Redundant translations in video games and anime
Clyde Mandelin is a professional translator, game programmer, Legends of Localization founder, and Poemato CX co-host.
There are common situations in entertainment translation that turn ordinary text into redundant messes. This is especially true when the original text includes a foreign word as a key part of a sentence, usually followed by an explanation of that word means in the original language.
In my experience, this redundancy is a small challenge in translation that isn’t widely known or even taught much in school, so I thought I’d share some brief insight into the topic.
A good example of explanatory redundancy appears in the English translation of Kingdom Hearts. In the original Japanese script, two characters talk about the term ハートレス (hātoresu), which refers to a certain type of being:
The Japanese word hātoresu is actually just the English word “heartless” as pronounced in Japanese. And since this is a Japanese game written for Japanese audiences, it makes sense that Leon would explain what the mysterious foreign word means in Japanese.
But when this scene was given a straightforward English translation, it turned into this:
Basically, in the English translation of Kingdom Hearts, Sora is already speaking fluent English and the target audience already knows English too. Two languages were used in the original script, but the translation only uses one language. As a result, explaining what “heartless” means in English here comes across as redundant and somewhat silly.
Whenever you encounter one of these explanatory redundancies as a translator, there are at least three ways to approach the issue:
- Keep the translation straightforward and unchanged from the original text. There are times when this is a valid option – if the word in question is obscure even for native speakers, for example.
- Change the word in question, either to a foreign word in a different language or to an obscure word in the current language.
- Rephrase the translation to work around or drop the redundancy entirely.
Sometimes redundant translations happen for slightly different reasons than what I’ve listed above. One example is the famous “people die when they’re killed” phrase:
Of course, this redundancy happens for a different reason, but it still requires the translator to choose from some of the solutions above.
Another type of translation redundancy appears in Metal Gear Solid, which has received two separate English translations: one for the original PlayStation and one for the GameCube remake.
Near the end of the game, Snake and Otacon quibble over the Japanese words 弱点 (jakuten) and 弱み (yowami). They have nuance differences, but both can be translated as “weakness” depending on the context. Situations like this are a perfect recipe for redundant translations, so how did both translators handle it?
First, the PlayStation translator, Jeremy Blaustein, chose Approach #3 from the list above and rephrased things slightly to fit the nuances involved. The resulting translation uses the word “weak point” and “character flaw”:
Next, the GameCube translator chose something closer to Approach #1 and stayed close to the original words with “weak point” and “weakness”:
I feel this choice resulted in an ironically weaker, clumsier translation, but I think most players could still get what the translator was going for.
It’s important to note that even when a translation sounds redundant, it’s not always a translation problem. Redundancy isn’t necessarily a set-in-stone thing – different cultures and even different individuals have different notions of what sounds redundant and what doesn’t. So it’s entirely possible for one piece of text to sound redundant for the translation audience while sounding perfectly normal for the original audience.
Redundancy issues happen a lot in entertainment translation. Below are other examples that followers shared with me on Twitter, mostly from Japanese-to-English translations. Some of these are due to issues we’ve looked at above, while others are unique cases. The end results, though, are translations that sound unintentionally redundant in translation.
And here’s a more recent and notorious one from Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA:
There are surely many more examples out there of redundancy in action, so if you know of any other examples of redundant translations along these lines, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
I’ll update this article from time to time with new examples, and I’ll even try to keep track of examples I encounter during my own work too. Let the redundancy flow!
Also, the idea for this article came about during part of my big Final Fantasy VI translation comparison, specifically the part about “Hidon”. Check it out if you’re a fan!