed from the American version, as well as the "robotic" text. One of the charms of Earthbound is it's satire of American culture, which in this case was lost.

Nintendo's history of self-censorship, while completely irrelevant to this site, is a huge interest of mine. In you would like to read more about it, here are some links of interest:

Nintendo of America's Video Game Content Guidelines

The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Wikipedia Article on Videogames Censored by Nintendo of America


  1. Oh, I hate you Soda Popinski!

    Interesting stuff, man. I never realized that the entire scene comes from fan translations in the first place.

  2. Nintendo's history of self censorship is also an interest of mine. Thanks for the article and for the links.

  3. @Waffles13 I don't know if they all come from there, but it is excellent job training nonetheless and shows self motivation.

  4. Excellent article, really speaks to me. I'm learning Japanese a little at a time too actually =3

    Loving the blog design, followed.

    Take a look at my blogs sometime if you get the chance:

  5. I like the idea of having a booklet of translations foor generic phrases in video games. It would be funny to see this on a bookshelf if you wanted to play the original game in the original language.