Mind your f**ks and s**ts: Localizing Yakuza 1 龍が如く翻訳物語
By Demian ‘Ryu Ichinose’ Smith
Ryu ga Gotoku, or Yakuza, as it was unfortunately titled for international distribution, was the first major localization project I was assigned to as a young proofreader and translator. As one could imagine, I was tremendously excited to work on a SEGA title, especially one about the seedy underbelly of Japan.
Five months earlier, I was hired to work as a re-writer, proofreader and translator at a mid-sized (now small time) translation company in Tokyo. I’ll refrain from dropping its name because I’d rather not give them any publicity.
When I first heard we got the contract I was extremely enthusiastic, but by the end of the debugging process I pretty much hated the game. I’d like to recap some of the highlights and low points of localizing a game that, although pretty damn good, could have been better translated.
Initially, we spent hours in meetings detailing the workflow, outsourcing a translator to get the long script drafted, sorting out voice actors and a director, and working out all the other technical and clerical aspects. When I finally got the script, several hundred pages of it, I was a bit overwhelmed. I was expected to read the entire thing, which I admit I didn’t complete before deciding to tediously go through each line over and over, re-translating and re-writing the confusing draft version.
Aside from scanning the script, my boss, who resembled Master Onion from PaRappa the Rapper (both visually and olfactorily), assigned me some research. This included watching DVDs of The God Father and Brother, composing a glossary of yakuza terms with some sort of English equivalent, and some field research in Kabukicho.
Here are a few interesting/ridiculous excerpts from the glossary we mocked up for Yakuza.
こます – komasu – 「女をものにする。」という意味を持つ – get a woman, use a woman, seduce, screw some chick, fuck some girl (You can see the steady transition of English from the draft translator, to my native Japanese yet very fluent co-worker, to my version, in this one).
えんこ – enko – 指詰めで切り取られた指 – finger (pinky/little finger) that gets cut off.
シノギ – shinogi – 「稼ぎ」を意味する – earnings, salary, ill-gotten gains.
Well before I started the Yakuza project, I used to frequent the cheap dives, izakaya and rock bars of Kabukicho, so this particular form of “research” was very enjoyable for me. I joke that it was more fun and drinking than real research, but I did take it upon myself to get a closer look into Kabukicho’s environment. I didn’t pay to go to any hostess clubs or rub-&-tugs/sexy massage joints, but instead roamed about, beer in hand, checking out all the grimy alleyways decked with hidden sunakku and sketchy Chinese restaurants. I observed trannies sweeping up trash, and touts trying to con hapless salarymen into their rip-off clubs, all the while taking in the funky smells of backed up sewage, raw garbage and prostitutes’ perfume. I really dig Kabukicho; I still go there on a regular basis just watch people.
Eventually the draft translation, or shitagaki, arrived and was finally time to put in some real work. At first, I was technically assigned as a proofreader and re-writer. However, as I read and edited the draft line-by-line, it became evident that the script had not been translated into any form of comprehensible English, but instead into some bastard form of Engrish. Maybe that’s a bit too harsh–some of it was okay, but I had to fix about 95% of it.
This was a good life lesson on the mechanics of the Japanese translation industry. Essentially, a translation company will outsource most work to freelancers, and most of the time, even when the content has to be translated into English, they will give preference to the native Japanese with (questionable) English ability, rather than an English native who is fluent in Japanese. This may not be the case now, but this was a common pattern to be seen in many outsourced, as well as some in-house, projects at that particular company.
Below are some excerpts from the initial draft full of awful English. Unfortunately, most of the files were gone and I was only able to recover a first few pages of the rough draft.
Prisoner 1350: Oops… You seem like a fuse, too…
Majima: Kazuma Kiryu is he.
Shinji: That’s just a groundless rumor that the ones who don’t have money to pay back are spread around, we are…
I really wish I kept the files of my rewrites and translations. There were some real killer lines, like one dialogue set at the batting cage where Kazuma more or less says he’s going to smash this dude’s balls with a baseball bat. The draft English was poor and uncreative, but the Japanese was perfectly set up, so a witty English equivalent could be translated. I was pretty proud of that one, yet for the life of me, I cannot recall the exact line.
The following months consisted of me deciphering Engrish into sometimes cliché, sometimes ghetto-thug inspired dialogs. I was explicitly encouraged to add loads of fucks and shits. I remember reading a review shortly after the release (I thought it was 1UP, but can’t seem to find it) that complained about the excessive usage of swear words.
The writing process involved my work partner and I doing back-and-forth native Japanese checks and rewrites, as well as having numerous, frustratingly counter-productive meetings. I recall one meeting concerning how to translate terms used in the hierarchy, like oyabun, wakaishu, chinpira, etc. Personally, I wanted to keep it all in Japanese, but SEGA insisted that it all had to be in English. I first I suggested, half jokingly, we use the mafia equivalents. They actually considered it for a while… Luckily, that got vetoed, and a straight-up translation of the ranks, like brother for aniki and henchman for kobun, was used. The end product, in my opinion, was generic and less authentic.
Another debacle was deciding on the English title for the game. Ryu ga Gotoku was not exactly easily translatable; translated directly it would be “Like a Dragon”. This is unnatural English, to say the least. We were fretting over what to name it, as it was our responsibility, for quite a while, but in the end SEGA just opted for Yakuza. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard SEGA trademarked the word Yakuza in the U.S.
After the title was chosen, the script was written and tentatively approved, the voice actors based in Japan laid down their dubs as we finished up the system localization and debugging. It was a long project, and I was ready for it to end.
When Yakuza was finally handed over to SEGA of America, we received notice that the voice acting our company recorded was deemed unfit to use as a final product. I didn’t really have anything to do with that aspect. SEGA ended up hiring some Hollywood stars, namely Mark Hamill for the part of Majima, to re-record. I was told SEGA rewrote portions of my script. I don’t know how much, but apparently many of the fucks and derivatives of fuck were left intact: My shining achievement?
I never bothered playing the English version, especially after weeks of debugging had done my head in. However, the next winter break when I went back to the U.S. to visit family and friends (this was a few months after the U.S. release), I noticed at my friend’s house a copy of the game. I told them I worked on it, and that I wanted to check the credits for my name. Much to my dismay, I was left out. It’s possible I may have just missed it, as I didn’t bother looking through them again to find it. In the end it’s no big deal, but I just want to say: 地獄に落ちろ！(GO TO HELL, M●●●●ckers!)
Editor’s note: I attempted to get confirmation from SEGA on Demian’s role in localizing the first yakuza game, which I have no doubt that he did, but as of yet have gotten no response. If they do respond, I’ll let you (our loyal readers) know. –Jake