Talkin’ aboot language

I browse a lot of forums in the course of my working day, so when I commented on Dragon Quest IX‘s localization and reactions to it last week, I was intrigued by the way number of people in various corners of the Internet assumed my criticism about what I see as short-sighted complaints about the way DQIX is being handled was specifically directed at them, when in fact it was just kind of a general response to a widespread dislike of the way Dragon Quest games are adapted into English.

(Convoluted as that last sentence was, I have probably disqualified myself from any commentary on the English language, but whatever.)

The fact of the matter is that Dragon Quest localization is a fairly divisive topic. It’s not exactly one of the hot issues of modern life, but any forum featuring a fair amount of discussion on the series is bound to see a few dissenters who really and truly detest how Plus Alpha handles the series, with all their over-the-top dialects and extremely British-flavored (er, flavoured) text. And fair enough. Dragon Quest’s English dialogue is pretty wildly different from, well, every other videogame series that I’m aware of. For me, that’s a big part of the charm — god knows there are more than enough games out there whose scripts were penned by people who either don’t know how to convey anything akin to personality or simply don’t care to bother — but I can see where some might find it off-putting. And yeah, a couple of those dialects in Dragon Quest IV bordered on the grating.

Still, I think that the wanton abuse of idiom and idiosyncrasy are a perfect complement to the games, especially taken within the context of its character and history. There are some complaints that the English localizations aren’t faithful to the original Japanese scripts, which I tend to regard as a depressing po-faced sort of gripe. Not that I ever do any localization work myself, but if I did, I would definitely favor the tenets laid down by Saint Ted lo those many years ago: It’s important to be true to the source material, but never forget to give your target audience something interesting to read. A literal translation and an effective localization are rarely the same thing.

In the case of Dragon Quest games, while it’s true that the original Japanese tends not to be quite so flamboyant as the modern English adaptations, it’s also true that their dialogue is shaded with subtleties that aren’t entirely possible in other languages. More importantly, though, Dragon Quest games don’t take themselves completely seriously. Not to say they’re devoid of drama, because that would be a patently ridiculous claim. But bear in mind that this is a franchise whose most iconic image is of a grinning blue slime; a franchise in which you can pay a pittance of coins so that you can close your eyes and have girls in bunny costumes squoosh their breasts against your face; a franchise that includes a combat class whose most tactics include telling a “naff gag” that debilitates the bad guys with laughter for a round or two (although sometimes it doesn’t work, when the enemies don’t get the joke). In other words, despite the epic drama and heartbreaking vignettes, it’s hasn’t exactly crawled up its own arse with self-importance.

The closest analog to Dragon Quest that comes to my mind is the manga of Osamu Tezuka, which is perfectly appropriate. Both stand as medium-defining works in Japan, yet neither has done especially well in the U.S. And both demonstrate the ability to make wild tonal swings between deathly serious and farcical slapstick… sometimes in a single panel, in Tezuka’s case. The Dragon Quest games are the farthest thing from your typical stuffy RPG fodder, and the dialogue we see these days reflects that a lot better than the clunky semi-Shakespearean material that was foisted upon us in the NES days.

So anyway, the point is I’m really looking forward to Dragon Quest IX, and stuff. But I guess you knew that already. The end.

23 thoughts on “Talkin’ aboot language

  1. I spent some time at a forum for a Chrono Trigger fan sequel (don’t laugh, the stuff they had actually was legitimately good, at least on the tech and art side). While it was a pretty good forum as far as the internet goes, one of the things I couldn’t stand was all the talk about CT’s localization. You had a few reason headed people like me, but mostly these were people who thought the CT Retranslation project was a good idea with characters having obviously Japanese names and (personal pet peeve coming) making sure her name was spelled “Marl”. I really don’t think these people understand how languages works. Thankfully the developers of said game were reason headed enough to make two versions where character names were consistent with whatever version you preferred.

    Also, this game changed to something else once Square-Enix started sending out C&Ds all over the place, so don’t ask about it. It’s gone now.

  2. Great stuff Jeremy. I get into arguments with others about the issue of localization as opposed to translation, and some people really just don’t get it.

  3. I think the DQ games that have come to NA have all been pretty well translated/localized for the most part. It’s interesting watching as Enix shied away from the old English that Nintendo fostered upon the series in it’s initial NA release and as the series went, by the time DQIV hit the NES, there seemed to be from what I remember, nary a “Thou” in sight.

    DQM, some 8 years later was passable and while I don’t like the naming changes in the GBC remakes of I, II and III much, from what I understand they were much closer to the original versions. DQVII… I’d like to see it re-translated with the same care that the DS remakes and VIII had. Maybe I would enjoy it more. As it was, the script was competent, but fairly lifeless, while not as bad as a SCEA-localized RPG for the PS1, it was certainly similar in tedium in regards to reading.

    I really enjoyed the work done on DQIV (Since I had the NES version to compare it to, and it was nice to see how the made it better.) and while I had never played V until the DS release, again the writing was top-notch and helped make a game series I love even better.

    July 11th can’t come soon enough. It’s been almost 5 years for us in NA since a new mainline DQ game hit, so I’m itching to load it up and hear the familiar overture again.

  4. Nothing against the kind of flavor the writing has, what I don’t get is if they’re trying to get Dragon Quest to appeal to North America, then why are the games written in a style that would be better suited for Europe’s localization? Wouldn’t it be easier to read if it were written in “plain” English?

    But yeah, I guess that’s part of the charm of Dragon Quest localizations. (I’ve only played a little of 8.) I guess I just don’t feel that characters have to have English accents just because they’re set in a medieval fantasy world.

  5. I really like the ‘flavour’ of the modern DQ translation, but… I just wish they tuned it down a bit.

    @Mak – I don’t feel they MUST use this kind of thing for a medieval-fantasy world, but I think it makes sense and is to their benefit. I’m pretty glad there’s no American slang/dialect; I think it would be pretty atrocious, like the way Barrett talks in FFVII.

    And I think the British ‘flavour’ is specifically supposed to appeal to Americans. These games don’t do so well over here in the first place, but if you substituted a competent-but-bland ‘plain English’ localization… it loses a lot of charm.

  6. I really like the ‘flavour’ of the modern DQ translation, but… I just wish they tuned it down a bit.

    I’ve said this plenty of times myself, but when I think of the first Dragon Warrior I really do appreciate what they’re doing here, at least when the accents aren’t too heavily applied. Might just be me, but it also ends up feeling more properly evocative of a medieval setting in contrast to the more superficial “Olde English” the original NES game had.

  7. I agree with you Jeremy, it is much better to have a translation that captures the spirit of the original text as opposed to a literal translation. This has been the downfall of many fan-translations and subbing of anime and the like for a longtime. Living in Ireland I actually found IV’s use of local slang engaging and immensely charming, though, I could see how people unfamiliar with the terms and such would be put off by it, anyway can’t wait for the 23rd of July to finally play the game in English. Keep up the good work, love all the Dragon Quest articles you’ve been doing!

  8. I think you would be good at localizations, Parish. Just imagine how snappy and to the point endings would be. “So anyway, the point is Kidd is really Lavos, and stuff. But I guess you knew that already. The end.”

  9. “On the whole, I have to say that I really prefer corny alliteration to hokey faux-Shakespearean English.”

    What has become of the Jeremy Perish that so loved the PSP translation of FFT? Where is that man?!

  10. I’d like to point out it’s possible to not like the DS scripts without wishing for a more literal translation. I don’t have a problem with them taking liberties in the script, I just think bad puns are grating and not entertaining. It’s annoying to see them fumbling around with the recent games because they got it right with DQVIII. That game had an entertaining script that was lively without being wacky or stupid. It doesn’t have to be either bad puns or keikaku, there can be a happy medium.

  11. “they got it right with DQVIII. That game had an entertaining script that was lively without being wacky or stupid”

    Well said, Nobuyuki.

  12. “a franchise in which you can pay a pittance of coins so that you can close your eyes and have girls in bunny costumes squoosh their breasts against your face”

    I don’t know quite how to break this to you, Parish, but… they’re not actually squooshing their breasts against your face. It’s a scam, man. They’re actually just squooshing slimes on you. You haven’t played DQVIII, so you couldn’t have known, but that’s what they’ve really been doing.

  13. I’m not going to reopen this can of worms, but I just wanted to voice support for what Nobuyuki said above. That’s exactly my take on the matter as well.

  14. And lo, the Lord God asked unto them, “Cannibox do the Hustle?”
    And He said, “No, it doesn’t have Defeat for it.”

    DQVII’s localization is generally pretty cruddy, but the jokes told in battle are fantastic and probably outsourced.

  15. Turnip: When the localization team was working on DQVII, they would send their changes to Enix (overseas), who would then often change the text again, mangling the likely better-than-you-got localization. I’m guessing Enix missed the changes to the jokes.

  16. I like how the DQ localizers sometimes use dialects to help drive home characterizations of NPCs, such as giving DQV’s humble Bianca a working-class cockney accent, or making hay out of the fact that Sancho is supposed to be a Sancho Panza clone by giving him an over-the-top Mexican accent. Some of that stuff CAN get a little heavy-handed, but at least it shows a sense of humor and self-awaredness on behalf of Square Enix’s localization team that is sadly lacking in most other RPGs.

    (That said, I have NO idea why the ancient/evil Godzilla-sized moose-monster in DQV had a Swedish accent, but it made me literally laugh out loud when he showed up to destroy you sounding like an Ikea salesman.)

  17. Yeah, that boss Mudron mentioned just wouldn’t have been the same without his accent. I loved it.

    And I’ve really enjoyed the accents the translators put into the games — even that thick accent at the start of DQIV, which really didn’t take too long to catch onto. [The only minor gripe I’d have is that maybe Sancho made a few too many references to his single favorite food. It got a little old.]

    The wordplay in those DQIX screenshots, though — seeing it just warms my heart.

  18. Only played DQV but I absolutely loved the writing. I’ve too often been put off RPGs by their self-important, portentous story telling, but the charming tone of that game made it for me – after all, the mechanics are solid but hardly spectacular taken alone.

    Also I’ve never entirely got why everyone thinks Sancho is Mexican – surely, given the time period and the obvious Quixotic parallels, he is a Spaniard?

  19. Touche’, etc, criscamino. Sancho came off as more Speedy Gonzolaz than Salvadore Dali to me, but being from Texas, I tend to assume that anyone who says “si” is from south of the Rio Grande.

  20. @Mudron: You ever watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s hilarious opening credits, with the Swedish subtitler that keeps messing ’em up with moose talk? I’m sure whoever wrote Bjorn’s lines for DQV did. Great stuff.

    Honestly, I don’t mind the crazy accents in the newer Dragon Quest releases, as long as they’re not too overbearing. DQIV could admittedly lay it on too thick sometimes; took me a bit to adapt to the kidnapped kids being referred to as bairns and all.

  21. I wonder if Dragon Quest IX would have been as successful in Japan if they kept their original “radical” idea to substitute the turn based RPG battle system for the real time battles. And simultaneously, I wonder if it would help its popularity in North America if that version made it here. Maybe they should pull a “Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest” and try to make a Dragon Quest game specifically aimed at North America, with a story originally written in English… reconcile all the jarring differences between what makes it popular in Japan and what it needs to be more popular in America (online play for starters!). It seems like much of the success is nostalgia for the original games, and American newcomers to the series just don’t get what the appeal is… maybe we need a game that eases newcomers into the series, and starts us on the path of our own fond feelings of what hardcore fans of the series might consider an inferior version :)

  22. I love hokey faux-Shakespearean English. But I will settle for the localizations they’re doing now, if it means I get to play Dragon Quest.

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