Registers Within Registers
In linguistics, the register is defined as the way a speaker uses language differently in different circumstances.From Richard Nordquist’s “What Is Register in Linguistics?”
Think about the words you choose, your tone of voice, even your body language. You probably behave very differently chatting with a friend than you would at a formal dinner party or during a job interview.
These variations in formality, also called stylistic variation, are known as registers in linguistics.
For the purposes of this Article, we can divide Arabic registers into 3 separate linguistic categories, which are in turn divided into Low & High sub-registers:
- Fusha (aka Modern Standard Arabic)
- Darja (The different flavours of Colloquial Arabic)
- White Arabic (A mix of both)
Yeah, dealing with a matryoshka of registers gets a bit more confusing than just having to deal with one high and one low register, doesn’t it? 😛
To keep this article’s size manageable and my brain from hurting itself in its confusion, we’ll only explore the most commonly used Register in this first part – Fusha, its sub-registers, and their usage in game localization!
Fusha in Game Localization
More commonly called Modern Standard Arabic, Fusha is the lingua franca of the Arabic-speaking world. It’s seen as the “official” Arabic register and forms the bedrock of our education, literature, and media consumption.
It isn’t much different from English in regard to its sub-registers; a low Fusha register, while simple and approachable, could inadvertently come across as patronizing or infantilizing to the wrong target audience.
Conversely, an elevated Fusha register may be perceived as pretentious or inaccessible to a more casual audience.
With this in mind, navigating Fusha’s usage in-game & media localization becomes a very delicate game of balance, one liable to end in disaster if the scales skew too much in one direction or the other – A road made all the bumpier due to the intrinsic linguistic biases each translator has, and their ability (or the lack thereof) to keep them in check.
We’ll explore 3 different localizations in this article that are (broadly) in the same genre, covering the spectrum of Fusha’s usage in Game localization to shed light on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
A Tale of Three Localizations
Demon’s Souls Remake’s Arabic Localization
The reaction to Demon’s Souls receiving an official Arabic localization was nothing short of enthusiastic from Arabic-speaking gamers, marking the first time an entry in the renowned Souls series was being localized into Arabic.
Flash forward a couple of months, and Arabic gamers were sharing screenshots of the utterly broken player messages and bizarrely translated dialogue instead of talking about how much they were enjoying the game.
What went so wrong?
Why Doesn’t it Work?
Put bluntly, Demon’s Souls Arabic localization is more akin to an MTPE second draft than something fit for human consumption. This is the type of localization you play constantly wondering if it was ever playtested.
It’s in that weird space where you’d hesitate to say it’s completely machine translated; because what machine would consistently make the same damn typo?
But what really enraged players, more than the technical issues and the complete lack of polish, was its lack of “authenticity”.
Souls games have a cadence to their writing all too familiar to the series fans, an aspect they felt was cynically cut in this simplified, low-register Arabic localization to target more players.
This led many to stop playing the game in Arabic and switch to English instead. Even if it impeded progression, it’d be the real intended experience they thought. Can’t blame them.
But honestly? This is an aspect I’m willing to cut Sony some slack for.
I’d attribute it to incompetence before malice.
After all, nothing about this localization feels like a conscious decision in service of an end goal. Demon’s Souls Arabic localization simply exists to exist, with no clear goal in mind besides selling more copies.
It’s hardly interesting enough to talk about in length, but we needed some context to set the stage. Let’s move on to the next localization, the one that changed it all.
The Witcher 3’s Arabic Localization
Let’s journey back to a time when Arabic game localization, much less that of massive RPGs, was a path less trodden.
Amid this dark age emerged The Witcher 3, an RPG that seized the hearts and minds of Arabic-speaking players and swiftly became the poster child for Arabic localization.
TW3 is often lauded as the perfect example of what an Arabization should be: An appropriately “high-register”, or as Arabic speakers like to call it, “بليغة” translation fit for its grimdark fantasy tenor. Something straight out of literature. A masterclass in adaptation!
But is it really…?
Nope. But it’s still pretty good!
Switching to a translator’s POV, you’ll quickly notice that TW3’s localization is slightly better than average. It’s as far from being terrible as it is from being incredible. About smack dab in the middle for most of its runtime.
Imagine your run-of-the-mill fantasy series’ subtitles and it’d be about the level of The Witcher 3’s Arabic localization.
It’s Appropriately flavoured yet fluctuates between low and high registers quite often with seemingly no clear end style or tone in mind.
There are hints of brilliance sprinkled here and there, but not nearly enough to elevate it to greatness. And some basic elements like character voice are glaringly absent as well.
All in all, it does the job well enough, but it’s nothing to write home about.
So how come it garnered so much acclaim that players swear by it to this day?
That may in part have to do with the era it was born into.
One can attribute TW3’s success in the region to many aspects, And they’d all be equally right:
- The total lack of AAA RPG localizations at the time helped prop up the game and its localization massively
- Since the Arabic localization scene was in its infancy, players didn’t have much other decent localization to go off on. Serviceable localizations were considered good, and the good ones were considered great
- It was simply a damn good game. So good that players got attached to every aspect of it, localization included
CD Project Red, in a sense, were considered luminaries simply because everything else was shrouded in darkness.
That’s a little harsh, but it’s the truth.
Yet by removing every other variable from the equation and looking solely at its localization, a simpler answer emerges.
Why Does it Work?
The long and short of it is: It didn’t hardly try, and it didn’t try too hard, it tried juuust enough.
The Witcher 3’s Arabic localization holds the player’s hand just enough that those with modest vocabularies don’t feel infantilized, and challenges them linguistically just enough that they don’t feel talked down to.
This led players inexperienced with actual high-register material to find the localization’s flavouring impressive enough to warrant considering it “high-register” & “authentic”, and those more versed in literature to find its simplistic approach to adapting the material, if a bit lacking, inoffensive enough to not sour the experience.
For the vast majority of Arabic-speaking players, TW3’s Arabic localization is like that quiche you ate 5 years ago.
Was it the best quiche ever, sure to make the French themselves green with envy? Probably not. It was like $3 a pop at some food truck.
But it was the first time your tastebuds felt this novel foreign thing, and the experience stuck with you and left you craving more.
Elden Rign’s Arabic Localization
The next major Soulsborne title was shaping up to be a masterpiece, and to sweeten the deal, Bandai Namco announced an Arabic localization. A major step for the series in the region after Demon’s Souls Remake’s subpar localization.
Players were left disappointed however when Arabic got silently canned for unknown reasons. This prompted multiple fan localization teams to take on the task, and the localization that would end up released was Eternal Dream Arabization’s – a team best known for creating one of the best Arabic localizations around.
Their angle was different from Loc&Play though. They gunned for the stars from the get-go, applying their signature no-compromise approach to the localization and taking as much time as needed to get it right.
That meant period-appropriate item names & descriptions, a bestiary that reads like it’s straight out of Arabia’s golden age, and even more poetic prose. The game got the whole package.
This approach worked wonders for adapting Breath of The Wild’s sprawling narrative and cemented it in the upper echelon of Arabic game localization (and as my personal favourite Arabic gameloc ever!), so what could go wrong?
Apparently, a lot.
Elden Ring’s localization went above and beyond to be authentic and to give the fanbase exactly what they asked for, and most Arabic-speaking players did not like that one bit.
Why Doesn’t it Work?
Elden Ring’s localization was highly praised by other Arabic translators, myself included. Some have even considered it as good as BOTW’s localization or better.
You could probably get away with writing an advanced course on Arabic gameloc focused solely on this localization. It’s that good. So what gives?
Well, for one, translators aren’t our target audience, are they?
Elden Ring’s localization repeated and deliberate usage of high-register left a good portion of players with modest vocabularies constantly scratching their heads.
The localization’s extreme authenticity, which even seeped its way into no-no zones like menus and settings, turned a lot of players off.
This escalated to the point of ticking off some players to the point of attacking the team over their perceived elitism when they simply wanted to give the game’s prose the localization it deserved.
Others uninstalled the localization patch after anticipating its release for months, opting to play it in English instead while consulting guides. A feat usually reserved only for the worst of the worst of localizations.
The common consensus was that Souls games were hard enough to grasp as-is in English, so localizing Elden Ring into Arabic with extreme authenticity defeated the purpose.
But wait. Weren’t they just asking for an authentic localization?
We’re left with a conundrum
So, none of this makes sense.
Forgo authenticity and you won’t be spared. Get too authentic and you’ll be lambasted all the same. Try a bit of both and it’s a dice roll.
How do we know what aligns with the audience’s preferences when the audience themselves don’t fully understand their own linguistic inclinations?
Truth is, Arabic-speaking players haven’t experienced enough good & great localizations to adequately express what they want out of one, and that’s fine.
It’s not their job to know, it’s the localization director’s. A role sorely missing at most Arabic localization agencies.
This is one of the aspects that make the task of localizing tonally unique games into Arabic challenging yet intriguing. Because you can’t simply go off on what players are saying they want, you gotta have a feel for it.
And when people with that innate feel are absent from the localization process (as they often are), you should try the next best thing:
Stop listening to what the players are asking for, and start reverse-engineering what they really want.
And after analysing 3 dark fantasy action RPGs, I think we got an answer for this genre:
Players Don’t Value Authenticity in Arabic Localizations. They Value Immersion.
I know. It sucks. But that’s just how things are right now.
The Arabic localization scene is leaving its infancy at the moment and experiencing its own unique set of growing pains.
Better consumer standards tend to come with time, but a general lesson to always remember is that attempting to sway the crowd is a fool’s errand, because no single entity can brute force such a drastic change overnight.
Demon’s Souls came tumbling down head first, The Witcher 3 glided with moderate effort, and Elden Ring reached for the heavens and got burned.
Unlike the other two, the most well-regarded localization of the bunch succeeded where it mattered and failed where it didn’t – and if it succeeds as an engaging and immersive experience for the vast majority of its target audience, can we really say it ever failed?
As the Arabic proverb wisely states,
“.خير الأمور الوسط”
“All things in moderation.”
I’m Seif, Director @ loclait.
When I’m not doing localization, I’m talking about it. When I’m not talking about localization, I’m thinking about it. It’s a vicious cycle. Please send your thoughts and prayers🙏