How to translate a game from Japanese to English? The first answer that would come to mind would probably be – like any other video game from any other language. Of course, that is easier said than done.

It is not just the question of a completely different script than the written Japanese language uses. As experts explain, ordinary written Japanese employs a mixture of three scripts: Kanji, or Chinese characters, of which there are officially 2,136 in daily use (more in practice) 2 syllabic alphabets called hiragana and katakana, containing 42 symbols each. Nor is it just localizing such a game for an English-speaking market. Actually, there are some technical and formatting constraints that often make it hard to find the right solution.

To translate video games from Japanese to English there are a number of hurdles a translator needs to overcome. These include translating Japanese scripts and finding the adequate terminology fit for a video game. Also, you need to overcome some technical issues that stem from changing the Japanese scripts into the English alphabet.

Even though this might be a hard task, there are some valid reasons to venture into such an effort. According to Statista, the Japanese video game market is one of the biggest and most mature video game markets worldwide, expected to reach a size of about 1.59 trillion Japanese yen (1 yen= $0,01) by 2025. At the same time, Three English speaking countries U.S., Great Britain, and Canada) were among the top 10 leading gaming markets in the world (2019). The U.S. tops the chart with 36.87 billion dollars. Great Britain has a share of $5.62 billion and Canada $2.77 billion. Japan is third on that list with $18.97.

Translating video games – general challenges

Any person that had to handle a translation from one language to another knows. There are some general challenges in the translation process that need to be overcome. First of all, this concerns transferring any content from one language into another so that the actual meaning is not only understood in general but that everything fully corresponds in meaning.

With translating video games in general, there’s also a number of other concerns that have to be resolved. One is the fact that video games in most cases include moving (in most cases animated) images that speak. Synchronization is the first hurdle in that respect. The speaking characters cannot have a text to speech that is longer than it is depicted in the game. Also, their lines could not be too short and have them moving their lips after they have spoken their bit.

Also, video games include written text that is usually presented in a graphic manner in a box, balloon, or similar. The written language in one language cannot be longer than the graphic space it has in the original. It simply will not fit. That is particularly the problem when transferring text from Japanese to English, as Kanji symbols take much less space than written words in English. English texts can be 60% longer than Japanese (Marianna Sacra, below).

Marianna Sacra, a video game translator, points out some other specific problems connected with translating video games in general.

She notes that “being a game translator involves quite a bit of detective work. More often than not, you will find seemingly random words without any helpful context that make no sense, especially if you don’t know the game.” Having the game itself at hand is quite essential for any prospective translator of that game.

How to translate a game from Japanese to English – general challenges continued

Another problem, to which Sacra points out is especially true with bigger games. That is not knowing which character is currently speaking and whether it is male or female. “Though, just like a good novel, if the source text is very well written and consistent, you might recognize the different ways characters express themselves and identify them from their style.”

The following problem she points out is one of the variables. “In translations, a variable is placeholder code that will be replaced with the appropriate text when needed. For example, you might have the variable “%CharacterName” in the text, which will be replaced by the name of the character, which might change from localization to localization. Variables can save valuable space and time. Imagine having to translate 10,000 cells that are identical, only with a different character, item, and location name!”

Still, there are problems to overcome:

  1. It might take some effort to figure out what they stand for since they do not always have an obvious name
  2. Changing the order of the variables might cause the game to crash (if that’s the case, your developer will let you know)
  3. They might make it hard to find elegant translations if, e.g.
    your language uses several articles.

Then, there is the problem of consistency. “Keeping a text of thousands of words consistent is another challenge. Consistency is needed in style, names (characters, items, locations), button texts, menus, and any texts that refer to other texts. Those are usually  “glossary terms”. A menu location can have a name like “Clothes” but can actually bear the name of “Wardrobe.” There, the player might get confused as to where to go to get himself a new pair of leather boots (above).

how to translate a game from japanese to english

More general challenges

Bringing the best out of characters and the game universe to help the player immerse into another world. That is a further challenge. A badly chosen style can ruin the immersion, the feel of the game, the whole experience. To overcome this problem, Sacra gives the following advice. “Play the game, read the files, or read as much about the game as possible (there might already be a movie, YouTube videos, or developer interviews out there).”

Then, there is the usual translation dilemma – Translation vs. Localization: What should I localize? When do I have to stick to the source text? Can I localize too much?

You sometimes will wonder if the player will have a better gaming experience if you translate this character named “Nick” to “Nico.” Or, the village name “Wusthausen” into something that fits your language. In this case, English language.

The following problem is purely related to the technical aspects of video games. It is the question of bugs in the source text code. Sometimes you encounter a sentence or word that does not make sense and clearly must be wrong. Even message IDs can be misspelled and mislead you. You might not know what to do but you know that something feels off. Maybe there is a character in the game whose name is “Evan”.

You have to decide for every single situation how you will handle it. You can dismiss it as a bug in the source and fix it on your own. Or, you can leave it as it is. If you want to play it safe, you stick to the source, even if it might be a bug (above).

How to translate a game from Japanese to English – specific challenges

Daniel Morales is a Japanese language translator who has specialized in video game translation. He has also worked as a project manager at a translation company in Tokyo. He has written at least two articles dealing with challenges that confront potential translators of Japanese video games.

According to Morales, for a Japanese video game, there is not just video content that a translator needs to handle, “If a company sends you a document that contains the word kyōtai (筐体, cabinet), then you might be handling the kind of games that are still popular in Japan at gēmu sentā (ゲームセンター, arcades) and require a massive cabinet to store the innards — yes, an old-school arcade game. The translation will probably be for the hoshu manyuaru (保守マニュアル, service manual). You’ll likely be translating the instructions into English for a guy in Taiwan who will be fixing the games when they break.”

“Once you’ve proven your attention to detail and ability to not go rogue with your own “interpretation” of material like this, you might be trusted to translate the setsumeisho (説明書, instruction manual). The ones you use for a console or handheld game.”

In instruction manuals, as with many aspects of game translation, it’s best to keep the translation simple and to keep in mind that you are “localizing.” That is, rendering a Japanese product for an entirely different market, not just individual words and phrases into English. Thus, sōsa hōhō (操作方法) becomes “controls” rather than “method of controlling” or “how to control.” This makes more sense when you imagine it as the title of a page and the list of controls underneath (above).

Japanese video game translation – the nitty gritty

Within instruction manuals,” you’re bound to encounter X suru koto ga dekiru (Xすることができる, You can do X), the simplest Japanese construction to explain what someone can or can’t do within the game. You’ll find text like “Jūji botan wo osu to, kyarakutā wo ugokasu koto ga dekiru” (“十字ボタンを押すと、キャラクターを動かすことができる”). While it’s tempting to follow the Japanese word for word and do a chokuyaku (直訳, direct translation), consider aiming again for simplicity: “Press the +Control Pad to move the character” is a concise translation that helps avoid any unnecessary verbiage.”

According to Morales, the best way to learn the Japanese words in video games is to play the games yourself in Japanese. The original “Nintendo DS is region free. It can play both Japanese and non-Japanese games, so that’s a good place to start.”

Playing games will also help you learn the dialogue and story content, which are the most challenging to translate. You do not only need near-native familiarity with the source. You also need to be preternaturally gifted at writing snappy, character-conveying English (above).

Many video gamers try to solve the translation of video games themselves. They use, so-called translation aggregators that are available online, But Morales is of the opinion that “the greatest fallacy of video-game translation is that translators need only be fans of the games in order to translate them well. As with any other type of translation, such as notoriously dense tokkyo (特許, patent) translation, video-game translation requires training both in terminology and in English composition. With patent translation there is less room for translators to err due to “creativity” precisely because of all the constraints of legal terminology.”

How to translate Japanese games seems like a good reason to learn the Japanese language on a translation level. But, when looking for a translation of a Japanese video game as a commercial product, engaging a professional translator who will really handle the job the way it should be done. Such translators are always available here at BunnyStudio too.