Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a bit of a black sheep in the franchise. It bears more resemblance to the similarly-infamous Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest than it does to the rest of the Zelda games, for a start. Its slow leveling system, punitive gameplay, and all-around cryptic nature make it pretty off-putting when compared to the rest of the series, which is more likely to be criticized for being too straightforward and simple!
This is partially by design. When compared to its contemporaries such as Final Fantasy and the original Megami Tensei, some amount of grind, punishment, and obtuseness are to be expected. A single ~$50 game (around $125 today when adjusted for inflation!) was expected to last a player over a month, at least. Otherwise, a few rentals would be much more economical. Making progression unclear was an easy way to extend playtime, while also enticing players to collaborate with one another, buy gaming magazines, and call tip lines. Let’s save you a little money, today, and look into one of the most infamous lines in the game:
If you’re unfamiliar with Zelda II, the first dungeon in the game is Parapa Palace, and contains the Candle, an item that will light up dark caves. Dark caves stand between the player and the rest of the game, so this is a pretty important hint.
There’s just one problem with this hint: Parapa Palace is in the northeast! Far from being helpful, this hint seems downright false! While the intended reading is possible to glean from this text, it’s plain from a little searching that some players felt misled:
Alright, so let’s ask the important question: What was this line like originally? Luckily, it’s very early in the game, so it wasn’t difficult to get screenshots for a comparison:
|Japanese||Official English||Direct Translation|
|When you get the|
candle in the Temple
of Parapa, go to the
next temple from
the western tunnel.
As you can see, there’s a stark contrast between the information conveyed in the two versions. First, the word シンデン (shinden) can be written 神殿 (meaning ‘shrine’ or ‘temple’) or 寝殿 (referring to the main room of a Heian-style palace). With the benefit of hindsight, we know locations like the Temple of Time in future Zelda games used the former, so for consistency reasons, “temple” is probably best. The choice of “palace” is most-easily chalked up to the localization seeming to have been handled by Japanese staff, since no Western names are in the game’s credits. They simply found an English equivalent to shinden that got the gist across. EDIT: As MrCheeze_ points out, it could also be influenced by Nintendo’s habit of removing religious references in localization, as well.
We can also see—through the use of 取ったら (tottara) and から (kara)—that the Japanese text implies a pretty clear sequence of events, here. 取る (toru) means ‘to get’ or ‘to obtain’ in this context. Adding tara on the end makes its meaning closer to “upon getting (the candle)”. Lastly, kara is comparable to ‘from’, and tells us that when we have the candle, we can then get to the next temple by starting our journey at at a tunnel to the west.
A pretty small modification to convey the gist would be something like, “Get candle in Parapa Palace, then go west.” That seems pretty straightforward, huh? Don’t be too quick to judge, however, because the English writer was playing with a significant handicap: the text’s
destiny, I mean, its density. See, the text boxes were limited to a mere 4 lines, with 10 characters per line (including spaces). This is a much bigger problem in English than Japanese.
You might be aware that Japanese has three sets of characters. The exact difference between each is beyond the scope of this article, but only kanji and katakana are relevant, here. While kanji are meaning-rich, a term’s pronunciation can be conveyed using katakana alone, and a Japanese player will be able to figure out what kanji would be used. Japanese computers would usually only display katakana and Roman characters until shortly before Zelda II‘s release, so native speakers were pretty used to it by then.
I would say that English words equate to about 1 or 2 kanji each, on average. Additionally, most kanji could be conveyed with 1 or 2 katakana. Finally, most estimates I’ve seen peg the average length of an English word to about 5 letters.
Since English uses spaces between every word and Japanese doesn’t, let’s make it 6 characters per English word, and an average of 2-3 characters to convey the same meaning in Japanese. From that estimate, we can expect English to require an average of 2.5 times as much text to convey the same meaning as the Japanese equivalent written entirely in katakana.
The Parapa Palace Candle dialogue is right in line with this estimate. My 95-character translation is almost 2.4 times as long as the 40 used to convey the same information in Japanese. It would’ve taken 3 text boxes to fit, without rewriting! I’m not even sure if Zelda II‘s engine allows for dialogue to cover multiple text boxes, or how much work it would’ve been to modify the size.
According to Ted Woolsey, even 7 years later localization was regarded as a thing that should simply be done as quickly as possible, since games were “toys for kids”. It wouldn’t be until around the launch of the Nintendo 64 that Japanese developers would really start taking localization more seriously, and even then it was mostly first-party Nintendo games leading the charge.
All this being said, 40 characters is enough to get across a lot of information in Japanese, but is barely enough for a fairly-basic English sentence. The 10-characters-per-line restriction was also a huge problem. Even considering the inconsistency of shinden as ‘palace’, any synonyms are still 6 characters. If you replaced it with ‘shrine’ or ‘temple’, you still wouldn’t be able to fit much more on the same line.
To be perfectly honest, this line gets a lot of flak, but I think in context it’s really not that bad. Zelda II received page after page of coverage in Nintendo Power guiding players through it, and the game’s English manual features a full map of both the overworld and Parapa Palace itself. Considering this and the fact the player is pretty limited as to where they can even go this early in the game, they’re likely to figure out what to do. Still, a better translation would probably have been “TO GO WEST|GET CANDLE|IN PARAPA|PALACE.”
Can you think of a better way to write this line? How about more localizations hamstrung by density differences? Let me know in the comments below! If you liked the article, you may want to check out this other article on how Link to the Past’s reference to a Gossip Shop is a mistranslation.
If you really enjoyed this, you may want to follow me on Twitter, where I post about new articles as soon as they go up! I also post smaller localization trivia and projects throughout the week if I don’t feel it merits its own full article. For example, below is my translation of one of the Mega Man 11 promotional comics, based on a request by a follower.