– Discussions with people in the Japanese media
localization industry –
Can you tell us about yourself?
Hi! My name’s Michelle Deco and I’m a Localization Writer/Editor! I currently work as a Localization Editor/Coordinator at NIS America.
I’ve been in the video game industry for over three years, working on over 20 titles for consoles and mobile platforms. Some of my favorites include The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince and Story of Seasons: Trio of Towns.
I love video games and grew up playing them, mainly on Nintendo and PlayStation consoles. I’m also an avid reader, especially fantasy and mythology novels, but I like reading graphic novels and comics as well.
When I’m not localizing games, I enjoy writing short stories and blog posts about the industry. I also like singing, going on walks, listening to music, traveling, knitting, and catching up on my gaming backlog. This is only if I have the spare time, of course; I find it’s surprisingly harder to do the older I get.
I also enjoy making REALLY bad puns. :)
How did you get into localization editing and writing?
“All right, let’s do this one last time.” (Sorry—huge fan of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!)
I received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Merced. I was a McNair Scholar and aiming to pursue a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology.
Then I got my master’s degree in higher education from UCLA. I worked there as a project coordinator for about two years; I branched off into health education and even taught life skills for college students as a graduate assistant.
I liked the work I did and was good at it, but I wasn’t exactly passionate about it; I found I enjoyed writing stories even more. I drew inspiration for stories from the video games I grew up with, most notably Final Fantasy IX.
Working in localization was always my dream, but I wasn’t sure about how to get into the field.
I grew up hearing from adults that video games weren’t a viable career path. I heard common phrases like “you’ll never get a real job,” “you’ll live in your mom’s basement,” “games are for losers,” blah blah blah. And unfortunately, I listened to them and didn’t really pursue what I knew I wanted. So I did what people expected me to do. (Pro tip: Don’t do this!)
There was a time after my contract position ended at UCLA where I was unemployed for several months. I used that time to travel, and I was job hunting like crazy and interviewing, but nothing came through.
At some point, I had an epiphany: “Well, if I’m going to do a career change, now’s the time to do it.” I figured I’d start somewhere and work my way up, however long it took. So I started looking for entry-level QA positions at local game companies, and I was hired as a Localization Tester at Square Enix, and the rest is history!
What is localization editing and writing? What are the differences between the two?
In a way, they’re similar but different, if that makes sense.
In my experience, the writing portion can consist of full rewrites if the Japanese translation may not make sense for English-speaking audiences. This can include jokes or riddles, but can also include things like food or holidays.
Or maybe some characters need more personality because they may come off as one-dimensional. I usually have the creative freedom to breathe more life into these characters.
The editing portion can be more technical and geared toward making sure the translation reads well and is clean. This includes making sure the grammar and sentence structure make sense.
I’d say I do both equally; at the end of the day, you want to get the original Japanese intent across. But you also want to ensure that the text reads well and is understandable for English-speaking audiences.
What is localization QA/testing?
Localization testing encompasses the linguistic side of quality assurance (QA).
Testers make sure that not only is the text free of spelling and grammatical errors, but that lines also appear cleanly in the game.
For example, dialogue usually needs to fit in a text box, and localization staff sometimes can’t check for that when they’re translating and editing. So testers have to make sure the text doesn’t overflow.
This gets trickier with some text that’s super strict on character limit, like UI and system text. So we may have to come up with other names for skills and such if we find that our original terminology is too long or doesn’t fit.
(I talk about this more in depth in one of my Gamasutra articles: The Basics of Localization, Part 5.)
For example, let’s say that the skill “Thunder” is too long for a text box; the testers will report that, and we’d shorten it to “Bolt” or something similar.
Of course, we’d have to do that for every string it appears in as well, since we want to avoid inconsistencies with terminology. (Strings are what we call the cells in a spreadsheet or in a CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool. They’re what developers use to input the text into a game.)
It’s nice if we get a character limit from developers so we can account for these things early on, but sometimes we don’t, so we have to use our best judgment.
Other things testers check for is making sure the VO (voiceover) matches what appears in the text box. Usually VO is done before testing, sometimes even before the localization is done. It’s easier to match text to VO than the other way around.
Now, this isn’t to say that testers can’t report on non-linguistic bugs like graphical or sound errors; these absolutely should be written up because it’ll impact the end user experience.
Personally, as a former QA tester myself, I’d rather have too many bugs written up in a bug-tracking system than too few. Especially if it turns out there was a game-breaking bug that was missed along the way.
Of course, prevention is key, so as an editor, I always make sure the game’s text is as polished as possible before it goes into testing to streamline the process.
What do you wish you had done differently?
I wish I’d gotten my degree in English! :(
Most editors I know have some sort of English degree or equivalent. While that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing and working in localization, a formal education may have helped a bit, and I might’ve started down this path sooner.
I’m currently taking classes in copy editing and creative writing to further my education and improve on my writing and editing skills. I created “Localization Information” manuals filled to the brim with resources to help me learn more about the industry. And I’m writing short stories on Medium and blogging on Gamasutra, so that’s progress. (Pro tip 2: It’s never too late!)
What project are you most proud of?
I’m super proud of The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince!
To date, it’s my favorite game I’ve localized. It was also a challenge for me since I’d never worked on a fairy-tale game before; I mostly work on JRPGs. Not only did I love the storybook aesthetic, but this was also my first solo project as an editor, so I was determined to do it justice.
I spent a weekend at my parents’ house collecting all the children’s books I read as a kid, including fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Then I read those books to get into the writing style.
I like to do as much research as I can before delving into a game’s localization. Doing that helped me nail that fairy-tale voice I wanted to create, and I got so much wonderful feedback on the story!
I was so happy that my hard work had paid off and that people were enjoying the game just as if they were reading a classic children’s fairy tale. Even now, I still get comments from players telling me how much they loved the writing. ^_^
What do you think people don’t know about localization that they should know?
I think some people may not know that localization and translation are not the same thing; they’re very different skill sets, and there’s a lot of work that goes into both.
It’s also very hard making localization decisions sometimes, especially when the Japanese text has to be changed entirely if it won’t make sense for English-speaking players.
For example, there’s a game I worked on that had Japanese riddles, but it involved the amount of characters in the Japanese text, as well as wordplay. Since Japanese characters and English characters aren’t the same, the riddle wouldn’t have made sense for English-speaking players.
As much as I like to stay true to the Japanese whenever I can, this was a situation that would have been a progression blocker for English-speaking players, had the Japanese riddles been left in.
After speaking with the translator about this, I changed the riddles to ones that were less complex and understandable for English-speaking players. It’s not easy making these kinds of decisions, but again, we want to make sure that English-speaking players can have an enjoyable experience playing our games.
What kinds of projects would you like to work on in the future?
I loved working on The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince, so I’d definitely like to localize more games in the fairy-tale genre in the future.
I’d also love to localize a challenging, choice-driven game that’s like Undertale. It’d be cool to work on a game where every decision the player makes changes character interactions and plot points.
Maybe also a relaxing, calming game similar to Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley. I love games where you get to interact with others and take care of your town.
I also love coming up with level names and writing funny character and item descriptions, so maybe a platform game or humorous RPG would fit the bill.
Oh, and definitely any game that allows me to write bad puns, of course. :)
Is there anyone or anything you draw inspiration from?
Having grown up in the 90s (no, I’m not THAT old!), I played a lot of the Final Fantasy games. That’s where my love for JRPGs started.
I was fascinated by these fantastical worlds full of strange and unusual characters and monsters. Not to mention the deep stories and character development. So I draw a lot of inspiration from that series.
My first localization project was as a Localization Tester at Square Enix on the Nintendo 3DS version of Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King.
I wasn’t familiar with the series at the time, but I’d heard of the translator, Richard Honeywood, who had worked on some of my favorite Final Fantasy games. Working with him even as a tester was a delight, and after the project was over, I asked him about localization and he kindly provided some excellent resources and advice about the industry, which has helped me so much in my career.
Alex O. Smith is another translator I draw inspiration from. He also worked on some of my favorite Final Fantasy games.
Both translators do excellent world building and character building, and they’re skilled at balancing the Japanese essence of the text while making it accessible to English-speaking audiences.
What is your vision for the future of localization and the game industry?
It’s going to keep expanding, especially with more platforms, more games, and more players around the world.
People can play games from almost anywhere now—smartphones, computers, tablets—and they want to play and experience these games in their native language. So localization is in even higher demand than it was, say, 10 years ago.
There’s definitely more accountability as well. It’s going to be held to higher standards than back in the early days, when translations back then could be glossed over.
There’s also a great cultural shift in the video game industry overall, where games aren’t as stigmatized anymore. There’s real value to video games, and people are starting to see that more than ever. Developers creating impactful experiences for players from all walks of life, teachers using games as an educational and learning tool… The list goes on and on.
The industry still has a long way to go, but there’s been significant progress over the past few decades, and it can only get better from here on out.
Why do you love localization?
It’s such a unique field where I get to directly impact the user experience via the text.
I’m passionate about delivering amazing experiences with the stories that I get to tell, and it’s always heartwarming to hear when people love the games I work on. I love the work I do because not only do I get to inspire new and current generations of gamers, but it also enables me to bring smiles and joy to millions of people around the world. :)
You can find Michelle Deco here!