COG Considers: Sometimes You Need to Change Things to Resonate Across Cultures
Today on COG Considers, let’s talk about localization. No, not translation–localization. There’s a difference. A translation is just retelling a story in a different language, but localization takes into account differences in culture, location, and historical context. This is why so many European TV shows get American remakes. The people in charge are trying to make the end result as relatable to the new audience as possible. This doesn’t always turn out for the best. I’m sure all of you have at least one localization horror story where everything that could go wrong did. But here’s my hot take for the evening: localization is good, actually.
No, really. I’m being serious here. A solid localization isn’t just a chance for a good series to find widespread acceptance in another country–it’s a chance for a story to bridge culture gaps and create similar reactions across very different cultures. We make localizations for the same reasons we make modern adaptations of classic literature. The English localization of Ace Attorney works for many of the same reasons you can make a vlog adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.
What did Capcom do when they localized Ace Attorney? Well, first, they changed all the names to ridiculous puns (this part isn’t a mandatory aspect of localization, but it does carry across implications that would fly over the heads of English speakers. Because the original Japanese names were themselves ridiculous puns.), swapped the setting to California, made the Von Karma family German instead of American, and adjusted anything that seemed ‘too Japanese’, such as making Maya’s favorite food burgers instead of ramen. You know what they didn’t do? Actually change the plot or themes of the source material. As a result, the Ace Attorney games are beloved to this day in the English gaming community, even now that the pretense is wearing thin. Everyone knows these games don’t take place in America, just like everyone knows Maya is actually eating Ramen. We’re just willing to go with it.
But what about when they make major changes to characters during localization? That can still be good, actually. Just look at Kefka from Final Fantasy VI. In Japan, he was loathed for being a stupid villain, so the English version gave him a ton of witty (and batshit) lines that he became a fan favorite. Or, for a more recent and less polarizing example, take Zhongli from Genshin Impact. Everything about Zhongli is rooted deeply in Chinese history and culture, from the antique and poetic way he speaks to the rings on his thumbs. miHoYo knew that English players wouldn’t understand these references, so they kept the main theme of his character–the ancient deity who wishes to see his people live without needing to rely on him–and made him the god of war rather than the god of martial arts. This, combined with a simpler, bolder way of speaking and a more authoritative demeanor, gave the localized Zhongli a depth that English players found easy to love.
Is the localized Zhongli the same character as the original Chinese version? Not any more than Phoenix Wright is the same character as Ryūichi Naruhodō. I love both pairs, but I won’t deny that Phoenix Wright and god of war Zhongli are a bit closer to my heart than the originals. I also won’t deny that I know a lot more about the original characters than I would if I didn’t love the localized versions so much. At the end of the day, a solid localization can actually encourage inter-cultural understanding, and I think that’s pretty awesome.