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Breaking the Language Barrier

Team Ninja on the disparity between Japanese and Western development

Team Ninja is a studio which knows its strengths, hitting a devoted core audience with regular improvements to its winning franchises. That audience may be niche, but it's also loyal, representing a business model which flies in the face of the current movement towards larger, more casual audiences.

It's also a studio which seems to make games tremendously grounded in Japanese culture, certainly in both of its flagship series, Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. Localisation producer Peter Garza's role in that team is to bring those games to a global audience, but, as you'll read below, it involves a lot more than straight translation.

GamesIndustry.bizSo what does localisation production involve?
Peter Garza

Well... I herd cats. I need to make sure that a game is in English so I oversee the translation. I don't do all of the translation myself, a good chunk of it I do - we work with external agencies as well to get English translations, then I'll go over those translations myself, try and spice them up as best I can.

I oversee voiceover recordings as well, casting and voiceover recordings.

I sit with the development team, which I think is fairly unique in Japanese industry, in Japanese game companies. In general localisation is something of an afterthought. A separate section. I actually sit really close to the director and the producer, all of the game designers. I'm embedded with them.

I get to participate in concept meetings, game design ideas, I get to throw my ideas out there too. We can talk about games we've played. It's a very collaborative atmosphere - I've been very lucky to be part of Team Ninja.

I guess being part of the actual game development there, as well as making sure that the game is in English, and French and German and Italian and making sure we have packaging in English, French, German and Italian and making sure that the ratings for all of the different areas are going through, keeping things on schedule for that.

I also talk to marketing people in the States and Europe to make sure we're all on the same page, marketing and messaging, shows like this, whether it's doing interviews directly or interpreting for the producer.

I guess that's all the stuff that I do!

GamesIndustry.bizWhen you talk about translation, presumably that's about much more than just changing the language. There must be signifiers and points of reference which need some cultural translation too...

It's a Japanese development team and I certainly don't want to take that away from them - I'm certainly not the voice of the Western God in the office.

Peter Garza

Oh absolutely. One of the things that's unique in my position now is that I'm seeing things fairly early with the development team so I can see those things early and... I don't know about steer things away from that, but at least be able to offer the Japanese developers an alternative viewpoint on things.

It's a Japanese development team and I certainly don't want to take that away from them - I'm certainly not the voice of the Western God in the office. Team Ninja knows actions games, they know how to make these games, I don't expect to be the face of the West.

But there are definitely some things that don't translate well. For Ninja Gaiden 3 specifically, one of the core concepts is trying to get across the feeling of cutting a person down with a sword. In Japanese there are multiple characters for cutting. One of the most commonly used ones is for cutting things. You could cut a watermelon using this character.

There's another character specifically for cutting with a sword. It has much heavier connotations. When you see it in writing you know what they're talking about. In English, both of those get translated as 'cut'. So it was sort of a challenge trying to figure out some way to get across that heavier feel and connotation. So we tried to make the English clear that it was about cutting someone down, not just a watermelon.

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Dan Pearson