December 20, 2015

Legends of Localization - Book 1: The Legend of Zelda (Part 1)

Secret power is said to be in the localization.

Clyde Mandelin's site Legends of Localization is a gold mine for anyone interested in the Japanese side of video games released worldwide. He is living the dream that I'm sure many people have: being able to translate video games, manga, and anime professionally. His site has been up for years, but it's only recently that's he published a book in collaboration with the wonderful people at Fangamer. I'll only be talking about the book in this post, but I highly encourage you to check out Mandelin's site for a huge amount of content.

Mato (as he will be referred to from now on) starts off by telling the reader the book isn't going to be a boring text book, but rather "...a good mix of serious research, critical analysis, and a casual, laid-back attitude." Thankfully, he delivers. There have been more than a few books about video games that rely way too much on personal nostalgia and biographical info of the author, which really take all interest away from the subject at hand (I'm looking in your direction, Boss Fight Books). Mato keeps the biography stuff short and sweet. It's right in the Introduction and only runs for a few pages. Fine with me. The only other spot for personal tidbits is tiny little captions here and there. I can't praise him enough for keeping his personal life out of the writing. It's The Legend of Zelda, not The Legend of Mato, so thank you for keeping it that way.

The first section is focused on audio. The differences between the FDS and NES hardware is briefly explained, and is followed by several examples of where the music is different. To make things easier, Mato provides a QR code (or you could just go to his site and listen) for the actual audio comparisons. Next, some sound effect changes are explored. These include Sword Shooting, picking up rupees/hearts/items, doors opening, enemies dying, and the like. Some of the changes are not that big, while other sounds could not be more different. It's pretty interesting. There are also waveform comparisons in the book, which I suppose is the next best thing to the actual audio. The NES seems to make way more use of the DPCM channel in an attempt to compensate for the lack of channels the FDS supports.

Next up is graphics. Obviously the title screen is different, but there are some font changes as well within the game. This whole section is pretty short, and it covers tiny miscellaneous things like the Name Entry text, the Zora sprite, and a couple of other things. Honestly, this section could have fit neatly into the chapter titled "First Quest," especially since the title screen and text are covered in more detail anyway. It kind of stands weirdly on its own.

Gameplay is next. Mato discusses why English text is so prevalent in Japanese games, and why they choose to use certain English quirks a lot of the time. Most of this section focuses on differences you'll encounter before really even starting the game, as well as how hardware difference affect the game itself (à la Pols Voices). Each subsequent port of the first Legend of Zelda is either based on the Disk version or the Cart version. And whichever the case, it carries over the same minor gameplay differences from the source material. There has never been a solid "definitive version," which I think is pretty neat.

Finally, we reach text. This is probably where most people think localization takes place first. Since Mato is a professional translator and has the résumé to back it up, he is a fully credible source to discuss this (not to mention write this book in the first place). Firstly, he talks about how Japanese people use different speech patterns and dialects based on gender, age, politeness, etc. and how it can get lost in the translation process. He then explores various instances where the translators did good jobs and bad jobs of conveying the original intended text and nuances. This is the longest section in the book, so there's too much to explain in this post. Countless instances of what was changed, the reason(s) why, and whether or not the localization succeeded. Players often think of the poorly translated lines first since they stand out so much. What are the actual original lines in Japanese? Do they make more sense in their native language? Surprisingly, sometimes the answer is still "no."

Continued in Part 2...

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