On Translation and/as Interface

I. Windows, Mirrors and Translations

Within their book Windows and Mirrors, J. David Bolter and Diane Gromala discuss the interface of digital artifacts (primarily artistic ones, but that is in large part their SIGGRAPH 2000 sample set) as having two trends. The first is the invisible window where we see through the interface to the content, and the other is the seemingly maligned (at least recently an in much of the design treatises) reflective mirror that reflects how the interface works with/on us as users.

This is similar in ways to Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s Platform Studies initiative where the interface exists between the object form/function and its reception/operation, and this interface can do many things depending on its contextual and material particulars. We need only look at the difference between Myst with its clear screen and Quake with its HUD, or between Halo and its standard gamepad and Wario Ware: Smooth Moves with its wiimote utilization to see the range.

However, another thing that the discussion of windows and mirrors, immediacy and hypermediacy, seeing through and looking at all bring up when paired with interface is translation. A translation is also an interface. It can be a window or a mirror, transparent or layered, you can see through it to some content, or you can be forced to look at it and the form and translation itself.

But thinking of translation as an interface in the Bolter and Gromala sense, or as Bogost and Montfort’s interface layer is unusual. Usual is to place the translation outside of the game as a post production necessity that enable the global spread of the product, or, at best, an integrated element of the production side that minimally alters the text so that it can be accepted in the target locale. Even researchers within the field of game studies generally ignore the language of the game: nobody asks what version the researcher played because we all recognize that we play different versions; more important is that the researcher played at all.

So translation’s place is in question. Is it production? Post-production? Important? Negligible? And how does one study it? We can barely agree upon how to study play and games themselves, so surely this is putting the carriage before the horse (or maybe some nails on the carriage before both). But, no, I still wish to follow through with this discussion, as I believe it can be productive. My question is how does translation relate to games, and hopefully I can come up with a few thoughts/answers if not a single ‘truth.’

II. Translation and Localization

As Heather Chandler has so wonderfully documented, the translation of game has a variable relationship to the production cycle. It at one point was completely post-productive and barely involved the original production and development teams. At its earliest it was simply the inclusion of a translated sheet of instructions to aid the user in deciphering what was a game in a completely foreign language. This still exists in certain locations, especially those with weaker linguistic and monetary Empires (obviously, not English, but ironically this includes China where the games are often gray or black market Japanese imports). This type of translation, called a non-localization, has slowly given way to more complete localizations including “partial” and “full” localizations. Partial localizations maintain many in game features, but menus and titles switch language, audio may remain as is, but subtitles will be included. In contrast, a full localization tends toward altering everything to a target preference including voices, images, dialogue, background music, and even game elements such as diegetic locations. As the extent of localization increased the position (temporally and in importance) of translation in the production cycle changed. It moved forward and needed pre-planning for nested file structures. It also grew in importance so that more money might be spent to ensure a better product.

However, other than a few gaffs like “all your base” and other poor translations from the early years game translation has increasingly become invisible. This invisibility, or transparency, has been written about extensively by Lawrence Venuti regarding literary translation, the status of the translator, and the relationship of global to national cultural production. For my purposes here I will simply say that he says the fluent translations are a problem (in the context of American Empire) and that current game localization practices (which are multi/international, but in many ways American-centric) do what he claims is bad. We don’t need to accept his arguments regarding empire and discursive regimes of translation (although I do), but we should be aware of the parallels between what he talks about using literary analysis and many translation reviews, and the way that nobody even talks about a game translation.

So the industry hides translation. But why does the academic community ignore it? Is it not a part of games? Maybe. But is it a part of play?

III. Ontology

Ontologies of play typically exclude translation. This is most obviously demonstrated in Jesper Juuls’ summary of common definitions and play that he uses to form his own classic game model. Rules are all well and good, but all games have a context, and it is this context that Juul misses when he dismisses the idea of “social groupings” (Juul 34). Juul pulls this from Huizinga and it is key that it relates to Huizinga’s primary contribution of the magic circle and the “ins” and “ofs” of play and culture.

I would argue that games promote social groups, but they also form in social groups and language is crucial to this as an important (perhaps primary) marker of a social group. However, in Juul’s final analysis “the rest of the world” has almost entirely been removed as an “optional” element (41). It is one thing to say that the outcome might effect the world, but it is another to say it can only be created through that world and its mere playing effects the world. Juul even acknowledges this in the conclusion to the chapter where he notes that pervasive and locative games break the rule. However, I would still argue that even the classic model does not obey the ”bounded in space and time” principle.

The former can be demonstrated trough Scrabble. A game created in English with strict rules, negotiable outcomes, player effort, attachment, valorization of winning, and many ways to do so. But the game is completely attached to English. The letters have point determinations based on ease of use and the scarcity of each letter is based on its common usage. The game is designed around English and cone cannot play it with other languages. Take Japanese: even if one were to Romanize the characters one wouldn’t have nearly enough vowels, and if one replaced all of the characters with hiragana there are still way too many homonyms to make a meaningful/difficult game. Japanese Scrabble might be possible, but it would need to be created by changing a great deal of the game. It is bounded in space and time, but contextually so.

The latter we can return to both Huizinga and Caillois who both locate play/games within a relationship to culture. Their teleological and Structuralist issues aside, it is important to not simply separate games (the text) from culture, time, place (the context) in a reductively formal analysis. Huizinga links play to culture as a functional element. These rules are a purpose even if that purpose has changed. Caillois notes a key association between types of play and particular societies. Games may be a separate place, but they affect the real world and vice-versa.

IV. Platform Studies

So context is important. Essential even. Let’s tack it on and see what happens. Or better yet, let’s say it’s pervasive and inseparable, but also difficult to distinguish. This is much like Bogost and Montfort’s Platform Studies model, so let’s see how translation could be integrated into that model.

Here I will primarily use Montfort’s earlier conceptualization of platform studies from his essay “Combat in Context.” Montfort moves toward a slightly simplified five-layer model from Lars Konzack’s seven-layer model by moving cultural and social context from a layer to a surrounding element. However, it is interesting that while he moves context to a surrounding element it is Platform that is key for them. Everything in his model is reliant on the platform.

As the base level the platform enables what can be created upon it. It is both the question of whether it is on a screen, whether it plays DVDs, cartridges or downloads files, how big those are and what size of a game is allowed on them. It is the capabilities of the system and what this enables. However, the platform layer exists in a context both technological and socio-cultural. The processor chip of the platform is in a particular context and limits the platform, but the existence of a living room with enough space to move can also limit the platform.

Second is the game code. The switch from assembly to higher level programming was enabled by platform advancements, but this also enabled great differences in the further layers. The way the code existed is also integrally related to linguistics/language. Translating assembly code is painstaking and almost always avoided. The era of assembly code was also the era of in house translations and non or partial localizations. In contrast, C and its derivatives enable greater linguistic integration and as long as programs in higher level code are programmed intelligibly translating them is possible. Context with the game code involves language. This much is obvious, as code is language. But I mean something further. I mean that there is a shift tin allowances along the way that reveals how real world “natural/national” languages become integrated, but always subsumed under machine languages.

Third is the game form: the narrative and rules. What we see, hear and play (if not ‘how’ we see, hear and play). This is the non-phenomenological game. The text, as it is. Of course, if it is the text then what is the surrounding context other than everything?

As we’ve seen from Juul, the rules belie languagelessness. We enter a world that has a set of rules that are separate from life and this prevents one from linking the game to life. But the narrative, if one does not think it an inconsequential thing tacked onto the essential rules, is related to contextually relevant things and presented in linguistically particular ways. Language then is here as well and translation bears and important role. In many ways this is the main place in which one might locate translation, but only if one is a narratologist. If the story is of prime importance, form is where translation exists.

The fourth level is the interface. Not the interface that I began with, at least not quite, or not yet, but the link between the player and the game. The “how” one sees, hears and plays the game. To Bogost and Montfort this is the control scheme, the wiimote and its phenomenological appeal compared to the gamepad or joystick, but it is also the way the game has layers of information that it must communicate to the user. The form of the game leads toward certain options of interface: a PVP FPS must be sure to have easily read information that allows quick decisions and full game time experience, but a slow RPG can have layers of dense interface, opaque and in a way that forces the user to spend hours making decisions in non-game time.

The interface also enables certain things. A complicated interface is hard to pick up and understand, but a simple one is easy. This is a design principle that Bolter and Gromala contest, but it has levels of truth in it. A new audience is not likely to pick up the obscenely difficult layering of interface of an RPG or turn based strategy game, but a casual point and click may be easily picked up and learned (if just as easily put down and forgotten).

In some ways this is also where translation exists and in some ways it isn’t. Certainly the GUI’s linguistic elements can be translated, but more often they are programmed in a supposedly non linguistic and universal manner. [heart symbol] stands for life and [lightening bolt] stands for magic or energy, or life is red and energy/magic is blue. Similarly, the audio cues are often untranslated. And controls mainly stay the same. Perhaps one of the few control changes of interface is the PlayStation alteration of O, or ‘maru,’ for ‘yes’ and X, or ‘batsu,’ for ‘no’ in Japanese for X, or check, for ‘yes’ and O for ‘no’ in English.

The fifth level is reception and operation: how the user and society receives the game, how it has come from prequels and gone to sequels, its transmedial or generic reverberations, and even the lawsuits and news surrounding it. All of these point outside of the game, but how does one then separate context? Is the nation the receiver or the context? Is the national language or dominant dialect part of the level or surrounding context? Is it effected by the game or can it then effect the game? And even if it effects the game by being on the top layer is it negligible in its importance? Is this another material vs. ideological Marxist fight for a new generation?

A short answer is that Bogost and Montfort answer all of this by putting context as a surrounding element, but they also fail to highlight its importance. By pushing out context to the surrounding bits it essentializes the core and approves of an analysis that does not include the periphery. The core can be enumerated; the periphery can never be fully labeled or contained.

Elements of importance are too destabilized to be meaningful when analyzed according to the platform studies. Translation is a prime example, but race and sexuality are equally problematic. Their agenda is not contextual, but formal. Mine is contextual and cultural.

V. Translation as Interface

The goal of localization is to translate a game so that a user in the target locale can have the same experience as a user in the source locale. For localization, then, translation is about providing a similar fifth level reception and operation experience. However, to provide this experience the localizers must alter the game form level by physically manipulating the game code level. The interface, beyond minor linguistic alteration, is not physically altered and yet it is the metaphor of what is being done to the game itself. The translation of a game, like Bolter and Gromala’s critique of the interface as window, attempts to transparently allow the user to look into a presumed originary text, or in the case of games, into to originary experience. It reduces the text to a singular experience/text. However, the experience and text were never singular to begin with. In translations, too, we need mirrors as well as windows, so how can we make a translation that reads like a mirror by reflecting the user and his or her own experience?

First, all of Bolter and Gromala’s claims against design’s obsession with windows and transparency are completely transferrable to games as digital artifacts and to the localization industry’s professed agendas. Thus, the primary necessity is to acknowledge the benefit of a non-window translation. Second, the translation must be put in as a visible, reflective interface that both shows the user’s playing particulars, the originals playing particulars and the way that the game form and code has been changed in the process. This could be enabled by a more layered, visible, foreignizing translational style. Instead of automatically loading a version of the game the user should be required to pick a translation and be notified that they can pick another. Different localizations should be visible provided on a singular medium. Alternate, fan produced modification translations should be enabled. If an uncomplicated translation-interface is an invisible and unproductive interface, then a complicated translation-interface is a visible and productive one. Make the translational interface visible.

VI. References

  • Bolter, J. David, and Diane Gromala. Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Chandler, Heather Maxwell. The Game Localization Handbook. Hingham: Charles River Media, 2005.
  • Chandler, Heather Maxwell. The Game Production Handbook. 2nd ed. Hingham: Infinity Science Press, 2009.
  • Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.
  • Montfort, Nick. “Combat in Context.” Game Studies 6, no. 1 (2006).
  • Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam : The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.
  • Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008 [1994].

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