The Role Of Culture In Translation Work

Every word we use expresses far more than its definition in the dictionary, and in so many expressive works such as books, films, graphic novels and computer games, much of the understanding of particular passages can rely on specific cultural understanding.

This means that for game localisation especially, a literal translation of a computer game’s script is not necessarily enough to ensure complete understanding if the original game relies on references to culture, history or personalities only known in the country of origin.

For example, in the 1984 ZX Spectrum Game Wanted: Monty Mole, made by Sheffield-based game company Gremlin Graphics, the game centres around the titular character trying to escape “Arthur’s castle” using the secret ballot papers and vote casting scroll.

All of this, as well as pretty much every enemy, is a reference to Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers and the 1984 miner’s strike that was ongoing up to that point.

These are references that could potentially be lost to someone who was not born in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and therefore was not aware of the people or events referenced, so therefore either the references may have needed to be explained or needed to be changed.

This was especially common from the mid-1980s until the early 2010s when many games that originated in Japan with very Japanese-specific cultural references were often changed and dialogue was often altered to match the cadence and structure of different languages.

Exactly how effectively this was done and to what extent changes were made largely depended on the publisher and translators involved, exactly what their intentions were, and how much they are willing to alter the original script to get the main points across to a different audience.

On one side of the spectrum is the Yakuza series of games, which rely so heavily on very specific cultural references often connected to the structure of the titular organised crime group itself that they opt to explain a large number of the references and leave others for the player to learn.

This was largely a necessity given that the games take place in an authentic recreation of districts of Japanese cities and trying to abstract this away or move the game to a western location would effectively make a different game, and leaning into it made the series stand out outside of Japan.

This is actually something the original Persona tried in its localisation, which led to their version of “Chicago” being filled with Shinto shrines and houses with a particular Japanese design.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, you have games like Totally Rad. Initially known as Magic John in Japan and featuring a kid protagonist with a hat, it received a rather stark makeover for its American release in 1990.

Given the name “Totally Rad”, the game replaced its main character with a “teenager with attitude” with “gnarly potential” to learn magic, maintaining the premise but attempting to appeal to a particularly 1990s version of cool.

Since the early 2010s, the goals of localisation have shifted somewhat, so whilst there are changes to settings, many cultural references remain intact, such as in the Yo-Kai Watch series.

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