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Mind your f**ks and s**ts: Localizing Yakuza 1 龍が如く翻訳物語


May 7, 2011

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.

囚人番号1350: おっと…こちらさんも物騒なツラしてらぁ
Prisoner 1350: Oops… You seem like a fuse, too…

真島: 桐生一馬チャンや!!
Majima: Kazuma Kiryu is he.

シンジ: そんなの金払わないヤツ等があることないこと言ってるだけで
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

35 thoughts on “Mind your f**ks and s**ts: Localizing Yakuza 1 龍が如く翻訳物語”
  1. I’ve had my name removed from games and comics too. It’s a pity the work of localizers isn’t more respected. Without us, who da fuck would give you the goods, huh? No one, that’s who.

  2. I’ve been working as a freelance translator for about ten years now. Translating videogames is the worst – in most cases, you never get to see the game.
    You get an excel file.
    Usually you don’t get the complete dialogue for the game, just a part of it, you have no idea what happened before the part you’re translating or what will happen after it. Often there’s not even a glossary you can check. Quality is not really an issue. Translating has to be done extremely fast and is often paid really bad. So whenever I get an offer to do this kind of work, my answer is:
    “地獄に落ちろ!(GO TO HELL, M●●●●ckers!)”

  3. Without us, who da fuck would give you the goods, huh?

    I remember arguing with a PM who was trying to justify the omission of translator names from game credits; I pointed out that to do so was to imply that the English version had sprung fully-formed from the forehead of some game exec, which was neither true nor fair to the people who had worked so hard on it. I think of the long roll of movie credits that list every last peon who had anything to do with the production, and wonder if perhaps we translators ought to find a way to unionize, too.

  4. Not being a game player I’ll limit my comments to other types of translations.

    One of the complaints among US anime fans in the 1990s was the excessive use of foul language in some early translations. The US anime industry quickly learned this was not a good thing.

    As for leaving terms untranslated in anime and manga when there is no easy English equivalent that has become the norm for many companies, much to the delight of many fans who are honestly interested in Japanese culture. In manga there is commonly a glossary of such terms at the end and in anime a notes sheet in sometimes included.

  5. Freelance translation is definitely something I’ll be looking into once I’m not terrible at Japanese. Sounds like working for a company in that role is stressful.

  6. Demian Smith is credited as a translator in the credits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynygU5pCxr4#t=2m20s

    The localization of Yakuza was an embarrassment. Luckily they learnt their lesson in time for the subsequent games. I feel sorry for Demian – ‘dream job turns into nightmare job’ is something we hear far too often from all areas of the entertainment industry.

    Video game localizations in general are still pretty awful, despite frequent suggestions to the contrary. All that’s happened is that (charming) Engrish has been replaced by cringeworthy leetspeak/dudebro flourishes and out-of-date meme references.

  7. I worked on this with Demian as a proof reader. I also did some of the (very) minor character voices, like the Thai kickboxer and two south Asian guys… but I don’t know if my voice was replaced in the final version.
    One of the aspects of the game Demian didn’t mention which was a source of much debate was how to translate the characters who are foreigners who speak accented Japanese in the original. How do you translate a black American boxer or Chinese Triad boss speaking in katakanized Japanese into English?
    Anyway, just wanted to say that Demian and Riyoko did a great job of trying to bring some authenticity to the feel of the game. In my opinion, where the game was lacking was due to the corporate types at Sega (and the unmentionable translation company) being afraid to push boundaries.
    Also, for the record, I actually think (and thought at the time) that Like A Dragon is actually a cool title. Has a poetry to it.

  8. “Video game localizations in general are still pretty awful, despite frequent suggestions to the contrary. All that’s happened is that (charming) Engrish has been replaced by cringeworthy leetspeak/dudebro flourishes and out-of-date meme references.”

    The nail was hit on the head, here. I often find myself translating things awkwardly/directly on purpose to try to bring back some of the charm of old.

  9. ugh, this is why I generally prefer fan made or just subtitled versions of games, anime and dramas with a small text file about cultural info. There are so many cool nuances that get left out in dubbing or subtitles that haven’t been given proper care. I would opt for just subtitles for a game about Yakuza because the speech is so interesting, translating over to an American tough-guy voice just doesn’t do it justice- just add a small pamphlet of cultural info/slang along with the instructions, it would be educational and more respectful to the culture.

    1. Maybe you should just learn Japanese and move there to learn the real life cultural context of everything instead because every translated script in English, no matter how they translate it, is going to be different from the original.
      And all of them are going to leave out SOMETHING because there will never be an 100% 1-to-1 equivalent for every word and idiom in a foreign language. Even in a country that consumes a lot of American media, like Japan, there’s still lots of cultural references that fly over the heads of viewers and people who watch it don’t have a true understanding of the country but when do you see them acting nitpicky over translations/localizations/dubs?
      Why can’t American weeaboos have that attitude instead of acting like elitist know-it-alls on a language they know nothing about?

  10. Words in the United States are trademark all the time. I’m sure Yakuza is trademark by Sega for anything videogame related just as Octagon and Ultimate Fighting is trademarked by the UFC.

    Very interesting article to hear about the life of a translator/proofreader and how the localization process is. They definitely should’ve kept the “Like A Dragon” name, it’s not like Yakuza did any better for them.

  11. Ugh. I’ve been localizing games for going on six years now, and very little has changed. Despite the fact that we’ve worked on 30-some-odd titles and a lot of our contacts are very nice, we’re constantly paid late, corrected after the fact, and rarely ever sent anything to help with understanding the story/characters – just an Excel file, like someone else said. We’ve actually had other translators cuss us out within the text after we questioned their work. Well, it wasn’t us saying they were wrong so much as wondering why a man turned into a woman, then back into a man, then a woman, and why their destination changed three times in the same paragraph. Or one of my favorites, design documents that state ‘X is confused with Y, but it’s different’ and then a producer on the client’s client’s end constantly change the reference back to the exact opposite of what their own documents state over and over and over – we changed it over five times, with notes the last four (please leave alone, this is correct, see xxx.doc).

  12. Yakuza was indeed trademarked by Sega (link to the trademark doc: http://tarr.uspto.gov/servlet/tarr?regser=serial&entry=78801116). The trademark is limited to “home video game software” though, it’s not like they trademarked the word yakuza. There’s actually at least another video game (an Xbox first gen game which had pretty impressive graphics at the time) with the word Yakuza, “Wreckless: The Yakuza Missions” trademarked to Activision.

    On a different subject, 3rd party vendors such as localization companies are usually not credited, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if Damien’s name wasn’t in the credits.

  13. I would like to thank all you videogame translators and proofreaders for all the work you’ve done in order to get a game localized in the West! I feel that translation work should be done more internally instead of sending out part of a script or dialog to a translator outside the company – that way, translators working within the company can actually see the scene where the dialog takes place, giving them a better idea on how to translate the lines out of the context of the scene. Sending the lines of conversation out to outside translators without giving an idea on how the scene goes is hardly any better than letting a machine translate the script for you.

    I’ve had my experience in a videogame company years ago, I know from my time there that whatever we know is good for the game was probably the intent of most videogame developers, but you know how corporate always screws over the staff by making questionable decisions with the intent of saving money and delivering a half-assed product when deadline comes.

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