I met Mateusz Felczek in Hong Kong a while back and we discovered mutual interests in cross-cultural translation of videogames. In this interview, we go through some of the issues in the translation of Chinese RPG into English/European languages and their reception in the West.
My name is Mateusz Felczak and I’m a PhD student from Kraków, Poland. I’m currently enrolled in a PhD programme at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, Jagiellonian University. I also study Mandarin at the Institute of the Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University (third year). My main research interests are centered around the reception and distribution of triple A titles. When I investigated various policies of big gaming companies (Blizzard, EA etc.) and their approach to global markets, I noticed that when they entered the Chinese market they had to alter their products significantly – not only because of the censorship, but also due to the different players’ customs regarding the reception and common practices of play (e.g. changing from retail model to free-to-play model).
At first, I investigated the World of Warcraft and Diablo III case studies, and my attention was grabbed by the problems with translations of the in-game text. I looked at some works of the Chinese scholars who took interest in the same problem. I quickly noticed some recurring interpretational themes and decided to look into older games from the 1990s, as for the Polish players it was the breakthrough period in which major cRPGs were fully translated to Polish (including voice acting, such as in the case of Baldur’s Gate series), which helped to establish the local gaming communities and formed specific, local practices of play and cultural codes which are still important for Polish gamers and game developers alike, including even the latest iteration of The Witcher series.
Therefore, I wondered if something similar happened in China in roughly the same period – a game-related event that launched the interest for gaming culture that exceeded the interest in traditional arcade-style games. During my research, I stumbled upon the community of (one may say hardcore) cRPG gamers, whose aim was to re-introduce the old franchises to the new public and broaden the perspectives of English-speaking cRPG community. Afterwards, I begun to look into discussion boards and specific problems with regard to translating The Legend of Sword and Fairy and some other Chinese cRPG classics – the most discussed issues were connected to the translation of poetry fragments, especially with the very concise Chinese usage of the characters, which is hard enough to translate into English, but would be next to impossible to convey in Polish (which, as can be concluded from the discussions, is quite a “wordy” language, with the need to provide more context for the reader that may be necessary in other languages). As far as TLoSaF is concerned in the reception of Western fandom, the two most praised things seem to be the diverse, branching narrative paths and non-trivial NPCs, especially the strong and ambiguous female characters. Gameplay-wise, I would say it hit the same inspiring notes as Western cult classics from the 1990s, with isometric perspective, rich narrative and other complex RPG elements, such as development of the player’s character.
Yes. In response to your observation that many trivial changes were made by Western developers (such as Blizzard) in order to enter China, there is often a China-exceptionalism to justify these changes. The justification often argues for the necessity of cultural translation (a localization done by the locals who understand local culture) and a specific localization for the ‘Chinese culture/society’ (deliberately obscured for political reasons). Of course, such claims can be applied to any countries who are examining cultural imports from an alien culture. Reverse this scenario: when Chinese companies are trying to export their games, especially when the game (much like TLoSaF) involves many references to ‘Chinese culture’, the argument is often such ‘translation’ is not possible and often it is done in a very sloppy manner: untranslatability becomes an excuse for bad translation.
For example, Blade & Soul and Age of Wuxia are the two recently exported major Chinese MMOs; the English translation is done so half-heartedly that it is sometimes difficult to understand what certain skills do in the game let alone the literary aspects of the game (such as dialogues). This exceptionalism, especially in the context of videogames, is not flattering at all. Most Chinese players who are aware of these differences made to the Chinese version of Blizzard games or other big releases such as DotA 2 are not too happy about it. Aside from the absurd censorship of the visual aspects of videogames, changing from the original subscription model to cash shop/micro-transaction is often considered to be a degeneration of the original game and a capitulation to the ‘China model’ of gaming industry rather than simply an effort in ‘localizing the game’.
In terms of ‘a game-related event that launched the interest for gaming culture that exceeded the interest in traditional arcade-style games’, I guess by an event you mean a major foreign game that gets (fan) translated and later became a significant milestone for the local game history. Perhaps there is a historical divergence here. Poland had political and economic reforms in the 90s as a post-Communist state and it probably encouraged importing cultural products from the developed West, that includes videogames. China, too, experienced the “open-up” since the 80s and most intensely in the 90s but the cultural industry was still strictly controlled. However, there was a very active underground scene of aspiring game developer, fans, and literary circles.
The difference is, however, Taiwan and Hongkong served a pivotal role in this “translation” (not only of language but the contextual information of what videogame culture should look like). I grew up in China in the 90s and most of the games I played were pirated copies, whether on consoles like NES or Playstation 1 or Gameboy Color or Windows 97. But most of these games, I played in Japanese or English and sometimes traditional Chinese. For foreign languages, many fans were dedicated enough to learn the language, especially Japanese, just in order to play Japanese games; or, less dedicated players like myself were playing the games while just barely understand the menu and how the game works by trial and error as well as reading strategy guides.
Because big publishers and consoles did release games in traditional Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan. My introduction to Blizzard games such as Starcraft 1 and Diablo 1 & 2 were in traditional Chinese. But I am no gaming historian and my own experience is probably not representative either. Fan translation did not emerge as a major phenomenon until 2000s as far as I know. Can you give some concrete examples of what you have discovered in the translation of The Legend of Sword and Fairy? Poetry fragments, for example. In terms of reception of the game in the West, I guess the most interesting question for the readers is that how do fans of this Chinese game differentiate it from Japanese made RPGs in the same period? Or they don’t at all?
For TLoSaF, the work on the poetry fragments was perhaps the most difficult of all the tasks concerning the translation into English.
I think that one of the most interesting issues connected with fan translations of older Chinese cRPGs into English is that such endeavors help to raise awareness of the other Chinese titles among the Western audiences. One such example, which even has a small fandom in Poland, is the Xuan-Yuan Sword series (by Softstar Entertainment). When I was investigating the fans’ reception of Chinese games in Poland, I noticed the (relative) popularity of 軒轅劍外傳穹之扉 (The Gate of Firmament). I think it may be an easier starting point for the new, Western players to the rich world of Chinese RPGs, as the latest (translated) iteration of the series appeared on Steam in 2016. The game’s graphics and combat system are generally smoother and more in line with modern audiences’ expectations, which perhaps is the reason for its success as far as Chinese cRPGs go.
I mention The Gate of Firmanent also because it was one of the very few classic Chinese games that I found extensive reviews for written in Polish. The author (nicknamed mroczna_sarna) recommends this title as “an alternative to more popular jRPGs”, which I think comments on your question about the position of Chinese titles in comparison to their more popular Japanese counterparts. One of the most praised aspect of 軒轅劍外傳穹之扉 in the Polish community is the presence of in-game encyclopedia, which offers information about gods and deities from Chinese mythology which are part of the game’s narrative. Unfortunately, most of the Polish fans of Chinese RPGs come from the fandom of Japanese RPGs, which results in threatening Chinese games as an occasional alternative to the Japanese series, among which most popular are Dragon Quest and Shenmue. From my personal observations, even though I don’t have precise data to back my claim, I can add that Chinese games gain popularity in more feminist-oriented jRPG fandom, as the female avatars are not as sexualized as in the Japanese games of that genre. Coming back to TLoSaF, it seems that its English-speaking fans have no problems with older cRPG mechanics and actually prefer old school turn-based combat system over more modern approaches.
One minor comment on the reception of pop-cultural goods (including games and TV series) from the Asia region is that despite Japanese products have much more PR leverage than any other country from that part of the world, actually the popular anime series are often referred to “Chinese fairytales”, especially by this part of the Polish audience which is not so well-versed in the culture of the region.
I would also like to point to the fact that the popularity of city builders and Civilization-like games in Eastern Europe opened the door for depictions of Chinese historical heritage – I think that the most notable example would be 皇帝: 龙之崛起 (in Polish: Cesarz: Narodziny Państwa Środka, Sierra Entertainment 2002). This is one of the titles which, despite its flaws and simplifications in presenting the Chinese history, introduced the Eastern European gamers to the various aspects of Chinese culture.
Can you give more concrete examples of translation issues you mention earlier.
I still have some problems running TLoSaF on my new computer, it crashes after a short period of time, so far I wasn't able to find a solution to it. Nevertheless, I managed to take some screenshots from different language versions of the game to illustrate a few differences. Please be aware that I base the following interpretations on my limited knowledge of Mandarin, so some possibly obvious contexts which justify the particular translator decisions may have escaped me.
So, I looked into one of the first conversations between the main protagonist and Miao people. In the English version, there are called "soldiers" and are immediately disclosed as "black" Miao, which gets important in the future story, but in the Chinese version at this point of the game they are labelled just as "members of Miao [gang]".
Furthermore, the screenshot provides an example of a very common practice of "cultural" translation: in the Chinese version, Miao ren says that the wine has a foul taste, whereas English version uses a metaphor of "tasting like water".
The second pair of screenshots (see below) illustrates another two issues with the English translation. First, the English text is simplified in its meaning, probably to "lighten" the string input (number of signs/letters) - as you can see, the gap between lines in English version is much wider than in the Chinese original, which makes the reading easier, but also forces the translator to use fewer words in instances which require displaying multiple dialogue lines at once - such as in this case.
Second, the screenshot illustrates the "casual" usage of colloquial expressions, which I find a quite common practice in the English translation of TLoSaF in general. In this particular case, the sign for "brother" is translated "bro", which may be somehow justified given the context of the conversation, but spoils the tone of the quite serious exchange of arguments which are crucial for the story to progress (the protagonist needs to sail to the Island). On a side note, this pair of screenshots also illustrate difficult decisions when it comes to the names of places and key concepts inspired by the Chinese mythology etc. - the "Dream Island" should be more like "Island of immortal souls" - but again, I realize these are very hard translator decisions, and I am by no means a specialist in this regard.
- :see Xiaochun Zhang, (2008), “‘Harmonious’ games localization for China”, MultiLingual Magazine, no X-XI/2008; Xiaochun Zhang, (2012), “Censorship and Digital Games Localisation in China”, Meta, Volume 57, Numéro 2, Juin, 2012, p. 338–350.