Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Asian script used by Western developers

Everyone knows about Engrish, where a non-English speaker attempts to use English text often with humorously incorrect results. But what about when the west attempts to use Asian text? Wielding a foreign language without knowledge of it, especially one wholly unlike your native tongue, is as dangerous as handing a blind urologist his scalpel. It’s just asking for trouble... We’ve had a great time on the HG101 forums discussing this matter, and I bring you a sample of our thoughts.

Two things made me think about this. First, I saw an image from my recent Metal Wolf Chaos article, showing neon signs displaying Chinese characters in the San Francisco stage. And then it reminded me of a recent video I saw on Deus Ex 3’s Hong Kong stage, which was full of neon signs with Chinese text. Now with a Japanese company like From Software I would trust their use of Chinese text, since there’s a lot of overlap between Japanese and Chinese, seeing as Japan adopted sections of the alphabet in the past. I’m no expert on the subject, but there’s a myriad of fascinating facts pertaining to the similarities and differences between similar Chinese symbols used by different Asiatic regions. It’s totally worth reading up on.

Having seen around 30 neon signs in the DE3 video, if not more, I was instantly curious to know if anyone had double checked these to avoid mistakes. I went and screen-grabbed all of them, and you can find the results on page 2 of the HG101 forum topic. Also, if you visit the Hanzi Smatter blog you’ll find not only incorrect Asian tattoos on Westerners, but also Western attempts to use the script in everything from music rap videos to T-shirts and website design - and it only makes them look foolish when it goes wrong. Would DE3 find a place on there I wondered? This in turn reminded me of the furore over Sony’s Little Big Planet inadvertently containing Koran expressions in one of the music tracks, which resulted in a recall. DE3 has enough trouble trying to live up to the expectations of DE1 fans such as myself, without embarrassing itself through incorrect text or – even worse – getting recalled because it inadvertently proclaims something offensive in Chinese.

Discussion on the forum brought up a few interesting stories.

Mystery Dreamcast Game
This isn’t Western companies using Asian text, but I wanted to share it anyway. On NTSC-uk’s forum about six years ago, I recall a Dreamcast game where someone had taken hi-res images via VGA, and then enlarged some background textures which had English text. As it turns out they were ripped from the English instructions of office supplies. The text said things like keep away from humidity and so on – it was perhaps less Engrish and more copying verbatim what you found on the inside sleeve of a DVD-R box. It also raises the question: do Japanese people find English text exotic? It was for an action game I think, and so the reasoning would be that English text has more of a militaristic feel than Japanese script? Otherwise why would they go to the trouble of copying English text when it would probably be quicker to just type something yourself? I can’t recall the game (it may even have been a PS2 title, but I’m fairly sure it was Dreamcast) – does anyone else recall something like this?

No one lives forever
Again not Asian text, but Derboo’s anecdote is worth reprinting: I remember some signs in the East Germany levels in No one Lives Forever reading "Bewachung heraus!", which obviously meant to say "Watch out!" but made no sense at all in German.

The Apprentice on CDi
Probably the only Western game which features lolicon porn (Google Hot Coffee and the game’s name for the story). The game was western developed, and one of the staff must have had a serious hard-on for anime, because the whole game is full of this really awful pseudo-anime artwork, with random kanji in many places (I would photograph all the kanji used, but my camera is on holiday, so I could only find these few on Mobygames).

The first - 城 – makes sense, as explained by Trickless: In Chinese, it would usually be read as 'City', as in '城市'. In Japanese kanji, it would usually be read as 'Castle', as in '悪魔城ドラキュラ' Although I think those definitions can be used in both languages, sometimes it depends on the context. Yuan on the forums elaborated further on the symbol, and his unedited explanation on the forum highlights some interesting points: As for the example above, 「城」, it actually means EXACTLY the same in both languages, which is kinda like "brick wall" or "surrounding wall". However, depending on context and usage, you can interpret the "word" differently on BOTH languages.

Which is all fair enough. But then why does The Apprentice have random boxes with the kanji for horse on them? The game is set in a sickly sweet cartoon environment, I highly doubt the castle’s owner has a penchant for forcing his horses to live in a box. Perhaps it’s boxes full of my little ponies?

Red Steel
Kobushi made an interesting example regarding Red Steel on the Wii: I think they just don't care. When I mentioned Red Steel, I was talking about the Japanese version of the game. They didn't even try to fix their mistakes for the gamers in the one country that would be 100% guaranteed to notice. The Japanese signs and billboards in Red Steel were laughably bad. Weird text, incorrect katakana, and some of the signs were completely upside down, IIRC.

Fear Effect
A game where the Asian text features in puzzles. I’ve not played it so can’t comment.

Not really text based, but I was fascinated to discover this tidbit about the spoken Mandarin in-game. As explained by Ganelon: Tong Pu speaks proper Mandarin with no noticeable accent. Followed up by Yuan: Yup, in Strider the Mandarin sounds like from the North. And it is a native Chinese-speaker.

Deus Ex 3
Which leads us on to DE3, the game you mainly want to hear about, right?

Trickless posted first after seeing the video, saying the only thing that stood out for him was老果奴水果店 – which means Old Fruit Slave Fruit Store. A quick Google of this compound brings up Chinese forums, where they’re apparently amused by it.

We discussed this for a while, with Yuan playing detective for this seemingly strange word combination:

Let's unravel the mystery!!

水果店 ----> water pulp infrastructure = fruit store PASS TEST

老果奴 ----> old pulp slave = someone who loves fruit PASS TEST

老果奴水果店 ----> old pulp slave water pulp infrastructure to sell
= Fruit Addict's Fruit Joint ----> PASS TEST

So, nothing about old fruits slaving anyone, or selling them back in fruit form. It is a possible name for a fruit store, and not even too far-fetched at that.

This was backed up by Ganelon: Yeah, I entirely agree with Yuan. If some folks object to "Fruit Slave's Fruit Shop," then they either don't know Chinese very well or they think it's supposed to be a common term when it's not. Some of the signs are proper nouns. How silly would it be if every fruit store was just labeled "Fruit Store?" All the stores in Deus Ex 3 have proper Chinese store names. There are no obvious errors. My guess is they have an employee with a Chinese background.

I find this quite re-assuring. Not only is the fruit store name correct, but it appears to have an element of jovial slang to it – something informal which suits the context of the setting. It’s an extra layer to an already rich environment which almost no one in the west is even going to notice. If a company is willing to go to such effort, or at least have a member of staff with a Chinese background handle this content, compared say against the lazy efforts of Red Steel, then I’m optimistic for DE3. Even though almost no one would have been aware of such things, there was that extra bit of thought which went into it. Now I only hope they make the game as complex as the original, and don’t dumb it down for the mass market.

There was a lot more discussed, far more than I’m willing to retype here, so if you’ve seen western games which incorrectly use Asian script, or you’re curious read more, pop by the forum.

A big thanks to everyone who helped with the translation and explanation of things.


  1. That was actually the first comments from me and my brother when playing Red Steel: "Hoy these guys sure want to be Japanese!" Also the voice acting is racist as HELL in that game, though this seems to be a trend with Ubisoft games in general (Ghost Recon 2 and the horrible Mexican portrayals comes to mind).

    I had no idea that it was completely inaccurate text-wise. Way to drop the ball, Ubisoft! If it wasn't for the multiplayer I would be rid of that game.

    Thanks for this, it has been enlightening.

  2. What a nice change of perspective.

    I have to say though, I'm pretty sure the hilariously bad German text in "No One Lives Forever" was intentional.

  3. I read on some forum that the "No One Lives Forever" was indeed intentional but it's a good one! :)

  4. I've always wanted to make a game that has a sign (in kana) that just says "Random Japanese".