Ok Internet, we need to get something straight, because this…thing, is getting out of hand. This wasn’t an issue for years and years and now, miraculously, became an outcry in the gaming community (thanks Gamer Gate (╯▅╰) ) as an offense to nature itself. So let me explain as best as possible, that localization is not intrinsically censorship, and while it can be, this does not make this the case.
Culturally, we see things differently
For me to even scratch the reason why such changes happen, you first need to understand a simple but ever present fact when it comes to this topic, people…think…differently. Pick nearly any dividing factor that you have between yourself and someone else and sure enough, you will find out that in some situations, what is obvious to you, is not obvious to them. It’s one of the reasons why language is ever growing and changing, it’s an imperfect system, that we are continually trying to perfect to better convey new or different concepts to other people. As you might imagine, this makes for an incredibly sloppy system in comparison to say, binary, that deals with 1’s and 0’s that only represents on and off (or yes and no), but its the best we got, and because of its sloppy nature that means there is plenty of room for misunderstanding.
So with that in mind, let me provide an example that is less “heated”:
What does this icon represent?
Give up? Well if you guessed a Kindergartner’s name badge, guess what, you’re right! But unless you are well versed in Japanese culture, you would have no idea what the icon in question means. This example comes straight from a game that perhaps receives some of the most localization compared to other games, Phoenix Wright. In the Japanese version of the game there are several lines of text that make reference to this icon, making the assumption that if you are Japanese, you would understand what the icon is without being told or explained. Obviously, us non-Japanese people think it’s something else entirely (I hear fire hazard a lot as a guess) and displays a perfect example of how the same thing, in a different cultural, holds a different meaning and is interpreted differently.
“Controversial” issues are no different, they just have the added benefit of angering people also.
The example above shows why much of this “rage” over changes that come to localized versions of games is misplaced. All this “rage” is founded on the initial misunderstanding of what what one is actually looking at, because you as the Westerner, think differently, be it relating to concepts or the concepts themselves, and thus your interpretation of a concept firmly cemented in Eastern thinking is flawed and most likely wrong because you lack that background. This is why localization exists because translations fail to take in anything but the words themselves, by simply translating you’re doing a disservice to the meaning, as much of it is lost.
“That whole mindset—that Japanese has ‘correct’ translations into English and that localizers are people who mangle those perfect answers—is misguided.” -Brian Gray
This results in the player ending up with a tenuous grasp, at best, on what is trying to be conveyed. This is also why localization expands past words and considers how game concepts and art are interpreted by the player, and why, for example, games like Bravely Second removed their “Tomahawk” job for the Western audience.
In case you are unaware, Bravely Second introduce a new class (one of many) in its newest installment, that one (such as this author) might describe as being very indicative of Native American’s traditional regalia. You might also be unaware, that many Native America cultures take the wearing of things such as headdresses for nonceremonial purposes as offensive, due to the disrespect of its meaning and history of those garments in their cultural context. Now, when this class was introduced in Japan, this had no cultural significance, negative or otherwise, as Native American culture and ideas simply are not present in Japan. In the United States, such a culture exists and most likely will be offended by this portrayal, as the character in question is not wearing that regalia for any cultural reason.
So, in an effort to not offend the second market (USA), a change was made:
The Tomahawk class was changed to the Hawkeye class, still performing the same functions but instead of sporting clothes that are indicative of Native American regalia, it was switched to a cowboy instead. Cowboys, culturally, do not have a negative association when it comes to dressing or acting like them in US culture, unlike Native Americans. This change effectively brought the game back in line with the Japanese version, in that, the Tomahawk class didn’t cause any offense in regards to Japanese culture, and the Hawkeye class won’t cause an offense in US culture.
Original Intent was Non-Offensive
This is the key takeaway to focus on, the product that was made for the Japanese market didn’t cause any offense to that culture. When that product is moved into its second (or third etc.) markets, the situation changes due to the cultural change, something that Japan has no issue with, the US does. If we are to keep the original intent of the product, in that it wasn’t offensive in the first market, a change will be needed to be made to keep that intent intact. Which brings a very important question that one should ask:
If the original intent of the product was not to cause offense in the first market, but does so in the second, does changing it to fit the culture of the second result in censorship? Or does it rather result in keeping the original intent of the product?
Some will say that changing from market to market to keep the intent of the creator the same is correct, others will say the same thing but in regards to keeping it the same. There is no cut and dry answer to this question, it’s a complex question that demands an equally well thought out answer, and perhaps the only person who can tell you the correct answer is the creator themselves.
But this question highlights another aspect of it all, localization changes are not simply things removed(some would argue that’s all they should be), they can encompass changing things due to it being the second pass.
Fire Emblem Fates has fallen under fire for “butchering” the game by changing parts of dialogue past what some have deemed “acceptable” in the Western version, the best example of this involves of all things, a pickle, in what I have termed as, the pickle predicament.
Hisame as a character in the Japanese version was very straightforward with not a lot of flavor, except for his strange pickle obsession that was lightly touched on. When Fire Emblem Fates came westward, the localization team opted to add some flavor to the character by playing off of his pickle obsession and taking it to the nth degree.
This is where localization can serve as a second pass. We see many times in localizations slight changes and updates to the original material. Perhaps a character did not achieve what the original intent of that character was. Using Hisame as an example, perhaps he was intended to be funny, or perhaps he was intended to be a very serious character, but failed to do so. Localization allows the creator to potentially realign what the character was interpreted as, and change it into something that was felt to be better suited.
Now, this situation brings up another question that doesn’t have an easy answer either. If the second pass makes an “improvement” is that a bad thing? Is purity of the original the only goal? Especially if the change made is derived from an already existing trait from said character? And if purity is the main goal, to what end?
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, if the same was true but in regards to a feature, would you take the same side? Or who is to say the original version is the true version at all, and the second or third version is “the one true version”? It’s not as cut and dry as many would make it seem.
Finally, I want to bring this all article home with one final point of contention, censorship. Let’s look at the definition for a moment:
the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.
By this definition, localization is censorship, but we wouldn’t have a separate word for the same thing, localization as a term is a bit more nuanced in what it is. Censorship is a charged word that carries with it far more meaning than the dictionary definition gives it. Generally speaking, censorship has a negative connotation to it in everyday language, in that you are keeping something from someone for a negative reason. However once again, this isn’t the case, there are such things considered good censorship by many, we censor pornographic and violent materials from those we deem too young and when taken to the extreme, from the general populace. If you continue with this use of the word censorship, it literally can be used in any scenario where you don’t get to do what you want; go to a funeral and it’s a closed casket? That’s censorship from seeing the body.
I am sure you see the absurdity in that claim, and it’s why claiming localization as the same as censorship fails as an argument. Localization is simply a far more complex beast than most give it credit for. Calling localization the same as censorship is failing to take in all the nuanced points and issues that exist and simply casts them aside for something simple and easy to be angered by. In reality, the act of localizing a product takes in far too many facets and considerations to be called something simple as censorship. Rather, localization is the act of changing a product for the culture and the creator to hopefully resonate more with the target audience and align itself further with the creator’s vision.