Why classical Chinese literature takes centre stage in the nation’s video games and what this means for translators. By Dariush Robertson
China’s video game market has now become the largest in the world, worth US$27.5bn.1 Over the past few years, an increasing number of Chinese video games have been translated into English, and then into other languages using English as a relay language. This rapid growth has created an increasing demand for Chinese-to-English video game translators, who, with the right skills and mind-set, can expect to receive a number of such projects a year. Each project can involve tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of characters.
However, Chinese games can be very different from the games typically played in the West, presenting some unusual translation challenges. Therefore, any budding Chinese-to-English games translator cannot rely solely on Chinese language skills and a knowledge of Western video games to succeed.
The journey begins
When I started freelancing in 2011, I was surprised to find an advert for a Chinese-to-English video game translation project. While I had always been passionate about gaming, I did not know much about Chinese video games. Most games published in the West tend to be from Western developers such as Activision Blizzard (US) and Ubisoft (France), or Japanese developers including Nintendo and Square Enix. Yet I was confident that my experience of video games and translation would be sufficient. My career as a Chinese-to-English video game translator, however, did not begin until I had passed a series of tests.
The standard way of entering this industry is by registering with localisation agencies. This typically involves email correspondence, informal online interviews and then translation tests. Most agencies have several tests on different genres, from massive multiplayer online games (MMORPGs) to casual puzzle games for tablets and smart phones. Freelancers decide which tests to take, each containing around 300-500 characters, and are usually given one or two days. Once accepted, the freelancer is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), placed on a register and contacted when required.
MMORPG translation forms the mainstay of work for Chinese-English games translators, amounting to around half the video games I work on. Not only are there a lot of them, but they also tend to contain a high volume of text, so one MMORPG can contain as much text as several games from other genres.
Reliving the classics
The first thing that struck me about the majority of Chinese video games, was how they related to Chinese culture. While a few were loosely based on periods of European history, the majority featured recurring Chinese themes. These games were typically MMORPGs, either based on – or inspired by – Chinese classical literature, such as Journey to the West (Wu; 1592), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Luo; 14th century) and Heroes of the Marsh (Shi; c.13th century). Many other MMORPRGs were inspired by Wuxia novels, which are set within ancient or pre-modern China and involve heroic martial artists, delivering justice and stamping out corruption throughout the land.
One of the main challenges of translating video games based on these texts is that they feature Classical Chinese, which evolved in the 5th-2nd centuries BC. It is markedly different from modern Chinese and more concise (typically twice as compact), featuring more pronouns but dropping subjects and objects when reference to them is inferable. In addition, Classical Chinese has a rhythmic quality and is sometimes delivered in verse. A translator who can read modern Chinese is likely to struggle with Classical Chinese.
Fortunately, my interest in Chinese classical literature was one of the main reasons I began learning the language. As soon as I was able, I started reading the classics and watching TV and movie adaptations. Without this knowledge, it would have been difficult to translate the many culture-specific references typical to these games, including historical characters, mythological creatures, poetic verse and even traditional Chinese medicine.
It is not uncommon in these games to come across a wandering scholar (often a historic figure) roaming the mountains, drinking wine and giving your character details of the next quest in poetic verse; or an eccentric hermit, who is really a grand master and will teach you a secret form of martial arts, but only after you help him to gather medicinal herbs.
Although I was aware of China’s pride in its long recorded history, I was still surprised that so many Chinese video games had such a high degree of culture specifity. Some Western games are based on legendary tales, for example King Arthur or Robin Hood, but very few are based on classical literature such as Shakespearean plays. After some research, I learned that, in 2000, the Chinese Ministry of Culture had banned foreign consoles, as they were considered to disturb social order, threaten state security and be harmful to young people.2 Developers were then directed to promote Chinese culture within the gaming community to build a stronger sense of Chinese identity,3 and this is why there are so many MMORPGs based on classical Chinese literature and wuxia novels.
Mythical beasts and how to translate them
Among the many cultural elements, Chinese mythical creatures exist in the majority of the nation’s video games, either as beings with which the player interacts, or as symbols, images or text references. There is no mythical beast more central to Chinese culture than the lóng (龙), which is almost always translated as ‘dragon’. However, the Western concept of ‘dragon’ and the Chinese concept of lóng are opposites in several respects. The dragon is often an evil, reptilian, fire-breathing creature, while the lóng is an auspicious, magical being, typically described as having the antlers of a deer, the head of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, paws of a tiger and ears of an ox. However, as the translation ‘dragon’ has already been firmly established in Western references to Chinese culture, especially celebrations, architecture and the Chinese zodiac, translating it as anything else would be problematic.
While not as renowned as the lóng, the qílín (麒麟) is one of the most commonly depicted mythical creatures featured in Chinese video games, and is sometimes inaccurately translated as ‘unicorn’. Where a Western unicorn is a magical horse with a single horn, the qílín is more of a chimerical creature with the ability to walk on water and clouds, typically having the scales of a dragon, the body of an ox, horse or deer, cloven hooves, a mane and beard, antlers and carp-like whiskers, and can be golden, multicoloured or even bejeweled. The qílín is often thought of as a symbol of good luck, protection, success and longevity, and, when threatened, has been known to breathe fire.
There are several possible approaches to translating such creatures. With a foreignising approach, it could be rendered as qílín, preserving the source culture and celebrating the exotic nature of the beast. Alternatively, a translation could be created based on its physical features; in a game where the qílín served as a mount, for instance, the term ‘dragon steed’ was used. There is no single correct answer, but with a bit of imagination translators can do a lot better than ‘unicorn’.
There are hundreds of mythical creatures in Chinese literature, and therefore in Chinese video games. Some of them, like the dragon, will be recognisable to Western audiences; others will have a higher degree of cultural opacity. In many cases, translators will have to choose between preserving the source culture, using what seem like Western equivalents or creating something new. Having a comprehensive knowledge of the relevant myths, legends and literature should help them to make better decisions.
Working as a team
Most localisation agencies outsource teams of freelance translators and reviewers after a project has been secured. Around the time a project begins, the freelancers will normally be given a localisation kit, including screen shots, information and possibly a style guide, which provide helpful context and guidance. More context can be gained by playing the original versions of the games, which are usually available online. By spending as little as half an hour with a game, it is possible to learn its core mechanics, and potentially prevent dozens of mistakes.
Most video game translations involve one or two translators and a reviewer, but for bigger jobs, or when there are tight deadlines, it’s possible to have several linguists working in tandem. Problems can occur if they cannot agree on certain translations, for example where one takes a more faithful approach to the source text, and the other takes a freer or more creative approach, focusing on the reception of the target audience. When multiple linguists work on the same project, they can easily modify each other’s translations accidentally, as, by nature, video game texts are highly repetitive and, in a translation memory, if you change one repetition, all the other repetitions (that other linguists have completed) can be updated to the latest translation. The best way to avoid this is by having a clearly defined style guide, protocols for repetitions, and effective communication throughout.
It can be difficult for larger teams to gel within such a short period of time, but for the agencies, it makes financial sense to only hire them when required. Eager to prove themselves, newer translators can be less likely to alert the team to a problematic translation, yet it is vital that all team members are communicative about any potential problems. It is much better to flag a problem in the text and have the team collectively work on it, than to provide a guess translation. In fact, teams that flag the most problems tend to create the best overall translations. Most agencies encourage this, as it can prevent inaccurate or inappropriate translations being exposed by developers, or critics, and there is nothing worse than the quality of a translation being questioned in a published review.
The game market in China continues to grow, and this will likely increase the demand for Chinese>English video game translators. Any linguist interested in making a career in this field would do well to familiarise themselves with classical Chinese literature, wuxia novels, and the core mechanics of Chinese MMORPGs. Despite the quirks and challenges, Chinese video game localisation projects can be culturally stimulating and provide freelancers with a steady stream of work.
Dariush Robertson MCIL is a freelance translator and part-time lecturer/PhD student at Newcastle University. His research focuses on Chinese to English video game translation, cultural references, literature translation and localisation.
1 Warman, P (2017) ‘The Global Games Market Will Reach $108.9 billion in 2017 with Mobile Taking 42%’. In Newzoo, 20/4/17; bit.ly/2pm1wBO
2 Tanchan, R (2017) ‘A History of Video Game Censorship in China’. In The Culture Trip, 26/1/17
3 Feng, A (2014) ‘Online Games and National Chinese Identities’. In Lee, H-K and Lim, L (eds) Cultural Policies in East Asia: Dynamics between the state, arts and creative industries. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 53