It’s easy to make fun of classic Japanese video games (JRPGs especially) for their poor English, and assume the reason for this was simply one of neglect. Which is kinda true, but there are other reasons behind it as well, and they’re really interesting!
In a big interview with Edge magazine last month, American Alexander O Smith—a veteran localiser who lives in Japan, and who has worked on games like Final Fantasy XII and Phoenix Wright—shed some light on the myriad of issues he and other English-speakers used to face (things have gotten much better!) translating games from Japanese to English.
While one of these was publishers like Square not really giving a damn about foreign versions of their games until late in the development process, Smith says there were also technical problems that hampered their efforts, and go at least some way to explaining why so many classic Japanese games were plagued by stuff like basic spelling mistakes.
In the interview—which sadly isn’t available online, since Edge’s website has been closed—Smith says that one of the problems they faced was that many Japanese studios preferred to work with “double-byte, fixed-width” dimensions for letters/characters, which was fine for Japanese. English, on the other hand, has some letters that would only need to take up half that space. Ever wonder why you’d see old Japanese games (or even some more recent ones) where a word would look like TH IS or THI S instead of THIS? That’s why.
At the same time, the way English had to be entered into games in this way meant that it was impossible to run an automatic spell-checker. When a JRPG can contain tens of thousands of lines of dialogue, and small localisation teams are having to go through everything by hand, mistakes happen!
So the next time you’re playing an old Japanese game, and you see some weird stuff in the English localisation, spare a thought for the guys who had to get that job done. When you consider what they had to work with, it’s a wonder they got the job done at all!
The interview can be found in last month’s issue (Edge 278, the most recent is 279); if you’re into localisation (or just Japanese games in general), try and pick up a copy, it’s a great interview.