When Fire Emblem Fates was released for 3DS in Japan early last summer, it didn’t have a US release date. Within 24 hours, fans were hacking the game and translating it on their own. What started as an experiment became a race to translate the game before Nintendo of America.

Fire Emblem Fates, released as Fire Emblem IF in Japan, didn’t come to the US until more than six months later. In a world that’s shrunk the gap between release dates worldwide from years to weeks or days, that’s an eternity. It’s not a surprise fans wanted to cut that down.

It’s not just been a race, though. It’s became a heated contest between different approaches for putting Japanese games into English.

Advertisement

Every time Nintendo of America tweets about Fire Emblem Fates, released last week in the US, they’re flooded with responses about how they need to “fix the localization you hack frauds” or players “would like the one that isnt [sic] shit translated with removed content please.”

Is this a debate over artistic purity or the latest in ongoing (and increasingly tiring) skirmishes about the cultural differences about sex and gender between the East and West? Partially, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s also about how Nintendo sometimes alters certain plot points or personality types in the localization process, which some deem to be censorship.

Sponsored

This is a conversation that Nintendo knew was coming, ever since things blew up over a potentially homophobic scene involving a character named Soleil and eyebrow-raising people-petting mini-games. The former was removed from the game and the latter was mostly cut, though the game still includes the ability to tap your spouse’s face to wake them up.

Petting, which helped create stronger bonds between characters, looked like this:

Video Credit: HiMyNameIsMaurice

This fan translation comes amidst an ongoing debate about changes—tiny to some, bigger to others—made to several Japanese games with content that sexualizes young girls. I covered the topic extensively last December, pointing out how Nintendo continues to be at the center of it. Fatal Frame had lingerie costumes removed, and in Xenoblade Chronicles X, players could no longer adjust their bust size and a 13-year-old character was not allowed to dress in a skimpy bikini. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, a bikini shot was altered.

Some of the pushback is also about how Nintendo rewrites its own games for American audiences and doesn’t involve sexualized content. It involves changes to jokes, the addition of memes, the outright removal of certain conversations. Fire Emblem (according to Japan) was a Tumblr blog that, until recently, categorized and commented on the changes to the series during localization. The Fire Emblem Wiki also has a list of changes that spans the series.

“One of the bigger changes that comes to mind was how they made Henry from [2014's] Awakening more ‘sadistic’ than the original one,” said Potato, one of the translators on the project for the new game.

A Little From Column A, A Little From Column B

They’re certainly not the first fans to try to translate Japanese games to English. That’s a decades-old thing. They’re simply doing it in a time when confidence that Nintendo and other Western divisions of gaming companies will do translations justice is being challenged amid cries of censorship and ever more heated argument about what’s worth keeping intact when translating a game from one culture to the another.

Over Skype, members of the team provide a mix of motivations for making their own translation. Some seemed motivated out of dislike for how Nintendo translates their own games. (“I don’t like how Nintendo is handling their localizations,” said Cellenseres, co-team leader and programmer on Team IF.)

Cellenseres is German, and English is his second language. He’s still learning Japanese, but he’s motivated to present Fire Emblem as he thinks it should be. He’s also a tinkerer—you may have seen his Undertale on 3DS experiments, for example.

Others seemed primarily interested in just getting the Japanese version translated into English before the official English-language version came out. They can cite differences in localization in previous games in the series.

The project started by translating the Japanese menus before eventually moving onto the story and other elements. It’s still a work-in-progress. A separate patch for the American version will eventually restore what he feels is the more accurate translation of the Japanese game. It’ll also add in the rubbing mini-game and that controversial “magic powder” scene with the character Soleil.

“That scene will be implemented in our release eventually in its entirety,” the team told me.

Censorship fears didn’t drive everyone on the team, however. “I had no concerns [about potential censorship], to be honest,” said the other team leader, SciresM, who built a series of custom tools to assist in the translation.

Their project started eight months ago. When Cellenseres started goofing around with translating Fire Emblem Fates, the response on Twitter and other parts of the Internet was strong enough to push him into forming a real team. This prompted him to bump into SciresM, who was separately considering a translation effort.

The two then posted about the project on message boards for Serenes Forest, one of the more popular Fire Emblem fan sites, and amateur translators started coming out of the woodwork. There are now 12 people working on the project, though a number of others have contributed.

There’s currently only a patch for the Japanese version of the game, but one that redoes the translation in the recent English-language release is also in the works. That one will reportedly restore missing features to the game, like the rubbing mini-games. It’s part of a broader“delocalization” effort.

At the heart of this is a disagreement about localization vs. translation. In this context, localization is a form of editorializing, in which the translators are applying interpretation and transformation. Translation would be to take the original Japanese text and literally translate it. It’s a fine line.

Here’s an example. On the left is Nintendo’s localization of a scene in the new Fire Emblem, on the right is Team IF’s. Remember, the game was originally written in Japanese, so both of these are putting what was written into English.

“[My] main concerns would be with NoA’s tendency to often cut or alter important plot points, or even change certain characters’ personalities,” said Potato, one of the translators. “With our translation project, we would be more confident in being able to portray the original intended meaning of the Japanese script.”

In a sense, keep more of the Japanese flavor.

“The biggest struggle [was] making the Japanese sound natural in English while still keeping most of the original meaning and nuances intact,” said Potato.

Localization vs. Censorship

In other cases, Nintendo has made more sweeping cuts and changes to the text. Fans often point to one of the conversations between two assassins in the game. In the American version, it’s played as a joke, two trained killers unwilling to speak with one another.

Saizo: ...
Beruka: ...
Saizo: ...
Beruka: …

In the Japanese version, they have a substantial conversation. Per Team IF’s script:

Saizou: You’re...the assassin from Nohr, Belka aren’t you?
Belka: ...Did you want something? Hoshido’s ninja...Saizou.
Saizou: Oh...? It seems that we already know one another’s names.
Belka: Yes...the name Saizou of Hoshido is widely known in the Kingdom of Nohr. The next king’s faithful retail...As well as an assassin of high ability.
Saizou: Same here, from a young age to kill without hesitation, rumors of a little girl that was a ruthless murder weapon.
Belka: ...I see. How many...have you killed?
Saizou: What’s with that question...You remember such things?
Belka: As an assassin counting is a daily routine in my job. But after I was taken in by Lady Camilla...I’d stopped counting. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for me...Only that, that had changed.
Saizou: Is that so?
Belka: ...I’ve answered. So, how about you?
Saizou: I...can never forget. Even if I don’t want to remember...Even if I want to forget...the faces and numbers of people that I’ve killed...It’s been engraved clearly into my heart.
Belka: ......I see.
Saizou: To have to join hands with an assassin from an enemy country like this must be fate. We both have Lords that we must protect...Belka. Please take good care of me from here on out.
Belka: Understood.

Some fans view this as cut content they should have access to or even as censorship. Their pushback can be fierce, and the topic is so fraught that even my interview with the fan translation team took a turn when they threatened to release a full transcript of the interview if their words were used in a way they deemed malicious. “Because news companies as a whole, to us, have a reputation for always misunderstanding or purposely twisting one’s words, naturally, some of us would be concerned,” said mikuru, one of the team’s “sub” leaders.

(I’ve gone ahead and published our full Skype conversation right here.)

I found the team reasonable in their responses, but the spectrum of reactions that others who have issues with Nintendo’s translations go far into the ugliest aspects of Internet hate, with some disgruntled so-called “fans” calling for some Nintendo employees to be fired, digging through their social media history and even Amazon wish lists to prove that they dislike games or are hypocritical censors.

But dialing things back, there’s still a philosophical argument that motivates some players, who simply believe that respectful translations need to be more literal. Some professional translators, on the other hand, disagree with that.

“I could go on and on (and on!) about how there’s no such thing as a literal translation from Japanese,” said Brian Gray, who was the lead translator on Kingdom Hearts and other Square Enix games before opening his own studio. “I think people who mindlessly chase down that ideal are holding themselves back from being good translators. [...] That whole mindset—that Japanese has ‘correct’ translations into English and that localizers are people who mangle those perfect answers—is misguided.”

This opinion is generally shared by the professional translators—folks who’ve worked on everything from Final Fantasy to Phoenix Wright— that I’ve talked to over the past few months, and has even bled into fan criticism of the script translated by Team IF.

“There was a lot of droning text, and a multitude of cliche anime lines,” wrote Henshin_a_gogo on reddit. “Gratuitous amounts of really generic anime talk kinda hurt to read after a while and I found myself kinda hitting A until the next major plot incident happened. I feel this is mainly because they did such a good job of directly translating it from the original Japanese script.”

Others understood where both sides were coming from.

“By shifting the style to cater to ‘non-anime’ audiences, the other group of audiences ended up feeling alienated and left out,” said onmyouza. “And you know how passionate some fans can be about video game[s]. If they give us some localization notes, explain the decision behind changing character personality, include it in form of an artbook, etc. I’m pretty sure people would be more receptive if they did this kind of approach. They can target certain audience[s] without alienating the other.”

For many, it’s a matter of principle. Even if Nintendo’s own translation is fantastic, their decisions rub them the wrong way. End of story.

“I believe you can still draw out accurate translations using interpretive methods,” said Potato, who worked on the fan translation, “but NoA [Nintendo of America] localizations can often entirely change certain elements of the original material, possibly due to them believing that they may not be accepted or understood to their target audience.”

The Anxiety Over Nintendo’s Silence

That lack of explanation continues to be a big problem with Nintendo. In fact, the last time Nintendo of America explicitly talked about localizing Fire Emblem was a 2005 interview with Planet GameCube. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance associate localization producer Rich Amtower discussed their relationship with the series’ longtime development studio, Intelligent Systems.

“We tried to keep everything we can in the story,” said Amtower. “It has to do with our relationship with Intelligent Systems and what they’ve intended for the story. We don’t change any of the plot elements. We defend them! If anyone has a desire to change anything we’ll charge the gates with our letter openers!! We care so passionately about these games it isn’t funny.”

Amtower said they’re in constant conversations with the developers about changes and intent.

It’s possible things have changed since 2005, but it’s hard to say: Nintendo remains frustratingly silent about its translation practices. They’ve issued a few vague statements about Fire Emblem Fates’ alterations, and when I asked about Xenoblade Chronicles X, they said “different regions make different localization choices based on a variety of factors.” That’s not very illuminating.

Until Nintendo decides to speak up, fans will be forced to theorize (and translate) on their own. The backlash doesn’t seem to have hurt sales, though. The new game is outselling its predecessor.

You can reach the author of this post at patrick.klepek@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @patrickklepek.