Fan translations are the gift that has always given
If you’re a fan of any foreign media, I don’t need to explain to you why fan translations are awesome.
They’ve become an unspoken solace among nerds worldwide when something cool isn’t officially localized. Nintendo is still a decade on their streak of not localizing Mother 3, yet we still enjoy a professional quality English translation thanks to fans. Or maybe you remember watching Death Note in English as soon as possible, and got treated to one of the most well known anime memes ever. For every company out there that refuses to localize their product, there’s a fan waiting to pick up the slack. Even if it takes decades to happen.
I could easily fill an article just listing examples of influential fan translations. But when you stop to think about it, fan translations are more than just the specific games and anime we’ve enjoyed thanks to them. Rather, fan translations completely changed the way we look at media. Join us on a journey back to the 1990s and 2000s as we examine how fan translations changed the world as we know it.
Fan translations introduced us to culture.
In the early days of gaming and anime, “localization” wasn’t even a word in the average fan’s vocabulary. All the media we enjoyed was heavily edited for western tastes, and most of us were none the wiser. Onigiri becoming jelly donuts in Pokémon? Episodes getting cut wholesale from Sailor Moon? Final Fantasy characters getting extra clothes drawn on? These were only a few of the things that were common place for the time.
Early fan translations are notorious for their rough edges. Most notably for excess swearing and untranslated words accompanied by verbose “TL notes.” But even in this state, audiences got their first glimpse into their favorite games and anime in their original language. Early translators worked tirelessly to retranslate established works like Final Fantasy 4, which showed us a new side to our favorite franchises. Sure, these efforts may have missed the mark, but the seeds of curiosity were planted in our minds regardless.
This is to say nothing of all the new things we got to see and play thanks to early fan translations. As a kid who grew up with the SNES, I can still remember the shock of learning about Final Fantasy V and “Secret of Mana 2” on the same day… and realizing I could play them in English if I so chose to. If some of my favorite games ever had these lost sequels, then what other gems could be hiding out there? It’s no exaggeration to say the rabbit hole of fan translations cultivated my ongoing love of niche Japanese video games, and I know the same is true for countless others.
Fan translations were more than just a product released by hyper dedicated groups of people. They were an entire subculture that banded together to see all the things we never got in the West. The internet before the age of modern social media was a wild west, and there was nothing like being one of those pioneers waiting to see what was hidden beyond the horizon.
Fan translations showed us that localization isn’t easy.
As mentioned above, a lot of fan translations were… not great. Sometimes, you get scripts that are literal to the point of being borderline incomprehensible. Other times, you get superfluous scripts that venture into cringe-inducing fanfiction territory. Notable examples includes references to William Shatner and saying your witch companion does naughty things like a tiger. And that’s all assuming the translation isn’t hindered by programming issues.
Here’s the thing: professional translators were still figuring out how to localize in these early days too. Studios like Working Designs – as beloved as they were – strayed wildly off base of their games’ original scripts. And even Square gave us some puzzling Final Fantasy translations. We know today that localization is tricky business, but it’s thanks to fan translations that many of us realized that you could translate the same work a million different ways. It opened the dialogue for what makes a good translation – and what fans really want with their English scripts.
Yet against all odds, many early fan translations were impeccably made. Final Fantasy V is one of the earliest notable fan translations, and it was considered the superior way to play the game in English until the Gameboy Advance version 14 years later. Plus titles like Bahamut Lagoon and Star Ocean were on par with what professionals were releasing at their respective times of release. It’s honestly incredible that a community of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings were capable of this level of quality… all without being paid to do it.
Of course, that’s a slightly different story today. Fan translations are so ubiquitous that some of them actually become official translations. The trailblazer here is Ys: Oath in Felghana, which used the fan translation as a base for Xseed’s own script. And anime companies have since hired on the same people that once provided fan subtitles for their work. It’s incredible to think of how much we owe today to the early community of fan translators, no matter how indirect the connection may be.
Fan translations preserve history.
We live in an era where an unprecedented amount of niche media gets localized. Heck, the idea of localizing something like the Trails series would have been laughed off as an inevitable financial failure a decade ago. But as good as things are, there are works that slip through the cracks and will never get an official English release. For that, fan translations continue to be a saving grace.
A ton of media as we know it is in danger of disappearing forever. When a game as big as Kingdom Hearts didn’t even have its source code preserved, what hope does a niche game or anime have of being preserved 10 or 20 years from now? Fan translators don’t just give us English versions of otherwise neglected games; they give a new generation of fans a reason to care about something they didn’t know anything about.
Not every Japan-only game or anime is necessarily a gem. Heck, many of them probably didn’t get a localization because they’re actually awful. But that’s no reason for them to be lost in time. Even stuff like Takeshi’s Challenge has taken on a new life in the English speaking world because it’s so bad. The smallest work can help paint a picture of the era in which it was created, and fan translations are a key way for the English speaking world to engage with that media. Maybe these works aren’t classics, but at least we get an opportunity to learn more about them.
So for all the joys that fan translations have brought us, and all the ways we’ll continue to benefit from fan translations in the future, let’s raise our digital glasses to the tireless people who have given us decades of their quality work. Thank you for all the ways you have changed our worlds, and we can’t wait to see what you keikaku to bring us next.