The perils of translator interference: examples in media

If there is a phenomenon that needs no introduction to professionals in the field of translation and journalism alike, it is state or editorial censorship: countless governments and other influential entities of varying degrees of dictatorial nature, as well as publishers with an axe to grind or an ideology to serve, have made the lives of those who produce and adapt the written word extremely difficult. From the soviet interference with Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn to the religious persecution against Salman Rushdie, from Saint-Exupéry's anti-authoritarian sentiment being removed in China to the recent alterations made to render Roald Dahl and Mark Twain more palatable to modern sensitivities, books have always been in the crossfire when it comes to the marketplace (often better described as a battlefield) of ideas. What happens, however, when such an impulse is not born of a drive to serve the original text, but rather from that to alter it out of ulterior motives, perhaps purely personal?

Let's take a look at a field filled with minor works that rarely make headlines or are even noticed by the greater public; nothing as glamorous and grand as the immortal works of world literature, but at the same time something that concerns us more directly, as these lesser projects are what translators are likely to be assigned most of the time. Such works are very vulnerable to a completely overlooked form of censorship because hardly anybody knows it's happening in the first place, and that is personal censorial interference by the translators themselves.

A little word of warning: what follows contains profanity, quoted as-is for illustrative purposes.

Around 2005, acclaimed horror writer Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Candyman) teamed up with Spanish software studio Mercurysteam to produce an action game for Windows PC, PlayStation 3, and XBOX 360. The result, titled Clive Barker's Jericho, released in 2007 to a tepid reception: a mediocre affair which ultimately didn't sell very well, it however remained remarkable for its highly disturbing setting, extreme bloody violence, blasphemous religious themes and use of profanity in a time when language in video games wasn't yet as explicit as it is now. Enter the Italian translator who, if their credited works are anything to go by, had never been assigned to anything so "vile" before. Now, we're not here to cast aspersions on this colleague, who probably worked under the pressure of an unreasonable deadline, but out of duty to report we have to note that on top of delivering a localization of middling quality, featuring a number of glaring oversights, they also evidently refused to translate all of the curse words, which we can surmise clashed with their upbringing or personal views, and instead took the initiative to painstakingly remove all instances of profanity from the game: "shit" became "porc..!" (sic) and "fuck you" became "ma vaff...!" (sic). If you're not versed in Italian, think of those abbreviations as having the impact of a "darn" and a "take a hike" respectively. Please note that Italy has no recent history of state-mandated censorship and the game still has a PEGI rating of 18+ in Italy, with a label warning for "sexual expletives and blasphemy", so this wasn't some kind of top-down order to censor this game virtually nobody even knew or talked about; no, the only reasonable conclusion is that this was a personal initiative by a translator who felt offended by the material they had to work on.

If Jericho sounded weird to you, wait until you hear about Rogue Warrior. Shipped in 2009 by British developer Rebel Storm, and starring Golden Globe winner Mickey Rourke, Rogue Warrior was a bog-standard military first-person shooter, loosely based on the escapades of real-world military man and founder of Seal Team 6 Dick Marchinko. Tying to eat the crumbs of the late 2000s Call of Duty craze, the game was a completely unremarkable production under every conceivable point of view... except for one thing, that is the unending, unrelenting, unfettered and likely unscripted torrent of slurs and profanity pouring out of Rourke's mouth virtually every single second of the game, to absolutely farcical effect. It is quite incredible and such a parody of itself that it transcends any sort of pretense of seriousness and comes off as absolutely hilarious camp, which has turned this utterly unremarkable title into a veritable goldmine for internet memes, and saw it widely featured on many popular YouTube channels that wouldn't have given it the time of day otherwise; in fact I suggest taking a moment to search YouTube for "Rogue Warrior quotes" and see for yourself, just so you have a clear picture in mind for what happens next.

Enter the Italian translator. Now, this one is uncredited, so we have no way to verify whether it's the same person as the previous game we discussed, especially as this is a better localization effort overall, more grammatically correct and somewhat more elegant than what we found in Jericho, though with a significant point of contact: here too, every single instance of profanity was replaced with kindergarten variety insults akin to "fool", "stupid" and, at most, "bastard", where the original had "motherfucker", "cocksucker" and "asshole". Like Jericho, this game is also rated PEGI 18+ in Italy and bears the same "sexual expletives and blasphemy" label, even though these are no longer present.

Rogue Warrior (2009)

Can you see the problem? The personal initiative taken by the translator has actively damaged the product they were paid to localize by removing the only ticket to relevancy it possessed. Remember what we said before, that many YouTube channels, some with millions of subscribers, have featured the game for no reason other than the hilarious profanity? This phenomenon, whether by accident or design, has extended the shelf life of the game and amplified its reach, so much so that a huge demographic of gaming enthusiasts are likely to have at least heard of it. Not in Italy though: in that nation, the game is nothing but a boring slog devoid of any personality, unworthy of any attention, and all because of censorial interference by the translator.

Now, Italy is a relatively small market, but let's imagine the parts were inverted and an Italian game being localized into English for the UK, Australian and especially North American markets, which compose an absolutely massive audience. Let's also imagine that the person assigned to the English translation were to decide to do what we have described above, neutering the product of all its appeal on markets so crucial to a game's success. Can you see the damage this would cause to a studio that might have its survival staked on the sales of their game? There is no sugarcoating it: that translator has betrayed the confidence placed in them by the client, interfering with the creative process in a way that's not justifiable under any sort of scrutiny. What's worse is that the client is unlikely to ever know this happened at all: they might see that the game has flopped in a certain geographic area, but the odds they will take the time to investigate the quality of the translation are absolutely minimal. This means that the unfaithful translator will not receive any kind of feedback or repercussion for their actions, probably don't even realize the damage they have caused, and are guaranteed to do it again.

If we as translators discover we have moral, religious or other types of ethical objections that clash with the text we were sent, the only acceptable course of action would be to refuse it, let someone else do the job, and focus our efforts on something we are better suited for.

You may be thinking: "Who cares? Such a big deal about a stupid video game", and if that's the case let me offer some perspective: it is not up to us translators to judge or quantify the product we are localizing. We are not the artist and we are not the target audience, nor are we the gatekeepers of what constitutes art and what doesn't: we are the middleman, no one asked for our opinion, and we should absolutely know our place. In fact, I have selected the two games from the preceding paragraphs precisely knowing they would raise a few eyebrows and be dismissed by some as meaningless. Do we really feel qualified to assess the worth of what we are working on, especially since all we see of it is usually nothing more than an out of context Excel spreadsheet or Word document? What if the person who translated J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit had deemed it a silly children's fable about singing dwarves and not shown it due respect? Perhaps removed or butchered the songs, assuming kids would find them boring. Can you imagine the disaster if a devout translator had looked down on Burgess' A Clockwork Orange as some kind of perverted subversive book, and vandalized it in an attempt to sanitize it, depriving an entire liberal nation of an adequate understanding of one of the defining works on individual freedoms? Do we really trust our judgment to the point that we are ready to risk causing serious, and sometimes permanent, damage? We shouldn't. Do we not care? Then we should leave the work to those who do.

Furthermore, if we take no pride in our work, and dismiss the texts entrusted to us as a load of meaningless tripe that doesn't matter based on our personal tastes, aren't we devaluing ourselves first and foremost? Treating the material we are sent with the utmost seriousness, no matter what it is, is not only a sign of the sort of respect that is always owed the client and the artist, but in the first place it is a sign of respect for our own professionalism. Of course we'd rather be translating a Hollywood blockbuster, or a world-changing novel, but if we can't remain dutiful and faithful to a smaller project, what makes us think we deserve to be trusted with a larger one?

In his 2003 essay Experiences in Translation, world-renowned author Umberto Eco makes the case that a work of literature is a communion of feelings and meanings from the writer to the reader and that, when necessary, the translator must partake in the creative process by adapting the source material in order to preserve those feelings and meanings into the target language at any cost, even if that entails altering the original, for instance when presented with a pun or play on words that cannot be rendered directly. He continues by stating that this dynamic is incredibly important and must be exerted with the most delicate care; as he puts it: "to say almost the same thing". Personal initiative in the localization effort is then not only justified but even encouraged.

However, any alterations we make to the text must be made with extreme care in service of the original, never in spite of it; it is not up to us to decide what goes and what stays based on our whims and opinions, and if we can't abide by that, maybe it's time to consider a different line of work, one more compatible with our convictions. Conversely, a proactive translator with a realistic view of their role can greatly help the author and hugely amplify their reach. Let's do our best to always be the latter, never the former.

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