A peek into the underground world of fan-translated games

Fan translations of Japanese video games are on the rise.

April 2006. Mother 3 — the sequel to Mother 2, or EarthBound to its cult following in North America — launches in Japan for the Game Boy Advance. Canadian programmer Jeff Erbrecht, still in high school, is excited — but moreso bummed.

Mother 3, it looked like, would go the way of Mother 1, the first game in the Mother trilogy. Mother, though the predecessor to Mother 2/EarthBound, was never released outside of Japan. North America got EarthBound, and that was that. North America wasn’t going to get Mother 3. Not any time soon, anyway.

But then Erbrecht had an idea.

"It was actually one or two days prior when someone joined an EarthBound chatroom claiming to have a leaked copy of the Mother 3 ROM file," he told Polygon. "I started talking to him and a couple other people from the chatroom, and eventually the idea came up to try making a translation patch. We put out a call for volunteers to help with both the translation and the programming."

A year slipped by and Nintendo didn’t announce a localization. Erbrecht stews. A country away in Florida, in 2007, FUNimation translator Clyde Mandelin also gives up on waiting for an official version and begins setting wheels in motion to create his own localization.

Both Erbrecht and Mandelin make one thing clear: fan translations are born from passion, from an individual or group's desire to get a Japanese game into the hands of a non-Japanese-speaking audience — an audience that, for one reason or another, would never get to experience games that get passed up for the official localization treatment. These works are more than passion projects, they are life achievements, good deeds, pro-bono work — projects created by fans purely for fans.

Mandelin — professional translator by day, fan translator by night — is part of the team that created the most well-known English translation for Mother 3. This fan translation was released publicly in October 2008 and has even caught the attention of Nintendo — most notably its American branch’s big guy himself, Reggie Fils-Aime. Mandelin and his group of EarthBound fans — a patchwork of people from different walks of life and different continents — are so deeply entrenched in their love for the Mother series that they even offered Nintendo their translation script for nothing should it make things easier for the company to localize it.

"I realize that localizing a game this size can cost a lot, so if it'll help in even the slightest, I'll gladly offer to let Nintendo use my text translation files for any use at all, completely for free," Mandelin wrote under his handle "Tomato" on the project's official website, no more than a year ago. "I'll even edit the files to fit whatever new standards are necessary (content, formatting, memory size, etc.), completely for free. I'll even retranslate everything from scratch if need be. Just whatever it takes to get an official release out."

Mandelin, the project's chief translator, assembled his team — a ragtag band similar to Mother’s own cluster of heroes — from members of Mother fansite Starmen.net, which Mandelin himself co-founded. This new group, the "Do-it-yourself Devotion Project," very quickly attracted the attention of ROM translators and programmers interested in making their dream of playing Mother 3 in English a reality. Almost at once, Mandelin said, the team was firing on all cylinders and working diligently in their spare time between work and school to build Mother 3.

Far away in Canada, in 2008, Erbrecht, chasing his own dream, was still building a team.

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Starting up fan localization projects feels much like amassing the cast of your typical role-playing game: a group of random strangers rally around a common cause before embarking on their journey together. In was in this way that Mandelin and Erbrecht found each other — stumbling to create something beautiful and meaningful, and realizing they could make that beautiful and meaningful thing better by working together.

Some project starts are a little more rocky, and a little more lonely. On the other side of the globe, Christopher Ting — then a student — was dreaming of a localization for Sega-published PlayStation Portable RPG Valkyria Chronicles 3. He spent months wishfully daydreaming about a translated game. He didn’t think to work on his own fan translations, however, until he stumbled upon a kindred spirit on the GameFAQs message boards.

"A few years ago I was in Taiwan and I saw Valkyria Chronicles 3 for sale," Ting explained to Polygon. "I bought it, even though the game was in Japanese and I couldn't understand it. I speak Chinese, so I found an unofficial Chinese patch, played the game and enjoyed it. I realized it was unfair that so many people who love the series don't get to play the game because it's not in English."

On GameFaqs — the community pool of video game walkthroughs and completion tips — Ting found a thread about creating a translation patch for Valkyria Chronicles 3, lead by a mysterious programmer going by the name of "KnightLeech." The programmer — whose real identity remains a mystery to Ting, even now — posted screenshots to the forums showing he could insert text into the game files, and after seeing them, Ting decided to take the leap.

"I thought, you know what, I have decent confidence in my own English writing abilities," he said. "Originally I began trying to transcribe everything myself, but then I set up a website and started asking for volunteers. KnightLeech was able to extract text files from the game and with help from the team that made the Chinese patch, we were able to build full scripts in both Japanese and Chinese to work with."

Ting buckled down with KnightLeech, the mystery man who would help make an English version of Valkyria Chronicles 3 a reality. Ting noted to Polygon that, despite the length of time they worked together, he never really knew who this programmer was. Hiding your identity in this line of pro-bono works comes with one large benefit: anonymity, the bonus of being harder time tracking down. This would come into play farther down the line, as work on the fan translation neared completion.

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Building blocks

Pulling apart a game from the inside out to prep it for a language patch — ripping it open and reorganizing its guts rather than building it from the ground up — works like this: first the game's font has to be found online and modified to accommodate English language letters if it doesn't already. Next, the actual text files for the game need to be found — these can be compressed, encrypted, or even scattered throughout the ROM, requiring some serious legwork to compile.

The biggest challenge in working on an unofficial translation is dismantling and rebuilding someone else's work — literally. Groups may get lucky and find a script for the title they are working with online, or they may have nothing but a copy of the game. In the case of the latter, rather than working through the script and then inserting the translation into the ROM manually or with a patch, the game needs to be broken down entirely and the script files pulled out and dissected.

"With the Game Boy Advance and older systems, there isn't really a file system, we just had a 32 MB file that we had to manually dissect and reverse engineer," Mandelin explained. "For Mother 3, Jeff [Erbrecht] created a really nice text editing graphical user interface, so rather than edit bland, mind-numbing text files or Excel files, I could preview how the text would appear on-screen. This way I could manually format the text to my liking and make sure text flowed smoothly and professionally."

The biggest challenge in working on an unofficial translation is dismantling and rebuilding someone else's work.

Once all text has been translated, developers have to build a tool that will allow them to insert the new script back into the game and the programming code must be rewritten to work with the new text. This, translators said, is the most time-consuming part. Developers need to make sure words do not exceed dialogue boxes and there are no font issues. Once the translation is cleanly inserted, the game then needs to be tested, edited and put through final polish.

In the case of Lindsay Nelson, a translator on Mandelin’s Mother 3 team whose work can be seen in the patch's items and menus, her job was to switch English names in for Japanese ones and "clean up the Japanese crumbs," making sure no characters were left in the game's coding. Raw text files filled with code were passed on to her and she would pick through, making changes and checking to make sure all name, location and item references were consistent.

"One of the challenges associated with re-programming something is making sure that whenever you make a change somewhere, you don't end up breaking something else in the game" Erbrecht explained. "So every time we did something we would then have to play through a few minutes of game dialog and battles to make sure that everything else was still working fine."

While working on Valkyria Chronicles 3, Ting said he began by playing through the game and manually writing down all dialogue and menu text, but the sheer volume of content slowed him down. Once the team was assembled, programmer KnightLeech pulled the text files from the game and translators were able to work with the raw script.

As Steve Demeter, script editor for the fan-translated Mother 3 can attest, translating Japanese dialogue for a Western audience comes with certain hurdles. Japanese language uses a dozen different conjugations for verbs and adverbs that convey feeling and change with social stature in relation to the person being addressed. Demeter said translating and editing dialogue was difficult because in many cases there is no English equivalent for a Japanese word or word forms. The "emotion gap" can be filled with bold and italics for emphasis, but it isn't quite the same thing.

"In English, we tend to use intonation and inflection for this, and as a result, we have to fill that gap using italics, bold print, and so on," Demeter said. "Luckily I was able to find a 'voice' for each of the characters and keep that voice swimming around inside my head for the duration of the work. It was a lot of fun and I'm happy the fans enjoyed it."

Words, words words

Erbrecht despaired he would never be able to make his vision a reality. His own Mother 3 translation project "ended up falling into a pit of drama," he told Polygon — an unfortunate downside of working on an unofficial release without pay — grinding work to a halt and bumming Erbrecht again.

In June 2007, Erbrecht and two other project members abandoned their own failing translation to join the team of the "drama-free" Mandelin team. The project began to gather more steam, collecting another translator who had also begun yet another Mother 3 localization, as well as two more emulator experts and a programmer who created tools to integrate the language patch into the game. At this point in the project, Mandelin noted that team members tended to come and go fairly regularly, with the team retaining 20 members at its peak. Again, like Erbrecht’s team, working in the time between class and the job that nets you a paycheck was tiring, and not being paid for a project of this scope comes with unfortunate side effects including resentment and burnout.

Like Mandelin at FUNimation and Erbrecht at school, members of the team all had full-time jobs or were getting an education; Mother 3 was very much a passion project, a unifying labor of love that the team knew wouldn't earn them a cent.

"I was just above myself with ecstasy that we were giving everyone an opportunity to play the game we thought was lost forever."

"Mostly I was just above myself with ecstasy that we were giving everyone an opportunity to play the game we thought was lost forever," said Nelson. "I was a senior in college in Japan at that point, so it was my own personal unpaid, unaccredited internship. I liked getting the hands-on experience of game translation while I was buffing up for the actual job market for the first time."

Elsewhere in the world, projects like Mother 3 and Valkryia Chronicles 3 are becoming more comment. More recently, on Phoenix Wright fan site Court Records — a forum dedicated to the Ace Attorney series (Gyakuten Saiban in Japan) — user "Auryn" began collecting applications to help translate 2011 Nintendo DS Gyakuten Kenji 2, called Ace Attorney Investigations 2 by fans, which was never released outside of Japan. Auryn asked interested participants to apply rather than take volunteers as they come, building a team under his approval. The application required explanations as to why the applicant felt they should work on the project and qualifying candidates would be interviewed — making the fan-run project seem more professional.

This take, though, is more uncommon — the general rule of thumb among fan translators seems to be: if you love it, you can do it, regardless.

The Valkyria Chronicles 3 project had four translators working on the patch — which finally released earlier this year. Ting explained that the work was divided up into smaller sections so as not to be too overwhelming for any one person: translator Emory Georges took charge of the menus and user interface as well as copy edited finalized chunks of the game, while another Japanese translator worked solely on the main storylines and a Chinese translator focused on working with character-specific side missions lifted from the game’s Chinese version.

Communication, Ting said, was constant, the back and forth of emails and instant messages a steady life-permeating stream. This was necessary in order to keep everyone on the same page, especially in regards to the game’s seemingly-unending bank of proper nouns; the entire team had to agree on spellings and translations for a ton of names, places, items and other game-specific terminology typical in high-fantasy RPGs.

"As Valkyria Chronicles (for PS3) and Valkyria Chronicles 2 (for PSP) have been localized, I used the original game text as a reference to make various revisions to my original translations," Georges explained of how he dealt with the dearth of nouns. He noted that he had to repeatedly turn back to these games as he went along, which was a good set of references points but also extremely time consuming. "In regards to the game interface, I purposefully choose to go back to the terminology in VC1 whenever I could."

Why the no-shows?

Localization takes time, energy and resources, sometimes as much as it does to initially make the game — and for this reason, companies without the bandwidth to spare never bring their games to Western shores.

"There are all kinds of weird legal gray areas," Mark MacDonald, executive director of localization company 8-4, told Polygon. "Sometimes it takes a few years for a game to come out. Sometimes it just seems like a game won't come out in the West and then it will years later. With things like the [Wii U] Virtual Console, where things don't have to be manufactured, the overhead [cost] can be lower, so it's easier to bring these smaller niche titles out years after the fact."

Not every JRPG fan dedicates the time to learn Japanese, and not many gamers purchase hardware compatible with other regions' software. Why these games are never released internationally is usually due an amalgam of a number of factors, most of them financial.

Prominent localization contractor 8-4 is intimately familiar with the work that goes into translating major games. 8-4 has been contracted by everyone from Nintendo and Square Enix to smaller independent developers like Capy. What isn't done in-house at these large companies is typically outsourced to other studios; dialogue and menu translation, vocal work, any number of small parts can be sent off for another studio to work on — or even the entire game as a whole. The "big juicy RPGs" with lots of menus and dialogue trees are the ones that make the translators the most cash, MacDonald said, because companies are usually paid by the character; thus it's these games that get a little more fanfare going through the system.

"There are all kinds of weird legal gray areas.""

As for those long delays, many of them are directly tied to a company's financial situation — can a company afford to translate this game or that game? How much time and resources will it take and is it better to wait until those resources are more readily available? Games like Mistwalker's The Last Story and Ganbarion's Pandora's Tower, heavily requested for localization by fan-run lobbying group Operation Rainfall, were thought to have been brought West only after fan outcry. MacDonald noted that this public fervor could have been a deciding factor in Nintendo's decision to localize the game, but this likely is not the full reason. Decisions like this rest on revenue and resources.

"Every company, especially bigger ones, have different priorities," MacDonald said. "They have tentpole titles that take up resources in localization and marketing, and people have to talk to retailers and all of their production facilities and just everything all down the line. Sometimes it's a matter of seeing when there is a gap in the release schedule.

"It's the first thing that gets cut if budget cuts have to happen," he added. "They take a good amount of time. With bigger RPGs that are dense with a lot of text, the longer it takes to make, the longer it takes to localize. Then you have to do voice casting, record voices, etc."

Translating the game during development may ensure that there is little or no wait between regional release dates, which was the case in recent RPG Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13; the title launched in its native Japan in November and hit North America and Europe in February. But localizing in tandem with primary development is extremely wasteful in terms of sucking up time and resources, according to MacDonald. Small changes can cause a domino effect down the line; something as simple as a name change for one item has to be changed in every version currently in development. The more economical way to do a localization, MacDonald said, is to have the finished product first and then start working on the localization.

Then there are titles that, whether due to a lack of bandwidth or other reasons, never make it West. Square Enix's Final Fantasy Type-0 and Dragon Quest 10, released in 2011 and 2012, never made it West likely due to the phasing out of the Wii and PSP hardware — although the latter is also available on Wii U and Windows. Some games like Level-5's Time Travelers and Square's Sigma Harmonics are so steeped in Japanese culture that they likely wouldn't have done as well in international territories. But then there are games like the Persona series that are well received outside of Japan, so reasons for holding some of these games back is still unclear. MacDonald said sometimes it all simply rests on a company knowing who their audience is.

C and D

There is always fear involved. This is fear of the big C and D: cease and desist. A number of fan projects contacted for this report refused to talk out fear, for this reason.

Legal action is almost always a concern with unofficial translations, a persistent nag as each kanji is transformed into an English word, a rumble in the stomach as each patch file is clipped into the game. That "legal gray area" can come back to bite those who dedicated their time and energy to translating titles for free.

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The head of a well-known Final Fantasy Type-0 localization project declined to share details on the patch — which is slated to launch this year — because he feared attracting the attention of publisher Square Enix. Type-0 has been the subject of much fan fervor since it launched in October 2011, with North American fans referencing the game like a mystical, evasive unicorn; the game was never localized, and despite many half-committing comments from developers that a half-finished English localization is lying around somewhere, it has yet to be seen.

When contacted, Square Enix said they knew about the Final Fantasy Type-0 project, but would not offer comment.

As for the Mother 3 group, they made sure that when they released their ROM patch, they weren't distributing any material Nintendo could slap them with a lawsuit for, Erbrecht said.

"What we released was just a patch for the ROM file, we didn't release the entire translated ROM file," he explained. "This way, we only distributed material that we made ourselves. To make matters more complicated, we used a format that rendered the patch data meaningless without the exact original ROM file from which it was generated. This forced the users to obtain the ROM file elsewhere (legally) and apply the patch to it before being able to play the translation.

"There have been hundreds of fan translations in the past and as far as I know, none of the translators have ever been penalized legally," he added. "So I would say that the risk was pretty low. But we also put a notice on our website that if Nintendo ever asked us to cease and desist, we would comply in full. If Nintendo ever announced plans to translate the game, we would have stopped our project immediately."

The Valkyria Chronicles 3 translation patch launched without a hitch, but Ting said the team is still very, very nervous.

"That's why, prior to release, we were trying to keep it quiet."

"We didn't hear from anybody but we're always scared about that, because over the past two years Sega has done some really weird things with copyright infringement claims, especially on YouTube," he said. "Two years ago they went on a massive copyright spree for the Shining fantasy series. We were concerned about them finding out about us and that's why, prior to release, we were trying to keep it quiet.

"But I would say the risk is worth it," he added. "Sega could do a cease and desist letter. I don't find it likely Sega would be willing to spend money to file a lawsuit against three people who might not have much money anyway and are just doing a translation."

From a business perspective, it makes sense that companies would shut down fan works. It doesn't matter if they already have plans to localize a game in the future — whether or not that strategy exists, keeping the possibility open means one more sales opportunity.

"You don't want those sales cannibalized," MacDonald explained. "A lot of the guys who go on to fan sub the game would absolutely buy the game again anyway if they have the chance to support it officially. But at the same time, not everyone would necessarily do that."

As for offering up translations fans have made with their own sweat and tears to a major company? It's not such a crazy idea.

"We tried to make it very clear that if Nintendo had plans to release Mother 3 in English or if it even wanted us to stop, we'd stop the project in a heartbeat," Mandelin said. His crew did offer their script to Nintendo shortly after completion, though they have not heard from the company.

"Basically, as a professional in the field, I know that a lot of projects never get picked up just because the translation or localization budget is too much," he added. "So if there's ever a future Nintendo business meeting or whatever and they're looking at Mother 3 and going, 'This would take too much time or money or manpower to bother with,' I'm hoping someone else in the room will then say, 'Wait, this guy's a professional translator and is offering his finished translation. If we go with it, it would save us X amount of dollars, we wouldn't have to refocus our own resources, and we'd make even more money than if we canned the project.' That's what the offer is about."

Georges with Valkryia Chronicles 3, like Mandelin with Mother 3, would gladly hand the translated script over to Sega if it meant an official release for the game in the West. It’s not really about the money — if handing over their script means it will make it easier to get the game into more people’s hands, knowing they helped to make it happen is enough.

"Personally speaking, I hope that Sega sees our work as tribute to their original IP, which helps to keep the interest in the Valkyria Chronicles series alive in the West," he said. "Nothing would please me more than to work with Sega to have our translation patch refined and sanctioned into an official localization."

Developers picking up fan translations is also not an uncommon occurrence. North American publisher Xseed licensed a fan-made script for the English-language PSP and Windows PC versions of Ys: The Oath of Felghana. Japanese developer Minori sent cease and desist letters to fan translators No Name Losers over their work on visual novel game Ef — A Fairy Tale of the Two. Both companies eventually entered an agreement in which the former would license the latter's translation for an official English version. JAST USA has licensed fan translations for a number of different games, including visual novels Steins;Gate and School Days HQ.

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So is it worth it?

"The pros I see, is that more and more people are getting interested in and educated about localization and what goes into a good localization," MacDonald said of the burgeoning fan translation community. "And alongside that, people are getting more sophisticated in what they expect from a story and from voice acting, which I actually think is a really good thing. We want people to care about that kind of stuff."

For the people who make them, fan translations are their own reward: a good deed crafted from hours of hard word and passed on the gaming community at large. Language barriers are one of the last divides that separate the industry's Western and Eastern hemispheres. Unofficial localization labors of love are a growing force that may be what breaks these walls down from the inside.

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