The Culture Crush
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Found In Translation

Found in Translation

written by Levin Roy

You start as a noble knight. Your quest?  To stop an ancient evil from breaking free of the seal that is keeping it imprisoned. But, as these things usually go, you fail to do so, and the evil is unleashed upon the world in the form of Rukyu, the Fallen One. Pretty standard fantasy fare (if there is such a thing as standard fantasy), you think, until the cut scene fades, and you discover that you will not be playing through the game as the noble knight. Instead, you are Rukyu, the Fallen One.

 Chris Sharp

Chris Sharp

If you are unfamiliar with this videogame specifically, or just videogames in general, you are not alone. Released in the summer of 1996, Dark Half is an unusual title for the Super Famicom console (also known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or SNES). Mainly because its central conceit is that you play as the villain, massacring innocent townsfolk and devouring their souls for power. Complementing this macabre quest are gritty writing and a haunting soundtrack, it manages to evoke an atmosphere of gloom and terror to anchor the game’s story and entertain the player in the absence of detailed graphics, which have become the norm for today’s games more focused on photorealistic sex and violence.

Despite its unique premise, Dark Half went largely unnoticed not only by those who do not play games, but even by fans of the genre, remaining buried in the deluge of run-of-the-mill Role Playing Games (RPGs) flooding the market at the time. It was only after the dust had settled, and connoisseurs began to search for the hidden gems, that the game finally received some attention, and even then, the number of people who could truly understand and appreciate its beauty were limited, for a very simple reason — the game was in Japanese. However, while some might consider this a barrier, others consider it merely a challenge. One that requires forming together entire teams and communities, all with the goal of bringing these epic adventures to those who otherwise would not be able to enjoy them.

Anyone who has spent even a little time online or watched Cartoon Network late at night can tell you that Japan has a rich tradition of divergent art forms, be it manga, anime, or the aptly named, Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs). While some of the more famous works do make it to Western shores (such as Final Fantasy), most Japanese studios lack the financial resources to localize a niche product for an audience with a radically different cultural prism. As a result, the best of what Japan produces is often consigned to be forgotten by history, unknown and undiscovered by the world at large.

Enter the fan translator.

"A few years ago I was in Taiwan and I saw Valkyria Chronicles 3 for sale,” explains Christopher Ting, a student. “I bought it, even though the game was in Japanese and I couldn't understand it. I speak Chinese, so I found an unofficial Chinese patch, played the game and enjoyed it. I realized it was unfair that so many people who love the series don't get to play the game because it's not in English."

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Ting browsed GameFaqs — the community pool of video game walkthroughs and completion tips — and found a thread about creating a translation patch for the game, led by a mysterious programmer going by the name of ‘Nightleech_Ru’. The programmer had posted screenshots to the forums showing he could insert text into the game files, and after seeing them, Ting decided to take the leap.

Ting set up a website, asking for volunteers, and contacted Nightleech for help in obtaining the game’s entire script. The mysterious programmer complied with his request, pulling the text files from both the Japanese and the Chinese versions for the newly assembled team to work with. Their efforts paid off when, after nearly two years of painstaking labor, the group finally released the complete English patch of Valkyria Chronicles 3 to the world. 

There are many such stories. Often, casual gamers find themselves drawn into an arduous, years-long quest to translate a little-known Japanese game, driven solely by their passion to bring an unappreciated gem into public eyes. Of course, this raises the question as to why anyone would dedicate years of their lives to such a task, which, at best, might be seen and appreciated by a few thousand people. The answer is twofold. 

First, these games usually have something special in them, something that could make a person devote endless hours of unpaid work for their sake. It may be a unique story, or it may be an interesting gameplay twist; it just has to be different from the norm. Something that cannot be found in the local game shop down the street. After all, these are Role Playing Games and most of the enjoyment in playing them comes, not from intense, fast paced actions but from the stories that they tell, the world’s they create, and the lives they allow you to escape into for a few hours at a time. Take Bahamut Lagoon, for example.

 Chris Sharp

Chris Sharp

Bahamut Lagoon was one of the last titles released for the SNES by Square Enix, the well-known video game development studio behind the Final Fantasy series. On first sight, it is the usual RPG tale: a group of revolutionaries out to defeat an ambitious, all-conquering empire, led by a maniac whose magical experiments have the potential to destroy the world.

Play through a couple of chapters, however, and things begin to get interesting. The princess you were out to rescue —hinted repeatedly to have been close to our protagonist— ends up falling in love with an imperial general instead. A kingdom that you bravely liberate, expecting to be hailed as heroes, slams its doors on you, proclaiming admiration and loyalty for their just and kind emperor. A fearsome knight, thirsting for vengeance, grows weary of the bloodshed, looking beyond the visors of his enemies for the people they actually are.

And yet, more than the unorthodox storytelling, it is the exceptional world building that takes the cake. Bahamut Lagoon conjures an evocative world of endless skies and floating lagoons, immersing players in a beautiful experience where it is not hard to believe that a man could wage wars and lay kingdoms to waste for making that boundless sky his own. Add to that a truly innovative gameplay, and you have all the ingredients for a true epic.

You see, Bahamut Lagoon has dragons. Not only your own pet dragons that you can take into battles (yay!) but also ancient dragons whose status and powers approach divinity, as is apt for a world soaring in the sky. 

These dragons mesh well with the gameplay too, with a magic system that directly depends on the strength and the elemental affinity of your dragons, and maps with terrain you can interact with, where destroying bridges and setting forests on fire are essential parts of a brilliant strategy — and sometimes the unintended consequence of your pets’ unpredictable antics.

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Originally, the game was slated to be released in North America, but Nintendo’s big push toward their newly launched Nintendo 64 meant that developers had to stop making games for older systems, or risk losing money as consumers focused on games for the new system. Another all too familiar case of the demands of the omnipresent market winning out over telling a compelling story. Square Enix elected for the former, and Bahamut Lagoon, along with a slew of other titles, was left to stew in its Japanese glory. Thankfully, Clyde Mendelin had other ideas.

A translator at FUNimation by day, Mendelin moonlights as a fan translator by night. In this underground community, he goes by the name of ‘Tomato’, lending his expertise to dozens of translation projects. Bahamut Lagoon was one such project.

He came across Bahamut Lagoon in 2001, becoming enamored with its slick visuals and innovative gameplay. Assisted by the hackers Neill Corlett and Dark Force, Mendelin got to work on translating the game’s script, alongside his professional commitments and other fan translation projects. He released the patch in the middle of the next year, bringing one of Square Enix’s better classics to the reach of Western gamers.

Strangely, examples of exemplary titles being left untranslated by leading game development studios are only too common. Front Mission, Mother 3, Persona... the list goes on. But perhaps the most notorious of these omissions is the Fire Emblem series.

A pioneering franchise of strategy role-playing games, the Fire Emblem series has been praised for its epic storylines, tactical depth, and rich character development. This praise though, has been earned in the West only by its later titles, leaving a whopping six games of the series untranslated to English. Of these six titles, perhaps the most revolutionary and well-known is Seisen no Keifu, the fourth in the series, as it was originally called in Japan.

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The game is often jokingly referred to as the “Song of Ice and Fire Emblem,” because it was released on the same day as G.R.R Martin Game of Thrones and shares many of the same themes. It presents a mature and intricate story of war and chaos, against a surprisingly complex backdrop of political turmoil and Machiavellian manipulations. Few games have the boldness to venture as far as this entry does, by deliberately nurturing a bond with the beautifully fleshed out, relatable characters with their personal stories of love, longing and dreams of life, only to brutally slaughter them at the moment of their seeming victory, emotionally devastating the already invested player.

This deep story, however, meant that the game was rather difficult to translate. Much like Game of Thrones, it has a humongous corpus of dialogue, which flow into innumerable branches and variations depending on the relationships and deaths of the characters. Many translation patches tried and failed to fully address the issue, managing only partial and unpolished translations. It was only in 2016, on the twentieth anniversary of the game’s release, that a complete and professionally polished translation of the game was released to the public, making it fully playable to Western audiences for the first time.

While fan translation is not unique to video games, since anime and manga both have similar individuals who take it upon themselves to translate obscure Japanese media, translating video games requires a lot more than simply a knowledge of Japanese, a few days, and access to the source material. It requires a team, which often has names, comprised of individuals with diverse skillsets, in order to accomplish the task. But a team can be a temporary thing and long project timelines are common when it comes to these translations. Sticking together for upwards of 20 years requires something more, that level of dedication requires a community.

Games on older consoles lack any systematic arrangement of files that is the hallmark of modern software; every resource in the game — sound, graphics, text — is packed into a single, read-only binary file. With an impeccably engineered game, this may not be an issue, but with a bug riddled game whose script is a convoluted mess of lost pointers and twisted subroutines, it can make extracting any meaningful information a true nightmare.

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And once the text has been extracted, there is still the gargantuan amount of dialogue left to deal with, along with the new font information and resized windows that need to be accommodated with it. With all these issues, it is not surprising for a lone crusader to get burnt-out midway into a project, leaving the fate of the translation in a limbo.

That’s why fan translators form groups. Fan translation groups provide a stable community of hackers and translators who use their combined might to tackle tricky projects that may prove insurmountable to individual efforts, bringing them swiftly and neatly to completion. 

It was the translation group Aeon Genesis” that rescued the Dark Half translation project, picking up the baton from previous groups, after its progress had been stalled for over a decade, using their experience to blaze through the hurdles that had stymied earlier attempts, finally releasing it nineteen years after the game had first hit the stores.

Formed by hacker Gideon Zhi along with a rotating roster of translators, Aeon Genesis is one of the more prolific groups, with more than a hundred active or completed projects to its credit, ranging from big names like Super Robot Wars to quaint titles like Treasure of the Rudras, all done in a professionally polished tone.

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Other groups, like “Dynamic Designs,have a more varied cast. Its origins can be traced back to the time when Bongo', a gifted hacker, began working on a translation of Feda: The Emblem of Justice. Inspired by the game’s gritty storyline and an imaginative setting of a war-torn, transhuman world where magic rubs shoulder with advanced technology, he made translating Feda the aim of his lifetime. Achieving such a monumental task alone proved too difficult, however, and Bongo` sought the help of his fellow translators of Lennus II, the group Magic Destiny, who joined his group, Stealth Translations in completing the translation of the often colorful dialogue of the game. In 2009, fifteen years after the game’s Japanese release, the completed translation of the game was free to be finally enjoyed by the public, and shortly afterward, the two groups coalesced into a single label, Dynamic Designs, which has gone on to produce many other translations of little known games. 

Given their unique and time intensive demands, translating these games has led to the formation of entire communities of geographically diverse individuals that would otherwise not exist. After all, it is one thing to like a game, it is another thing altogether to have a project that a community can form around to complete. Ironically, though JRPG’s are, more often than not, single player experiences, the act of translating them requires a group. In this sense, these acts of translation emulate the dynamic of the games themselves, with each member using their unique skills to help complete the quest.  

The success of these countless fan translation efforts have lifted the curtain on the divergent streams of storytelling that had hitherto escaped Western attention, and also revealed a discerning, appreciative audience for deeper, more engaging games that dare to deviate from the norms of mainstream “triple AAA” blockbusters. This has changed studios’ perceptions as well, and many companies that once released their titles exclusively in Japan are beginning to offer versions for the English speaking audience, recognizing that demand may be niche but they are dedicated. Older titles are being remade in English, and released on newer consoles.

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Does this mean that the days of fan translations are finally over now that big name studios see the profit to be made by translating these games themselves? Heading over to the homepage of Gideon Zhi, the legend of fan translations, this is what one finds:

Today AGTP (Aeon Genesis Translation Projects) releases a complete translation for Super Robot Wars Gaiden: The Elemental Lords. This title details the very beginning of the saga surrounding Banpresto´s first original …..”

Guess some old habits really do die hard.