Localizing Visibly Ideologically Material

Is it possible to localize America’s Army? How about Under Ash? Finally, what about Kingdom Hearts? The initial answer for both America’s Army and Under Ash is generally ‘no.’ It is not considered possible to localize such strongly ideological games because the ideological elements for these games are such a central feature, the content, and yet to localize a game is to take out such particulars and make it legible to an alternate audience. In order to localize America’s Army it would be necessary to take out the America element. Similarly, to localize Under Ash it would be necessary to remove the Hezbollah part. Subsequently it would be necessary to insert similarly understandable, equal yet different, elements in their place. Such a task is generally considered, if not impossible, incredibly difficult.

However, I want to answer that, yes, it would be possible to localize either game using the standard process of localization, but that the results would be meaningless. Both an America’s Army that did not help recruit cadets for the Army and an Under Ash that did not demonstrate a way to fight against incursions in Palestine would be so far divorced from their original text that calling them translations, or in any meaningful way related to the original text, would be false. And yet, that is largely what the localization of Kingdom Hearts, a story within the Japanese cultural context, but localized and transferred to America, does.

This statement is building off of arguments I have made previously with William Huber at the blog Gummi Ship, so I will skip going over those arguments extensively. The gist is that the allegorithmic (Galloway 2005) logic of Kingdom Hearts reproduces American Imperialism within the 20th century. Your main task within the game is to enter and control the entry into other worlds [countries] in order to aid/redirect their cultural politics in a manner highly reminiscent of developmental theory (Rostow 1960, Schramm 1964). But the point for Kingdom Hearts is that while barging into the countries is problematized within the games especially by having the Japanese player act the role of the American side, and through the mixing of Japanese and English in the so-called International Final Mix, thereby highlighting the problems of American exceptionalism, the localization removes these elements, places the American players within their own standard role, and eliminates any element of internationalism that was otherwise visible through the mixture of languages.

The point here is that Kingdom Hearts is just as ideologically charged as America’s Army and Under Ash even if this ideology is slightly submerged below the surface. However, even with that it is translated/localized without consideration. Importantly, however, is that such ideological changes happen with the localization, but they are not considered as really being changed.

So, I suppose my point is that translating ideologically prone games is impossible, but localizing them is certainly possible and done where you least expect it. But again, is that a good thing or a bad thing?


  • Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • Rostow, W. W. The Stages of Economic Growth, a Non-Communist Manifesto. Cambridge [Eng.]: University Press, 1960.
  • Schramm, Wilbur. Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964.

Censorship vs. Localization

There has been varied, but relatively constant noise being made by the World of Warcraft community about the Chinese release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Said in one way it is simply a year late. This is normal practice for some operating systems or languages, but for an MMO expansion pack it is a bit more visible, and with angry waiting fans it’s even more visible.

The thing about WotLK is that it has been ready for release for a year, but has gotten hung up in requirements put forth by the Chinese government regarding its release. These requirements have been dubbed censorship by the fanbase (particularly those on Kotaku and MMO-Champion), but the interesting element is that these are simply localization [L10n] issues from a different angle.

The main points of contention are skeletons: skeletons under cauldrons and against walls, skulls on spikes, skulls on weapons, skeletal knees poking out of zombie bodies, giant bone animals, and I’m not sure about skeletons in armor. The claimed ideological basis for and defense of, the censorship is that ancestor veneration, signified by being good to the bones of ancestors, is difficult when you’re going around destroying those bones/skeletons/zombies or putting them on weapons or spikes. Of course, there’s a slight problem when the the the majority of the expac deals with necromancy and its problems (via the Lich King). In short, the narrative of WoW: WotLK is hard to localize to China.

And yet, it has been done. Skulls are removed, zombies have no bones, and bone dragons and bone griffons are transformed to flashy ghost dragons and griffons. Is this a sign that, indeed, narrative does not matter? Or is it a sign that millions of ravenous players will force certain hands, and this is the best the Chinese government (particularly the the ministry in charge of publications and press (GAPP) and the ministry of culture (MOC)) is going to get (the fact that other games, particularly other, more local MMOs such as Perfect World were not put through such direct censorship, but multinational Blizzard’s MMO was is, perhaps, telling)? Or, is it just a sign that L10n really is the way things work now, and like translation only becoming visible with its mistakes, L10n is only visible when it doesn’t happen ‘properly,’ which is to say when it isn’t localized enough and is thus put through additional censorship. Games that are localized enough (self censored in both the production and L10n phases) do not need censorship; games that are not localized enough get censored before release.

This logic seems to be mirrored in calls to limit indigenous exclamations in Final Fantasy XIII (Koncewicz), which would make L10n easier, or at least possible due to the extensiveness of these noises (one of many places where you can seen these unlocalized noises is in Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks). But what they’re asking for goes part and parcel with the L10n process as internationalization [i18n], the production level planing for L10n. Both Koncewicz and guides to L10n indicate making assets easily changeable is best practice for i18n as L10n can then more easily push the product into some parituclar locale. However, while Koncewicz indicates this was the intention of FFXIII as an internationally aimed game it seems to be opposed by the very imbeddedness of certain games into certain cultures (Subarashiki kono sekai, which is subtitled It’s A Wonderful World in Japanese, but localized as The World Ends With You in English is an interesting example). Thus, the complaints of FFXIII are less against L10n than against Square-Enix’s i18n process and the idiosyncrasies that they do not want to delete from FFXIII and other games.

However, in the case of WotLK, Netease.com, the company releasing WoW in China, wants to censor, but did a poor job self censoring in the L10n process, and Blizzard in fact did not i18n ‘enough’ in the development process. One might also extend this claim by saying their recent, much lauded Starcraft II L10n is a direct step up from the failure of localizing WotLK for China. The ‘enough’ here is actually problematic for two reasons. One is that  they are being forced to change the narrative level significantly, and if such alterations are in fact part of the L10n can one even call the game a translation? If you don’t fight a Death Knight, a Lich and a Bone Dragon are you really playing Wrath of the Lich King? Is WoW: WotLK US/EU and WoW: WotLK China the same game? The second is that while WotLK was hounded by the Chinese goverment locally developed (multinational, but of Chinese origin) Perfect World Online was released with skeletons available for slaying. So how much of i18n and L10n are being enforced where they should not be, how much of cultural particularity or universality are being reinforced by political clout or business acquiescence where it is actually a nonexistent thing?


  • Koncewicz, Radek. Localizing Exclamations in FInal Fantasy XIII
  • Mickey Yang. “Pics: What’s Changed in Chinese Version Wrath of the Lich King.” Chinagame.178.com. Posted: 8/16/2010.

A Note/Warning on My Position

While I advocate for particular strategies and theories of translation, I do so in the historical context of 21st century US sociopolitical irresponsibility and dominance.

I do not speak as a minority, nor as a reader of a language fighting for survival and self determination. Rather, I write as an early 21st century US citizen who has seen ‘his’ country at war for a decade. A decade where significant backlash has resulted against people who look or act different regardless of their relationship to the ‘enemy.’

The US has fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against an undefined terrorist that can best be summed up as ‘different.’ America is at war with difference: “those who oppose our way of life.” And one of the (many) ways this insane fear of, and aggression against, the cultural other has been reproduced to massive levels has been in the systematic representation of the other through and in translation.

A simple result of the discursive regime of domesticating translation (Venuti) is that everybody else – the foreign in books and other media – looks like us. As all translation, all media made by anybody else, is made to look as if it were made by us, we never see difference. All that is good looks like us. All it then takes is the mass display not only of difference, but difference that “hates us,” to spark 10 years of war.

I believe I do not overemphasize the importance of changing the way translation happens in the US.

  • Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008 [1994].
  • —. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. New York: Routledge, 1998.


Today I had a long conversation about the differences between and qualities of the prefixes post and neo. Obviously, on the simple root level one implies after and the other implies new. Unfortunately, the usage of the terms is hardly regulated, far from understandable, and often used for the same formation: post-colonial, neo-colonial, post-Fordist, neo-Fordist, et cetera.

Thus, the question turns to what they each imply, what are the particularities of the terms. Post-colonial implies after the colonial moment, there are no more empires or colonies, so the idea of post-colonial focuses on the temporal switch from one era/epoch/period/moment to the next. It highlights chronoogical time as hte basic structure of intelligibility.

In contrast, there are those who adamantly refuse to use the term post-colonialism on teh grounds that formations of domination and exploitation exist despite the lack of colonies perse (American imperialism of the mid/late 20th century and its relationship to Israel and Japan are the standard objections). This is generally resultant in the use of neo-colonialism, which highlights not the temporally specific formation of empire and colonies, but the structural paradicgm and its 20th century revision into a new, but related paradigm. Neo thus implies a progression and revision of structure and ideas.

To here, it is possible to understand the nomenculture as a matter of individual emphasis. The problem is that it goes beyond a simple linguistic turn. History is structured after the fact by discourse: the emphasis of political structure or ethical paradigm restructures the historical field of knowledge.

So, which is better, neo or post? Is time the best way to structure knowledge or is theme? And how do each of these translate between contexts?