If you’re someone who feels their favorite game in the world doesn’t tend to be in the spotlight as much as it deserves, it’s an odd feeling when it’s suddenly at the front and center of attention. But I’m glad my favorite game gets into trouble for angering people for the right reasons.
Earlier this week, the visual novel The House in Fata Morgana stirred up a notable controversy despite it being eight years since its Japanese release and four years since its English localization. The controversy began when Yukino, the translator of the English localization team, quote-retweeted a fan’s tweet. The fan tweeted a screenshot in which a woman in the game refers to a man’s “fragile male ego.” In response to the screenshot, Yukino revealed the team went through a rather agonizing process to get this single line right.
“fun fact: in the Japanese, Morgana is calling him a “tsundere” here, and you have NO FUCKING IDEA how many brainstorming sessions it took over several weeks to come up with this translation,” Yukino tweeted.
fun fact: in the Japanese, Morgana is calling him a “tsundere” here, and you have NO FUCKING IDEA how many brainstorming sessions it took over several weeks to come up with this translation https://t.co/Ou22oN62p8
— yukino🏳️⚧️🔲🐝🏢💻💙🌇🌸🐼🌶️🔥⚗️⚖️👑🍹🥃🎋🍁🌻 (@yukinogatari) May 2, 2020
In an immediate follow-up to the tweet, she notes it was even, “probably the very last finalized line in the script.”
Her tweet, and this single line of the game, soon got the attention of toxic communities. Fans of the visual novel genre became furious enough that they harassed Yukino, another developer on the project, and those supporting them. The localized line quickly drew backlash because it wasn’t a direct translation. As Yukino stated, the original line refers to the man as a “tsundere” — a popular anime character archetype in which a character acts mean to hide their feelings until they reluctantly show a softer and more caring side to them every now and then. It’s not an archetype specific to gender, while the localized line is specific to masculinity; the deviation was enough to anger the wrong crowd.
This prompted developer Novectacle to step in and defend the English localization team. “We stand for the main translator’s opinion,” stated the developer in the first of several tweets. MangaGamer, which directed the localization team, also released a statement on Twitter in support. “We would like to make it abundantly clear that we stand behind our localization staff and do our utmost to ensure that the developers’ wishes are respected as well. While there are numerous equally valid approaches to any given translation problem, harassment is not one of them,” tweeted the account.
I specify fans of the genre, and not of The House in the Fata Morgana, because, as I watched this unravel on my timeline, it became immediately clear the grand majority of angry individuals aren’t people who have played this game.
Yukino elaborates on the line’s context and how deeply it fits with the main story in several follow-ups to her original quote-retweet. But they do contain spoilers, so I’d advise reading them at your own risk if this is a game you want to (and should!) experience.
What can be said with relatively few spoilers is this: The House in Fata Morgana is a gothic horror romance story that is deeply about the construction (and deconstruction) of gender, misogyny, and queerness. It’s structured like an anthology in which you see the various lives of the people who inhabit a mysterious mansion throughout wildly different eras. One of the themes among each story is the pressures of rigid gender roles in society, and how they lead to systematic and individual tragedy. It’s one of the most daringly progressive and unabashedly queer stories I know. A sarcastic quip pales in significance to the thousands of lines that touch either directly or indirectly on the visual novel’s themes.
Jacopo, the man with the “fragile male ego” you see in the screenshot, is emotionally and physically abusive to his wife in the events of the main story. A large point to his character is his refusal to see her, and other women in his life, as an equal to him; his disregard for the misogynistic ways in which he makes them suffer. Thus, a sarcastic character — and a woman who has endured much tragedy at his hands — acknowledging his “fragile male ego” isn’t an aspect of the localization that conflicts with the story or Jacopo’s core in any way. It also doesn’t conflict with the sarcastic tone of the original.
This is all without mentioning that the “controversial” line isn’t even in the main game; it’s exclusive to a lighthearted segment in the original PC version of the game that unlocks once you finish the story. In this “backstage” segment, the fourth wall is constantly broken, and the character who guides you through it even notes that, “what you’re about to read does not in any way respect the tone of the game proper.”
When speaking to Fanbyte about the controversy, Gerald, the editor of the English localization team, says the team was, “tasked with translating a part of the game that was intrinsically silly, in which characters are fully aware that they’re fictional. They frequently make references to ‘the creators’ and even touch on the writing process and some of the deliberately misleading aspects of the game! It sorta reminds me of the behind-the-scenes shows and podcasts of popular TV shows in recent years, only with a sassy little witch mercilessly roasting the main characters (as well as the game’s staff).”
“The antagonist would have never addressed this particular character in this way in the actual story in either English OR Japanese, but this being a backstage scene, of course, she ramps it up a few notches for comedic effect,” explains Gerald. “In Japanese, she calls him a ‘tsundere bakayarou’ which can be very literally translated as ‘dumbass who has trouble expressing his emotions’ which… just doesn’t hit in English, at least not for me.”
It is the general philosophy of localizers to provide an experience that is as close to the original as possible for players. This is the process localizers do, and one that involves much more than a direct translation; in fact, sometimes a direct translation doesn’t make sense. When this is the case, localizers must figure out which changes to make in order to capture the original intent but present a piece of dialogue that makes sense and feels natural to the player within the context of the story. This is due to not only the endless nuances of completely different languages but also the cultures that constantly shape and define those languages. “Jokes, for instance, are notorious for being devilish to translate,” shares Gerald.
Therefore, it’s easy to understand why the line had to be changed from the original. “Tsundere” is not a word that is instantly recognizable to everyone outside of Japan — or even most fans of anime and the visual novel genre. As a result, it wouldn’t have made sense to most people playing the game in English.
“I think Yukino nailed it — ‘fragile male ego’ sidesteps the whole issue of ‘tsundere’ being cumbersome to translate, while still being every bit as biting and comedic as the original line, and taking into full account the complex relationship of the two characters,” tells me Gerald. “I felt absolutely zero need to edit it … Furthermore, as per the game’s writer Keika Hanada, this usage of ‘tsundere’ is actually more of a biting sarcastic remark (indeed, contrary to popular belief, sarcasm does actually exist in Japanese!), so keeping it intact or translating it straight just wouldn’t have worked anyway.”
Adding to this decision is that The House in Fata Morgana is unlike most visual novels or Japanese works of fiction. There is a clear inspiration taken from western works that the player can see through the game’s vibrant settings, incredible and lyrically-heavy soundtrack, gorgeous character designs, and more. As a result, the localization team, “wanted to localize the game with a general audience in mind who may not be familiar with the concept.”
I ask Gerald about his thoughts on why this one line has received attention now, almost exactly four years after the game’s localization — especially since this is a game with an abundance of much more scathing insight into the gender dynamics of society than through a funny line. I ask if harassment is something localizers and translators have to deal with often.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of targeted harassment campaigns are by no means an uncommon occurrence,” says Gerald. “I’ve noticed that this sort of backlash is far more common in visual novel communities, which tend to be very tightly knit, and localization staff tends to be accessible and often not bound by strict non-disclosure agreements. It’s one of the most passionate communities I’ve seen, which is usually a wonderful thing! But that passion can be a bit of a double-edged sword, because the moment someone finds a line they disagree with, it’s suddenly a huge deal and a topic of discussion for weeks, months, even years to come. And in many cases, that’s perfectly fine — debate over translations is by no means a new thing. Just look at how many English versions of the Bible there are, for instance!”
To add on to Gerald’s point, game localization isn’t limited to just translations, either. Sometimes, like with Persona 5, it’s about fixing moments of cultural insensitivity once that game is sold in locations in which an offensive joke resonates very differently. Sometimes, it’s even about changing a game’s features. For example, the western localization of Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town will allow same-sex marriages in a way the original Japanese game won’t explicitly validate. Localizers aren’t new to simple debates about translations because there is so much more that goes into the job of localizing a game.
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But Gerald knows this hasn’t been a debate about just the translation itself. Otherwise, “the past week wouldn’t have been nearly as ugly as it was.”
“Personally, I — a straight white guy with a similar social media presence [to Yukino] — have received only a minuscule amount of harassment compared to my comrade in arms who’s had to endure the brunt of it when I’m technically equally to blame for this transgression,” reflects Gerald. He notes that, sadly, “the vast majority of those targeted by localization hate mobs are women.”
And, in this case, the mob cared much less about the game than dishing out harassment towards accessible developers who worked on what is both an explicitly political and explicitly progressive visual novel. “It’s abundantly clear that very few of the most vocal critics of this particular line have played this game and have very little interest in doing so,” says Gerald. “And, in fact, their disapproval comes more from the perception that we’ve injected a political agenda into the game, which… well, let’s just say that The House in Fata Morgana is easily one of the most overtly political and socially conscious Japanese visual novels I’ve ever played.”
“There’s an incredibly bizarre misconception that Japan is a land free of social justice and feminism discourse, but that’s frankly delusional — Japan isn’t some fantasy land, it exists in the real world which has real-life problems for a lot of real people,” says Gerald. “And although this game may take place primarily in the olden times of Europe, its themes are painfully modern and universal, so the notion that we’ve surgically implanted misandry is downright ludicrous. The icing on the cake is that so many of these folks consider themselves anti-censorship when, in fact, they’re literally asking us to censor the very localization that its creator gave his seal of approval.”
“While it’s amusing to me that it’s taken this long for the localization police to find us, it’s really a testament to the game’s quality that it’s being talked about even half a decade later,” says Gerald, who, like me, sees The House in Fata Morgana as a story that has changed our lives. “It’s just a shame that there’s been so much controversy over one of the most contextless out-of-context lines in recent memory.”