January 23, 2012

Characters in translation – Waka, the gods' gift to man

We write a lot about video game characters. And with good reason, seeing how characters are pretty essential to games. But something that’s surprisingly often left out of the ponderings is the staggering influence translation and localization have on characters.

Now, sure, we write about the version of the game we’ve played and to hell with the rest. It doesn’t matter what this or that JRPG character is like in the Japanese version, when the product we’re scrutinizing is, for example, in English. It just isn’t practical to try and include every version imaginable into one’s reading of a game and its characters. And that’s all fine and good.

Yet, I argue taking at least a cursory glance at how characters are portrayed in the original work, and in what way they fit the cultural paradigms of their origins, offers valuable context for understanding the characters and the intentions of their designers. To see what aspects of the character originate from the translation and localization is often of immense help.

To use an example, think about Waka from Clover Studio’s Ōkami. Waka is a recurring antagonist and a key NPC in the game. Shrouded in mystery and unanswered questions he appears from time to time to deal vague prophecies, look cool and act weird.

In Waka’s case the key difference in characterization, the thing that is most affected by the translation, is how he speaks. In the English version Waka speaks an odd mixture of languages and tones that can be summed up in four categories:

1) Standard English
2) Pompous “Ye Olde” English
3) English slang / Informal English
4) Simple French

The different speech quirks are demonstrated as soon as Waka makes his first appearance in the game. His first lines of dialogue are:

Hark! The call of the heavens, the earth, the sea... They summon me forth to defeat evil! Waka, the gods' gift to man, is here! Bonjour!

That crimson shading and Divine Instrument on your back... You look kinda weird, but I reckon you pack a punch, baby.

First you have “Hark!” and “forth”, clear allusions to old-fashioned grammar and wording. Then there’s “Bonjour!”, which is a jarring departure from the style the rest of the line has, but at the same time is simple enough to be understood by anyone playing the game regardless of their fluency in French. And, finally, for the English slang category, we have words such as “kinda” and “baby”.

All of these special styles are cocooned in a safe wrapping of standard English, most plainly evident in the expository bit that follows the previous two lines:

Oui! This is how I get my point across, pun intended... The moment the cursed zone started spreading across Nippon, I saw the shadowy figure that removed the sacred sword Tsukuyomi flee into Kamiki Village and seal the entrance with a huge rock. You guys know anything about that?

These four levels of speech lead to a somewhat messy characterization that portrays Waka as a wise (albeit pompous) sage, a cool and wildly anachronistic bad boy, a mysterious stranger speaking a foreign language, and an all-round average guy who happens to know a lot about everything. With all these more or less conflicting ingredients, Waka’s dialogue conveys a very mixed character. The longer Waka stays on the screen the harder he is to make sense of. It’s impossible to tell which of the different speech patterns are his “real” ones. The gimmicks, when used as often as they are, undermine his characterization rather than support it.

Compare that to the original rendition of Waka, or Ushiwaka, as he is called in the Japanese version, who in his first lines says:

天呼ぶ 地呼ぶ 海が呼ぶ…
The heaven calls, the earth calls, the sea calls...
物の怪 倒せと 我を呼ぶ!
"Defeat the mononoke!" they ask me
人倫の伝道師 ウシワカ イズ ヒア!
The messenger for humankind, Ushiwaka, is here!

その 深紅の隈取
Those crimson markings
そして その身に 粧し込んだ 神の器…
And that divine instrument you are wearing...
なるほど 傾いた ルックスだけど
I see. It looks weird, but
その実力は 本物かな …ベイベィ?
Could its power be real... Baby?
(Kudos to my illustrous spouse for the quick & literal-ish translation)

His first line, the one about the heaven, the earth and the sea, is pompous, definitely, but it lacks the “ye olde” connotation the harks and the forths have in the English translation. It’s simply pompous, in a dramatic and silly way. He wraps the line by saying “... is here!”. And he really does say that. As in, he says it in English which, after the pompous start, is an obvious comedic twist, utilizing an anachronistic surprise. He does it again at the end of his second line with the somewhat mind-boggling “Baby?”. It’s not just that he says baby, something that in itself would be plenty odd, but it’s framed as a question, and as a sign of hesitation.

Further examples of his English quirks later on in the same scene include his use of the word ユーたち which combines the English “you” with he standard Japanese plural suffix “-tachi”, used when referring to Amaterasu and Issun, and the way he starts his first fight against Amaterasu by exclaiming レッツ ロック ベイビィ!, Let’s rock baby!

Waka talks in a funny way, and his dialogue shifts between pompous, neutral and weird, but there is a certain consistency to it. Where the English translation has four levels of tones in these first bits of dialogue, the original version only really has three. That’s only one level less, granted, but the internal consistency between pompous Japanese, standard Japanese and English gimmicks makes the Japanese Waka a totally different character from his English counterpart. He’s more... whole, I suppose. He swings between fairly normal Japanese and catchphrase-like English weirdness, forming a clearly defined juxtaposition that is occasionally spiced up with more pompous bits.

The translation obviously cannot (and indeed should and could not) include all the nuances of the original, and while I’m somewhat disappointed in the chaotic potpourri that is Waka’s translated dialogue, I still think it’s actually done pretty well, all things considered. It just isn’t what the original Waka is.

What’s important here is that Waka, really, isn’t the character we outside of Japan think he is. Or rather that he is, but when we discuss Waka what we really mean is the translated Waka – a character quite removed from the original one.

I’m not arguing we should always check the translations and see what the characters originally were like. But I do stress that if we want a deeper understanding of a character, we should pay at least some heed to its original form and characterization, if only for context...