Even if you’re not into video games, you may have heard of Animal Crossing over the past year. With the Coronavirus pandemic, countries going in and out of lockdowns and what feels like a constant barrage of bad news, people have jumped at the chance to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s newest release of the now 20-year-old franchise, which offers a little bit of wholesome escapism as you build a life on a desert island alongside your animal neighbours.
Having sunk quite a few hours into the game myself (and not being familiar with the previous editions), I was delighted to discover all the tiny details in the game – and, as my translator brain never truly switches off, I was interested to see how the game was able to be adapted into so many other languages, encompass aspects from several different cultures, and yet still stay true to its Japanese origins. Here are a few examples!
There are 393 possible villagers for you to meet in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH), as well as a host of characters who help you develop your island or earn money. Nearly all of them have names that are inspired by how they look or what animal they are – which, of course, all have to be transcreated!
For example, the entrepreneur Tom Nook, who initially sells you your house and starts you off on your island life, is known as Tanukichi (たぬきち) in Japanese, with both names sounding like the type of animal he is – a tanuki. His colleague, Isabelle, is named Shizue (しずえ) in Japanese due to her appearance of a Shi Tzu dog, but her English name appears to derive from the fact that she looks like a bag of the in-game currency, Bells.
While some localised names have double meanings in Japanese, they have taken a slightly different direction in English. C.J., a beaver who hosts fishing tournaments, seems to be short for “Chip Junior”, as a different beaver called Chip hosted the tourneys in previous games. But his Japanese name is Jasutin (ジャスティン), and he sports a blonde quiff, suggesting a reference to pop star Justin Bieber (or, Justin Beaver, in this case!).
My favourite play on words is the name of the boar who sells turnips at a fluctuating price for the player to sell on (I promise, this all makes sense when you play the game!). Her name in Japanese is Kaburiba, a portmanteau of kabu (a homophone that can mean either “stocks” or “turnips”), and uriba (“selling place”). How did the translators make a play on this in English? By renaming her “Sow Joan” and referring to her business as the “Stalk Market”, of course.
As well as your anthropomorphic neighbours, there are also 80 fish, 80 bugs and 40 sea creatures to catch – with your character saying a different joke or pun with each species you snag. That’s a lot of dad jokes!
As it is very difficult to create puns in 12 different languages, some translations opt for a little rhyme rather than a play on words. For example, when catching a sea bass, your character says “I caught a sea bass! No, wait – it’s at least a C+!” But in Spanish, it rhymes: “¡He pescado una lubina! Pues mejor que una sardina…” (“I caught a sea bass! Well, better than a sardine…”).
After players began to complain that they were sick of seeing that sea bass quote (as it is quite a common fish to catch), a member of the ACNH localisation team, Rob Heiret, took to Twitter to explain how they went about workshopping some of these jokes.
He touches on one of the most important aspects of localisation: although bilingual game players may be disappointed to find that a translation isn’t as funny or as catchy in another language, or even if there’s some translation loss, their main aim is to keep the game positive and comforting so that playing it is enjoyable, which is more important than shoehorning in jokes and literal translations that may not work.
Striking a cultural balance
One aspect of localisation that always has to be considered is the balance between “domestication” and “foreignization”. For Nintendo and other Japanese exports, they have traditionally leaned towards domestication: removing elements that felt too “Japanese” before rolling a product out internationally, to avoid alienating their new audiences. A famous (and occasionally-mocked) example can be found in an episode of Pokémon, where the character Brock mentions how he is enjoying the doughnuts he’s eating, despite the fact that he is clearly holding rice balls.
In ACNH, religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter are given more universal names, such as Toy Day and Bunny Day, and there are opportunities to buy special items when Mother’s Day and Father’s Day rolls around in North America; but there is also a cherry blossom event in spring, and items to commemorate Tanabata and other festival days around the world.
There are also many pieces of Japanese furniture and clothing in the game, as well as small details like having the construction signs look typically Japanese. The balance that the developers have taken means that the game stays true to its origins, while having enough familiar objects so that the gameplay is still enjoyable and seamless outside of Japan – plus, players get to discover new aspects of different cultures.
Another creative linguistic solution stems from the fact that Blathers, the owl who runs the museum, speaks using the Watakushi form in Japanese: a personal pronoun that conveys a very formal and humble address. As we don’t have different ways of saying “I” in English, he instead speaks in quite a formal and academic manner, giving the impression of an old professor.
Speaking of speech, another huge piece of work that went into the game that may have passed unnoticed is the made-up language that all the characters use, called Animalese. Although it sounds like gibberish, even these sounds are localised and vary between languages. Animalese was created by chopping up and speeding up samples of real speech, so for New Horizons, the developers decided that it was worth localising so that the speech mimics the rhythm and cadence that we are used to in our own language. Now that is going the extra mile!
In all, Animal Crossing illustrates how translation doesn’t always mean putting exactly the same words into another language, but rather adapting and localising the content so that it gives the audience the same feeling and reaction as the original – while also knowing when to retain some native elements.
It is also a perfect example of how much work and expertise can go into localisation and transcreation – and the huge payoffs if you get it right. This game began development in 2012, and was announced in 2018 to be released in 2019, but it was ultimately delayed until March 2020. Nintendo said at the time: “To ensure the game is the best it can be, we must ask that you wait a little longer than we thought.” Since then, it has become a best-selling and award-winning game, and a great comfort to thousands of people during an extremely trying year. Proof, if it was ever needed, that great work should not be rushed.