Translation and localization—whether in games, books, or any other media—are like special effects in films: they’re best when they’re invisible. Players enjoy the game when the localization is seamless. No one notices a thing, with the exception of a few nerds who specifically pay attention to the process. But they’re there, and without them we wouldn’t be able to play the games the Japanese industry has to offer, whether it’s Final Fantasy, Katamari Damacy or Dragon’s Dogma.
While talking with a friend who played Dragon’s Dogma, shares my background in the Japanese language, and has a love of old English, we started in on the translation effort that might’ve gone into getting a game like Dragon’s Dogma to condition it for a Western release.
Rather than sticking with the straightforward, prosaic translation most games get, Dragon’s Dogma sports quirks and eccentricities in its dialogue. Your Pawn suggest that you “may find aught of use,” and spells are called Ingle and Frazil instead of Fire and Ice, or Brontide instead of Lightning. Sure, it might get old hearing, but it’s definitely not everyday speech. To hear it used accurately, too, is something else.
I spoke with Erin Ellis, Localization Director on Dragon’s Dogma to ask a few questions about the localization and translation of the game.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Right away, Ellis told me that Dragon’s Dogma is unique to her experience in that the translation occurred in concert with the development of the game.
“That meant we had full access to the world as it was being created,” Ellis said. The team made use of a resource that most localization teams could only wish for: an actively working team of artists and writers. The team could ask the people creating the game for background information about any topic from world information to monster history and character motivation.
“We were afforded the time to think long and hard for all the languages about how to best present the game’s tone through language, which in English meant seeking out some rare words.” Those words I mentioned before—Ingle, Frazil, Halidom—are real words, not neologisms.
Ellis added that it “definitely meant more work for the translators, editors and testers to strike a balance between the text’s flavor and what can be quickly parsed—and fit in the space of a text box.”
“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to take a true high-fantasy tone,” Ellis said. “Our goal with the English text was to evoke Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, and have something that felt satisfying and appropriate for a fantasy role-playing game.”
Interestingly, the Japanese words and dialects used weren’t particularly archaic or unique, according to Ellis. “Playing up the semi-archaic style was a decision on the localization side,” she said. “And not one that went unquestioned from all sides—including our own!”
As the team worked through the game, they had to constantly check themselves to maintain that balancing act between staying accurate to the text as it was written and giving it a flavor appropriate to the game.
“Is ‘thou’ too much, or is ‘aught’ too confusing? Are ‘Fire’ and ‘Ice’ too bland or modern?” are some of the questions Ellis and her team had to ask.
The size and number of options also presented a challenge to the team.
“Being able to choose character shape, size, gender and name requires some major linguistic gymnastics moving from Japanese to EFIGS [English, French, Italian, German and Spanish] – especially for a fully voiced game,” Ellis said. “Figuring out how to write around gender pronouns—why you’re addressed as ‘ser’ and not ‘sir’ or ‘lady’—and plurals, as well as working with gendered words in European languages was definitely a new challenge.”
In a blog post about the game, Ellis wrote about the translation of languages as they fit into the on-screen text boxes and into dialogue:
This is especially difficult for European languages, which in general are about twice as long as English, which is twice as long as the Japanese. A lot of style and sometimes content has to be cut out for Western languages to fit into the same on-screen real estate, or oddly unnatural phrasings must be used so that Western language dialogue can match the same lip flaps as previously recorded Japanese text.
The moment-to-moment questions about translation weren’t the only things on the minds of Ellis and her team. Localization occurring simultaneously with development, while not unique to Dragon’s Dogma, is still fairly rare. Especially so with games with as much text and dialogue as an RPG.
“At the peak of the game’s development, there was a lot of data being passed around between external translators, internal editors, and the Japanese, English, and European language teams, all within a tight timeline,” Ellis said. The experience of managing the project was new for Ellis and for Capcom, but open communication helped.
“The development team was very open to feedback from me and the rest of the localization team… it felt like [we] were really part of the team, which helped morale and made for a better game across all six languages.”