When a text is localized, it inevitably navigates from a source culture to a target culture. These two poles can be so different that the translator has to make a difficult choice at the expense of the original meaning. It is the so-called “lost in translation”, a phenomenon that is common to video games, literature, and movies.
Ted Woolsey: A Divisive Character
One of the most debated translators of video game localization history is Ted Woolsey, who localized JRPGs for Square Enix in the SNES era (1991-1996). Woolsey is a controversial character: someone thinks that he is an artist that made Japanese video games accessible to the Western culture and public, while others blame him for altering those same games and their original meaning. In fact, he has often adapted the plots to the occidental liking with cuts and tweaks so incisive that fans coined the term “woolseyism”.
An example? In Chrono Trigger (Square Enix, 1995) he changed Frog’s personality and mannerisms: the battle-ready knight was transformed into a Shakespearean gentleman in Western releases. Or Kefka, the fearsome and cruel villain of Final Fantasy VI (Square Enix, 1994), exclaims a nonsensical «Son of a submariner!» at the fugitive main characters instead of the original swearing. The title of the game itself, Final Fantasy VI, was changed to Final Fantasy III even though a third chapter already existed in Japan.
An All-Italian loss
An Italian case of “lost in translation” can be found in Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017). “Hollow“, which in English refers to both a physical and mental state, is translated as vacuo, which refers solely to the mental one. Another example is a woolseyism about Wyrms. In Italian, there is no word for wyrm, a snakelike mythological creature, and so Wyrms are called urovermi (derived from ouroboros and vermi, worms).
How Can You Avoid Getting Something Lost in Translation?
Idioms, semantics and untranslatable words are just some of the reasons why the original meaning can get lost in translation. It is up to the translator to figure out a brilliant solution and to make the target text as close as possible to the source.