Free Fan Translations Really Leave Everyone Worse Off
A small glimpse into the interesting lives of video game translators.
When it comes to smaller, tight-knit teams like Campo Santo, success and critical reception for a game like Firewatch can be overwhelming. After making a splash on PC and PS4 earlier this year, the developers announced that they wanted their game to reach a wider audience – more specifically, they wanted Firewatch to be available to fans of various different languages.
“Our Steam launch came with an unexpected surprise: a full-text Russian localization. We’re also working on Spanish, French, German, and Chinese localizations, and on bringing all five official translations to PS4, too. That adds up to more than 2 billion native speakers who will be able to experience Firewatch!
We know that doesn’t begin to cover everyone, however. That’s why we’re making our full text data available on GitHub, and putting out an open invitation for you to create your own localization for friends and other fans. We’re hoping to see Firewatch in as many languages as possible, and we will be uploading full localizations back to the GitHub repository as the community completes them so they can be shared around.”
Fan translations have been something of a controversy in recent years. From the debacle that stemmed from the Final Fantasy Type-0 fan patch, which was rife with legal conflicts between fans and Square Enix, to fans creating their own English translations of Fire Emblem If believing that Nintendo was bastardizing and censoring the game, the very concept of having fans and non-officially sanctioned translators work on a video game localization has sparked all sorts of debates about the legality of it all.
Both Type-0 and Fire Emblem are instances markedly different from the debates that have cropped up with Campo Santo’s announcement; however, there is a striking similarity between all of these examples: fan-localizations, or fan-locs as the community has taken to calling them, exist because of the passion of a community. After all, fan passion is the reason why the Steam release of Firewatch got a full Russian localization in the first place. Fans want to put in the time and effort into localizing a game because they love the material and want to share it with those who speak a different language. While Firewatch isn’t quite on the same scale as Final Fantasy Type-0 and Fire Emblem If, it’s certainly made enough of a splash for Campo Santo’s open invitation to attract large groups of willing volunteer translators.
However, not everyone is on board with this “open invitation.”
“It’s hardly an invitation to professional translators, who for the most part don’t have time to translate an entire game for fun and no profit,” Olivia Iwai, a Japanese-English translator and regular contributor to Gematsu, tells me. “If you have people with little qualified experience providing free work for a shout out or excuse to build their credibility, you have to wonder what kind of quality you will receive, and if that translation work will be proofread and quality checked. If not, it’s a lose-lose situation; no one gets paid and the translation quality suffers.”
Iwai isn’t the only one feeling concerned over this matter. Koestl, a freelance translator who’s worked on localizing Japanese visual novels including the Grisaia trilogy, wasn’t too pleased with Campo Santo’s announcement either. “I think it’s nice of developers to tolerate fan patches if they have no plans to officially localize their game in a certain language. I do not think they should actively invite or organize unpaid translations,” he tells me. “If they want to take an active role in bringing their game to wider audiences, they owe it to their foreign fans to have that work done professionally.”
One crucial point to note is that at the time of the announcement, Campo Santo already had plans to include official localizations in the retail release of the game for some languages, but not others. Of course, a smaller team like Campo Santo can’t possibly be expected to localize Firewatch in every single language. From a business standpoint, it may not make sense for the developers to put in the extra money into localizing their game in a particular language if they don’t see themselves making any sort of profit from it. However, by telling fans that they had no intention to pay professional localization houses for the rest of the languages, it sent out the troubling message of “we’re not going to pay to put out a professionally-done localization of our game in your language, so if you want to see it in your native language, here are our text files. Go crazy.”
“They either don’t understand the level of skill and commitment required to produce a reliably professional localization, or they simply don’t care enough about their own product to ensure that it’s presented well to those speaking ‘less important’ languages,” Koestl also mentions to me via email.
Campo Santo’s open invitation is not just a matter of appealing to your own fan base and encouraging them to dedicate their free time to translating text with little recognition; freelance translator Thomas James also brings up the excellent point that this was essentially taking away and devaluing the work of professional translators.
“Translators today, especially new people just trying to break into freelance, can already have a tremendously hard time justifying the value of their work to potential clients, especially if said clients aren’t the kind to regularly need translation work,” James says, contemplating the potential roadblocks that come with working in his field.
“The legalities for actually publishing a localized version within a retail product do provide some much-needed checks and balances that fan translations aren’t always able to meet, but again, successful community outsourcing efforts done for free can help create the perception that professional translators might not always be necessary if the community can do a perceivably ‘good enough’ job.”
By adopting the open source method for fan translations, Campo Santo isn’t exactly doing fan translators a big favor either. With the community projects that are currently going on, it would appear that only one definitive localization patch will be available for each language. James tells me that this may not necessarily be a good thing for fan translators because there’s nothing stopping future translators from overwriting past work to provide a more updated version of the localization. This means it will be difficult for any one person or team to take proper credit for the work they’ve put into this project.
Speaking to these freelance translators directly, it quickly became clear that whether Firewatch’s fan-locs were up to snuff or not, there was always going to be a potential losing party. Be it the professional translators looking for more work, fan translators looking for recognition, or the fans left wanting to experience Firewatch with a quality localization, Campo Santo’s announcement certainly left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths with the underlying message that the developers wanted to reach out to a wider audience without paying a cent.
It is worth noting that the developers have since responded to the backlash, saying that they simply wanted to make the fans’ jobs easier by giving them open and complete access to Firewatch’s text data, and that none of the fan-locs would ever be used for profit. While I have little doubt that Campo Santo’s intentions came from a good place (who wouldn’t want more people to be able to access their game?), it’s clear that the initial announcement warranted more thought. We often see fans clamoring for an English localization when a popular Japanese game gets announced, but not enough people seem particularly aware of the amount of work and effort that goes into translating text, and then localizing them in a way that will sound culturally appropriate for a given language.
When asked to briefly describe the process of translating a piece of work, Iwai brought attention to the obstacles faced when translating Japanese news and articles. “Conversational text is easier than technical explanations of game mechanics or when you encounter words that are made up entirely in the context of the game and no comparable localized version exists. Having source material can play a big role too; if you are providing subtitles for low quality gameplay that isn’t available in HD or a blurry photo for a magazine someone uploaded to Twitter, kanji compounds can become illegible and it can be a headache to figure out what’s actually written.”
Even if it’s just a simple news text or interview, Iwai says that a proper translation can take up to a few hours without disruptions. James and Koestl, both of whom have worked on translating video games, describe a similar, though much more complex, process.
When working on a professional localization for any form of media, a translator has to read the source work to get a feel for the “narrative direction” of the material. From there, most of the work comes from trying to convey the emotional and philosophical concepts of the game in a way that feels natural in English. If it’s a particularly sizeable project, translators have to work together and coordinate their translations to make sure that all thematic and linguistic decisions are consistent across the board and that everything comes together in a way that makes sense for the player.
And when it comes to working on fan patches for a game in a foreign language, Koestl notes that some patches do not even make it to release or simply fall below an acceptable standard of quality.
Speaking to various translators, they all had a common reason for getting into this line of work: interest, passion, and a desire to use their linguistic ability to give back to the gaming community. It certainly does seem like the interest for their job and what they do comes from a place not unlike fan passion. Volunteering to translate a full game in a different language just so a part of a community can experience it is a lot like charity work – you don’t get anything out of it, aside from appreciation and thanks from the players who use your patch. Coming back to the issue of Campo Santo’s announcement then, it’s easy to see why translators (both fans and professionals alike) did not take too well to the open invitation put out by the developers.
While there is no doubt that fans would have inevitably rallied together to create fan-locs for the game (Firewatch is a wonderful game, after all), Campo Santo’s announcement essentially read like an active encouragement for the fans to contribute their free time and hard work. On one hand, the fans are getting recognition on a technical basis – there is now official support from the developers themselves, and they won’t have to worry about any legal issues, as was the case with the messy Final Fantasy Type-0 fan patch. On the other hand, it is still problematic to see a developer actively enlist the help of fans to market their game to foreign speakers by organizing community translation projects on GitHub and Transifex.
As for professional translators looking to make a living in this line of work, it’s a bleak situation all around. When asked why he got into this field in the first place, Koestl admits that he does like the products that he works on, but making a full-time career out of translation and localization is difficult because of “the rates of pay in [the] industry.”
On some level, appreciation from a developer is the type of recognition that a fan would be thrilled to receive. But realistically speaking, the most appropriate form of recognition for this kind of work – the kind of work that would require a huge chunk of your time and concentration, especially for a text-heavy and talkative game like Firewatch – is a paycheck.
Iwai agrees with my sentiment.
“Of course, a fan translation comes more from the fan’s passion to share a game they love with more audiences and less about the profit. I’m sure when I was younger and more naive about the value of the work I was doing, the idea of being recognized by a company I was a fan of would have been extremely appealing. But now, I can’t honestly say there is a more appropriate way to award that amount of work than with monetary compensation.”