Careful balancing of the translation of the Ace Attorney game

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Long-term success Lawyer the series hinges on great writing. Like most visual novel-style games, quirky legal dramas contain a lot of text, and players read dialogue and indulge in clues to help their seemingly doomed clients. This means that localization is especially important – because every new entry is translated from Japan into English, localizers need to make it easily accessible to a new audience, while retaining what makes it special.

Big Ace Lawyer Magazines, the latest franchise entry, offered an extra challenge. While most of the titles take place today, the new game jumps back in time to the late 19th century and features characters and lines related to both Meiji-era Japan and Victorian England. “I think the hardest part of localizing this game is how the historical context connects cross-cultural issues,” says localization director Janet Hsu. Against this backdrop is a new protagonist, Ryunosuke Naruhodo, who replaces base Phoenix Wright, and stories full of death, surprises, and all sorts of wonderfully horrific words.

The game – which is actually a collection of two names released in Japan in 2015 and 2017 – only appears weekly to the English-speaking public. Prior to the release, I had the opportunity to ask Hsu a few questions about addressing regional differences, keeping the story available, and the challenges of displaying text and audio.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How can you make the dialogue feel topical but also available to the modern public?

Making it done while staying up to date is certainly a real balancing act. One way we have re-created this writing style is to use older grammatical structures for the speech styles of certain characters, while with others it may be certain words. But even with slightly older words, we have never used only the words that are still in use today; nothing should be so strange or outdated that it requires players to look up the definition of an actual period in a dictionary. We also actively avoided words that are too modern or of American origin, so there may be a few places where people might think, “Isn’t there a more idiomatic way to say this?” But everything is part of maintaining the overall style. In fact, you would be surprised at how much of our modern English style was only created in the last 100 years or so.

We also make sure to balance the accessibility of each line with its meaning in the larger drawing of the story or puzzle. Places where it has more flavor text than critical puzzle text may contain more flourishes. No matter what type it is, people should be able to figure out what the word means through context.

At the end of the day, what is available also depends on each player’s knowledge base and life experience. I understand, for example, that perhaps some of our younger players may not know from above their heads some of the higher-level words that college students may know over several years of schooling. However, I hope this game is something that people can look at again and enjoy again and again. Just as someone might see this game in a culturally new light if he comes to live or work in Japan or the UK, so too can a player enjoy the text better when they have had more exposure to such writing, I feel.

What was it like to localize a story involving two very different cultures with Japan and Britain?

Fortunately, it wasn’t as difficult as you might think due to many factors. The first is it [writer and director Shu Takumi] is well acquainted with 19th century London, thanks to his love of classic British mystery novels. He and the original development team took care and explored everything they needed to know about both Meiji Japan and Victorian London to make the story work. From there, the English translators in the UK and I were simply able to bring in the Japanese and run with it. Naturally, for translators working in the UK, writing about their own culture was much easier than I was as an American trying to do the same. This is actually one of the reasons why I decided to work with Plus Alpha Translations initially in addition to the history of localizing their stars. In terms of intercultural aspects, figuring out how they were presented didn’t make sense to me because I’ve been doing it my whole life. Growing up in a very Taiwanese household in America means that I have a lot of experience of “translating” Asian Asian concepts into something that is more relative to some more European background and vice versa.

So more than the locations in Japan and the UK, I think the harder parts of localizing this game are how the historical context connects intercultural issues. Because the 19th-century London environment is quite literally foreign to Japanese players, fine pieces of world construction were written in the Japanese text to provide cultural explanations. On the other hand, however, much less information was provided about Meiji Japan or it was not explained in such detail because much of it is assumed to be generally known. In fact, the first line of the opening anime in the Japanese version simply says, “A few decades after the country has been a historic opening …” The Japanese public doesn’t need to be told that this refers to Japan because they use the word “echo” (開国 / literally “opening up the country”), which is more than enough where and when. But to Western audiences, I felt that this was simply not enough to continue the knowledge, so we made it very clear that this was Japan, and we tried to reinforce the impression given by the Japanese text about the storm of the times. Japanese society through the writing of the story.

Still, I hesitated to explain things too much because it pulls the pace of the story down, so we tried to sneak up with the translators on what we could hopefully provide enough background for the game to make sense.

It seems that the public, especially with such a series, understands localization much more than before. Have you noticed this? And how it affects the approach, if at all.

With arts and entertainment, I believe there is a kind of relationship between authors and their audiences through work. Since I myself have entered the world of fan works and fandoms, I have always been well aware of the many different opinions about localization in general and what expectations there are over the years for fans of all types. It has been amazing to see how trends have changed as professionals and fans discuss the benefits of different localization methods. The fact that there are such discussions at all is fantastic, and it really hasn’t happened to the extent that I first started localizing games more than 15 years ago.

This greater awareness of localization has made me trust my audience to think and understand much more about why something may have changed or why a particular approach has been used. Of course, this also means that I am very careful not to betray this trust, so I always make sure that every decision I make is necessary and justified. But localization is also a creative process, which means that not all the decisions I make appeal to all players, so it’s also an ongoing learning process for me.

With Big Ace Lawyer Magazines Since I’m an independent title unrelated to previous games, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to get this localization something more in line with today’s standards. In the past, a complete localization philosophy worked very well when entertainment made abroad was made available to a wider audience. However, in part, the Internet and machine translation programs like Google Translator make it easier than ever to learn about other languages ​​and cultures and to enjoy foreign movies and other entertainment. But that doesn’t mean there’s no more room for perfect localizations either. Take a look at all the regional reruns of TV dramas and movies that are still being produced with great popularity today. Ultimately, I think that understanding localization has contributed to opening up a whole host of new ways – new options and approaches in addition to existing older approaches that we can consider and use in localizing entertainment venues.

How much did you have to take care of localization choices made in previous games? Did they limit your options in any way?

In this game, it didn’t worry me at all. Although a few very small clues were lost, I think the only important question was what to do in the family relationship between Phoenix Wright and Ryunosuke Naruhodo. But because I localized the mainline games to be a more influential Japanese version in California, it made it very easy and also sensible to make Ryunosuke simply the ancestor of Phoenix and maintain the intended relationship with the Japanese version.

Actually, I think it’s also a question of Prosecutor Auch and his relationship with the Payne brothers, but we’ve had Prosecutor Flynch Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Lawyer Ace, so I thought the connection wasn’t going to be too “painful” for the players to create themselves.

How big is the team? How many people are involved in localizing and compiling such a game?

To localize this title, we had a small team of staff here at the Japanese branch office along with translators in the UK. In addition, we also had a number of linguistic quality assurance testers who revised and tightened our text. Overall, it was a long process. But in a story-like game like this, too many chefs spoil the broth, as they say, so slowly and steadily that it was.

Do the expressions change the elements at all? Do you localize differently depending on whether you are talking about dialogue or text?

So there are no misunderstandings, this title is not completely repeated, but there are several anime and real-time in-game clips that are fully expressed. In addition, some new game systems have allowed us to use short sound clips to give our character more depth.

Nonetheless, there is definitely a difference in the way we write lines when they speak, when we talk only about text. This is because what audio activity can convey that text alone cannot. For example, the translators wrote really funny dead end lines, but a few of them were so dry that you could misinterpret them to mean something completely different. If those lines had been expressed, I’m sure the actor’s dead end result would have made it unmistakable that they were meant to be jokes. Therefore, the dialogue of text games can sometimes sound a little interrupted when read aloud, as it must be written in a way that conveys its appropriate tone without the help of the actor.

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