WC: How much input do the original writers and developers in Korea have? Can you go to them and say "Hey, what were you trying to get at here?"
Dave: We can send our questions off to Korea, but with the time zone difference, it was often faster to really delve deeply into the game and puzzle out the answers in the context of the game experience. Actually, that's a pretty good way to learn a game - by digging through files yourself to answer questions like, "How come this NPC is acting so mysterious when you first meet her?" Not only do you find the answer you were looking for, but you discover all sorts of other nooks and crannies.
Janna: For myself, I haven't had any contact with the original writers and developers at all. A lot of it is the time difference, the time lag, the language barrier, and the speed at which we have to work. We've had to work very fast. We do delve deeply into the game. But we also have to decide at what point it makes more sense to take the story we're given, find the main tentpoles of the story and build something slightly different, something new out of it.
WC: What was the hardest thing you've had to properly localize so far in Aion (or, any other games that you've worked on)?
Marti: Animated cut-scenes were difficult, because we had to match the timing of our spoken dialog to animations that were created for Korean dialog. That meant extra time during both the writing and the recording phases - we were rewriting scripts as the actors were reading the lines!
Fran: Object names. Remember, in Korean, if you want to call something the Impenetrable Iron God Shield of the Acadian Hero-Nymph, you may need as few as seven characters. That's roughly as wide as the word "Roughly," by the way. So all these INCREDIBLY cool names (and they ARE cool) often have to be shortened to fit the UI.
Janna: Well, how about the most entertaining things? Aion includes poetry, jokes, even storybooks. Sometimes there's just no way to adequately translate the poetic and beautiful or the funny from Korean - cultural differences, vocabulary, and nuance get lost in the Korean-to-Western translation. The results range from totally baffling to completely hilarious. For our own amusement, we've kept a list of some of the most entertainingly bad or unfortunate translations we've found. Engrish.com - we can give you a run for your money!
Erik: Whatever we rewrite the quests to, they still have to follow the way the quest works in the game, so sometimes you want to write a plotline one way but the actual mechanics of the quest mean you have to stick to the original. I've still managed to pull off some pretty radical changes, though. Changing a sad, corrupted tree-man who asks you to help clean up the corruption into a bitter, resentful corrupted tree-man who wants to see you suffer for him, for instance.
Jess: Many times we have found ourselves wanting to provide more context for a quest or a character, but we have to avoid painting ourselves into a corner, creatively, where the game designers send us new content that contradicts something we have introduced. We do a lot of keeping our options open.
WC: What's the most common error you see in translation/localization for other games?
Fran: Either tossing around the original plot like it's worthless (think early 90s anime translations) or slavishly maintaining EVERY bit of meaning, even if it means that the meaning destroys the pacing and storytelling. It's much more common to err towards the first, but EITHER is damaging. The game has to be fun. Edit your content. Tell a good story that the audience will read. Harder than it sounds!
Conor: Doing this job has actually made me more critical of localised text in games now. However, as a whole, I would say the quality of localised text has improved markedly since the 90s. Foreign games often still feel foreign, but sometimes that can be a deliberate stylistic decision made by the production team. Ultimately, I suppose all games are different, and the approach to localising those games also needs to be different.
Daneen: ...resisting urge to localize Conor's spelling...
WC: What are the best localization jobs you've seen elsewhere, in other games / by other teams? Why?
Dave: I'm going to pick a nongame example out of sheer love: The Asterix comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. They're humorous comics in French, replete with French puns, French wordplay, and jokes based on French idioms. The way the translators, Hockridge and Bell, extracted all those specifically French puns and replaced them with just-as-funny English jokes...it amazes me anew with each reading. I don't speak a word of French, but I feel like Asterix is giving me a very funny taste of France.
Fran: I strongly second. And that's the difference between localizing and translating.
Erik: Nintendo's had a really, really strong localization team ever since the Gamecube came out. The latest Legend of Zelda and Pokemon games were pretty much my model for how to successfully localize a video game.
Robin: I've been a huge fan of Atlus's Persona series, particularly 3 and 4. Terrific job of localizing a lot of text, creating some great dialogue, and doing it in such a way that it retained its Japanese feel.
Conor: I'm going to be a little more obvious here, and plump for Final Fantasy Tactics. I'm playing through the PSP version at the moment and really love the way they've stylised the English. I'd love to play through the original and see how that compares to contemporary Japanese, but my lack of language skills would be a slight problem methinks.
Thanks to the Aion team for answering our questions!