Censorship in Video Game Localization

A news story came across my digital desktop this morning about censorship in video game localization, and I figured I’d share my thoughts. Partly because I generally tend to be impartial to either side of the whole censorship argument, but also because I needed a trending topic and this was perfect!

The incident in question comes from the English localization of a Japanese game. The game developer was trying to have some fun with the name of one of their in-game companies, kind of like changing the name of a car manufacturer from Ford to Bored and, without knowing what it meant, used the initials KKK for the name of their company. It would be like the joke here that to speak Spanish, you just have to add the letter O to the end of every word and have a character say something was “Cool-o.” Now, they were not aware of the reference and, when told what it meant, they changed the name of the company to something else. The guy in charge of localization thought that it was best to leave the name for the “shock value” and also ‘because it really is very “Japan”’ to use names like that unintentionally (or intentionally) – which I have also seen during my years in South America.

Now, if I may be so bold, I would say that this is probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard in all my years of translating and localizing video games. That is my personal opinion and I will try to leave it at that since it doesn’t really contribute anything else of value. That being said, I do think that this brings up some interesting points in regards to challenges faced in the localization process and censorship.

Censorship, as defined by Wiki – Praise the Wiki \[T]/ – is “the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.”

censorship in video game localization

I would like to present you with two questions:

  • Does the removal of an unintentional reference to an “objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient” subject by the game developer count as censorship? And
  • Do all games deserve the title of art – pushing us, as localization experts, to fight for their preservation?

I’ve mentioned a project of mine in other posts where I was editing the English translation of a Korean game. The translation was very clearly not done by native speakers and there were some questionable word choices. One example would be the use of the word “penetration” as a reference to sneaking into an enemy base. It’s not exactly a huge deal, but my immature mind went straight to the gutter when I came across those lines of text. While you can penetrate a base, or its defenses, I felt that it wasn’t the best word in this context and changed it to infiltrate after consulting with the client.

Did I censor the game?

I believe that translators have the responsibility to advise our clients when something like this comes up in a text. They need to know if something could potentially cause problems down the road and I wonder what kind of legal repercussions could come from not telling them. It is then dependent on the client to decide whether or not they want to keep the text as-is or, and hold on to your chairs for a second, localize it so that it fits the target demographic better.

Again, this is my own opinion and I won’t be mean to anyone that disagrees, but I see translation as adapting a text from one language to another, while localization is adapting a text from one culture to another. In this case, the source text/culture did not share the same meaning, the translated meaning was an accident, and I believe that editing it was the correct choice.

Which leads us to the next question: when is it right to leave in, or even add, offensive text?

I would advise that you first have a very clear line of communication with the developer and a deep understanding of what the goal of the game is. There are games that are made artistically and talk about very difficult subjects, such as That Dragon Cancer or the Mafia series, where you would not want to edit any of the painful or difficult moments out because they’re vital to the story that’s being told. Mafia III has strong roots in the racial prejudices in the US during that time and censoring out offensive language, like calling the main character some very offensive things, would take away from the story being told. And then we have Flappy Bird. Before drawing that line in the sand, like our dear translator in this story has done, I would make sure that I’m working on a work of art and not an idle clicker. Though Idle Miner Tycoon is far deeper than most clickers. Ha! I made a pun 😊

I think that leaving something like a KKK reference for the sake of an obscure joke isn’t vital to the story being told – especially since it wasn’t even intentional.

Once more, make sure that you have that communication with the developer and remember that it’s their story we’re telling, not our own. Our job is to share their story with our people. But, that’s just my opinion.

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