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Localisation and Transcreation in video games

Aidan Cross

Monday, 6 March 2023

A case study of Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” to answer the question “what is localisation, why is it important, and what does it look like when done right?”

Localisation and transcreation are the lesser-known siblings of translation. Whereas the main focus of a translation is on linguistic equivalence from one language to another, localisation takes this one step further, making adaptions for cultural differences. Sometimes, this means that the translator has to be creative to convey the same message in a way appropriate for the new cultural and linguistic audience. In other words, translation is useful for removing the language barrier to a new audience, but localisation, and transcreation, are key to removing any potential cultural barriers. This allows companies to better connect with global audiences and succeed in global markets – none more so than entertainment companies, for example, Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing”.


“Animal Crossing”, or to give it its original title “Dōbutsu no Mori” (どうぶつの森), was first released in Japan in 2001. The next year, it was released in North America – after a six-month localisation process, the largest translation project by Nintendo of America at the time, in which new holidays and items were created for a non-Japanese audience – and by 2004 had also been expanded to the Australian and European market. Fast-forward sixteen years, and the most recent, and popular, instalment in the series, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” was released worldwide in 2020 and is available in ten languages: Japanese, English (United States & United Kingdom), Chinese (Simplified & Traditional), Korean, French (France & Canada), Spanish (Spain & Latin America), Italian, German, Dutch, and Russian.


Since the beginning, Nintendo has excelled in finding the balance between “domestication” and “foreignisation” in their localisation process, making “Animal Crossing” an equally enjoyable experience for every player without losing its unique character. The most well-known example of localisation in “Animal Crossing” is that in Japan, the character Tom Nook is a tanuki; in international releases, he’s a raccoon. The game is also full of Japanese cultural references, such as the collectable “gyroids” which are based on the terracotta figures that were buried with the dead during the Kofun period in Japan, called “haniwa” ( 埴輪) – which is also referenced in the fact that these figures sell for 828 Bells as the Japanese pronunciation of 828 contains the syllables for “haniwa”: “happyaku ni-jū hachi”. Furthermore, there are many Japanese holidays within the game, e.g. “Tanabata” (たなばた) or the “Star Festival”, but these are celebrated alongside global holidays, such as “Toy Day” and “Bunny Day”, and special items are available to players during holidays such as the “Festa do Peão de Barretos” or “Cowboy Festival” from Brazil, which is celebrated in-game with the furniture item “rodeo-style springy ride-on”.


“Animal Crossing” is well-loved for the abundance of adorable animal villagers that the player can befriend. So, it is unsurprising that, to convey the same charm, many of these characters have different names in different localisations. For example, Lolly is a sweet tabby cat and her name – short for “lollipop” – matches her personality. In the original Japanese, her name is “Ramune” (ラムネ), the name of a popular Japanese fizzy drink; this reference would undoubtedly be lost on an English-speaking audience. Similarly, in the Korean localisation, her name is changed to “Saida” (사이다), a Korean fizzy drink.[5]


Anyone who has played “Animal Crossing” will tell you that one of the other main features is catching fish and bugs, accompanied by a catch quote, which is usually a terrible pun or joke. Catching the most-hated fish in the game, the sea bass, will show you the message "I caught a sea bass! No, wait- it's at least a C+!" if you’re playing in English. However, for Spanish-speaking players, the quote will be “¡He pescado una lubina! Pues mejor que una sardina...” which translates to “I caught a sea bass! Well, better than a sardine…” This is not a direct translation, and it doesn’t make much sense when translated back into English either, nor is it a similar joke or pun. Instead, the translator has rhymed “lubina” with “sardina” – this is an example of transcreation. Perhaps the most impressive example of transcreation in “Animal Crossing” is the language spoken by the characters: Animalese. Despite this being a “gibberish” language, it actually sounds different depending on the player’s language. This is because each letter that is spoken by a character is synthesised to the basic sound of that letter in the player’s language, making the Japanese version more intelligible than the English, for example, because each kana syllable is matched with its proper sound.


All of these translation, localisation, and transcreation efforts help to explain why, as well as being such a fun, cosy, and comforting game, “Animal Crossing” is so well-loved. Tailoring the experience to a player’s language and culture allows them to be fully immersed in the world and to play and enjoy the game as it was intended, without linguistic or cultural barriers.


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