Video games have had some famously terrible translations over the years. Nowadays, there are a breadth of Games & App Localisation services, such as those we offer at Global Voices, to ensure that games are translated accurately, but this was not always the case.
With Japan spearheading the initial development of video games, the majority of games produced in the formative years were made in Japanese. Whilst this gave us numerous great games, developers faced teething problems in translating their text and dialogue into other languages. This resulted in some truly spectacular translation mishaps that have left gamers howling with laughter and scratching their heads in equal measure. So which ones are the worst, and what can they teach us about bad (and good) translation?
Literal translation never works
As game developers found out on a number of occasions, translating a language word-for-word will almost never come out correctly, and can often sound ridiculous to native speakers. We can look at the original Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins game on Nintendo’s first ever console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), for one of the first and best examples of this. After completing a level, gamers are addressed with the words: “This room is an illusion and is a trap devised by Satan. Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progress!”
The strange phrases likely made sense in Japanese, but translated into English they were so hilariously wrong it actually added to the entertainment of the game (although not for the right reasons). It got worse. After completing the game, the words: “This story is happy end. Thank you” appear on the screen. The game was an exercise in why you should never translate anything word for word, although at least English players could celebrate finally completing the game with a chuckle. The perils of translating languages word-for-word apply to all forms of translation. Proper translation from expert linguists is key in ensuring translations make sense.
Bad translation can get you ridiculed
It is not just instances of literal translation that have blighted video games, but mind bogglingly dire translation has also left gamers puzzled. Take Aero Fighters 2, a plane arcade shooter released in the nineties. Featuring a spectacular cast of plane pilots, from a one-year old baby to a dolphin called Spanky (because why not), the game is remembered most fondly for a line from Spanky himself. Speaking in broken “Engrish” by replacing the “R” with an “L” in “flying”, the character states: “I never thought I’d be frying over a jungle”, making the fact that it is spoken by a talking dolphin only the joint most ridiculous thing about the statement. Unsurprisingly, this mistranslation is still roundly ridiculed on the internet two decades after its release in 1994.
The past is littered with numerous similar instances to this, with another notable example being Zero Wing, an arcade game originally released in 1989. The game will be forever etched into the folklore of video games for lines like “All your base are belong to us,” “We get signal,” or “Somebody set up us the bomb”. These quotes have since been immortalised as memes and ironically used throughout the Internet—especially “All your base are belong to us”—ensuring the game will be subject to ridicule until the end of time. You don’t want your own business to end up having a similarly unfortunate legacy to Zero Wing, purely because you didn’t translate content properly.
Cultural localisation is just as important as translation itself
It is not just nonsensical or grammatically poor translation that has marred video games over the years. Sometimes language can sound so wrong when translated that it is obvious that it has not been localised for that audience. Take Persona 5, a Japanese Playstation 4 game released in 2016. Whilst the game itself was critically acclaimed and received a number of accolades and awards, its English script left a lot to be desired.
Many of the phrases used in the game, such as: “He healed himself…? Is it because he ate those inside there?”, “What nonsense that you used a mousetrap on me!” and, “It can’t be helped” sound stilted and wooden. The final example was a major gripe as it was used over 25 times throughout the English version. This was a default translation of “shikata ga nai” which means “nothing can be done about it” in Japanese. However, “it can’t be helped” is not a natural English phrase, and as a translator writing about the game for Polygon points out, there are a number of other phrases that would have been more apt, like “Looks like we don’t have a choice” or “Fine, I give up”. It was clear that the language used Persona 5 had not been localised for English speaking audiences, spoiling the clear quality of the game.
Video games have taught us a number of crucial lessons when it comes to translation. They have shown us that translating content word for word won’t ever make sense to foreign audiences, that careless translation can get you ridiculed, and that localisation is all important. Make sure you don’t make the same unfortunate translation mistakes as these games did.