I like Japanese games. When I say “Japanese games”I should be more specific. I don’t mean games that are made in Japan, or inspired by Japanese game designs. No I mean the type that never leave the shores of Japan. The type of games that are almost completely in Japanese and when played by someone like me who has no knowledge of Japanese, the player has no clue what on earth is going on. I don’t know why I like these kind of games, but ever since getting lost on YouTube in 2007 and stumbling across a video of gameplay of the Japanese exclusive game “Sengoku Basara 2”, I’ve  been hooked ever since.

Because of the language barrier of these games, I usually only get games either that require very little Japanese to play and enjoy the game, or games that receive fan translations or have translation guides available, so I know what I’m doing. However sometimes there are games that take my fancy that sometimes require a significant knowledge of Japanese to play and enjoy. These games focus more on a narrative or dialogue and while they may receive a translation guide so you can play the game, it’s not a full translation, so the player will never understand what is fully said. This puts me at a crossroads, because while I want to play these games, I actually want to know these characters are actually saying, rather than a translation that summarizes what happens.

A Japanese game I own that is a perfect example of featuring lots of text I don’t understand is “Macross Triangle Frontier” for the Sony PSP. While the vast majority of the game is a shooting game called “Campaign Mode” where you shoot enemy units down and complete objectives based on missions from the various Macross anime’s, and the in-game text in this mode is either in English oddly enough or can be deciphered with a translation guide, there is another gameplay mode available which has lots of Japanese text. Triangle Frontier features a create-a-character feature implemented into a small visual novel type mode called “Academy Mode” where your created character interacts with characters and events from the Macross anime; “Macross Frontier”. As I was quite a fan of the show when it was originally released I was rather intrigued by Academy Mode. While there was a guide available on the Internet to roughly translate how to increase my character’s statistics along with his skills so he would be a good pilot to use in the main game, I desired more than just that. I often enjoy immersing myself into my characters, so much so that I wanted to know what characters were saying to me, and what I was saying back, I wanted to be so immersed I felt like I was in the show this game was based on. I was passionate enough that I even tried translating the game’s dialogue myself with the help of a Japanese dictionary and thesaurus. That was a mistake. Looking up every Japanese character of text gets boring really quickly, and some Japanese characters have very little to differentiate themselves from other characters, so they end up looking practically the same! As much as I wanted to immerse myself in this game, I wasn’t willing to do a task that was so tedious it was like watching paint dry.

Macross Triangle Frontier for the Sony PlayStation Portable.
I have no idea what this means…

I eventually moved on from Triangle Frontier  due to my inability to play the game as fully as I wanted to, but whilst browsing the web years later, I found a solution to my problem. A blog post which I will link here showed me that by using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) I could effectively translate the games I was playing myself. In this context I am describing OCR as basically a piece of software that can take text from screenshots that the user chooses, and puts the selected text into a clipboard which users can do whatever they wish to. For more detail about OCR, see Wikipedia. To create screenshots of games you need to use video game capturing software or a game console emulator, but seeing as I do not have any game capturing software to take screenshots, I am forced to use emulated versions of games I own.

To use OCR to translate Japanese or any other language, you simply take screenshots with the text you want to translate, then using OCR to highlight the text you want to take, you can copy and paste the text into a translator. Let me show you how it works using Triangle Frontier on the PPSSPP emulator!

Find some text you want translated.
Using the OCR assigned key, highlight the text you want translated.
The text will appear as a pop-up or be located in a document that can be copied from.
Finally just paste the text you copied into a translator to know whats happening.

I actually managed to play the aforementioned Academy mode of Macross Triangle Frontier with the help of OCR translation, and honestly; It was worth the wait. While the vast majority of gamers who own Triangle Frontier simply power-through the mode to create a pilot with good skills, skipping all the dialogue, the mode itself is a very good visual novel on its own. This is coming from a guy who doesn’t usually read visual novels. The narrative did a very good job of immersing the reader as a new student at the fictional Mihoshi Academy, allowing players to enjoy the life of high schooler, but also giving the option to join in the events of Macross Frontier (which this mode is based on) in the second half of the mode. Maybe it was because I was a fan of the show but I really enjoyed the attempts of giving further characterisation to characters who appeared in the show, and having the player interacting with events from the show. For a visual novel, Academy Mode is quite small and rather limited on choices the player can make, but this mode has a place in my heart.

It’s sometimes easy to infer what an imperfect translation means.

OCR translation however is not a perfect way to translate games. Far from it. The translation process of using online translation websites, is not perfect. When I started out using OCR I quickly realized that I could not rely on just Google Translate to help me decipher the Japanese text. Every time I got lucky with Google Translate, and I was given a clear precise translation, I had four instances where the translation was a jumbled mess that simply didn’t make sense. This forced me to use more online translators than just Google Translate and even then, I can struggle to get results that makes sense. In some of the worse case scenarios I have dealt with, I have been forced to dissect the translation results from each of the three online translators I use to create a bastardized translation. This translation method isn’t guaranteed to give results.

Results from using OCR can take quite a long time as well. I don’t mean that the online translating takes a long time, but rather the process of OCR can take a long time to work. I use a freeware version of OCR called “Capture2Text”, that has a feature that allows users to configure the program to help improve the accuracy of the text capturing process. However the downside of improving the accuracy is the speed of text capturing is increased. If you want the best possible text capture with as little chance of errors as possible,  you must use a slower text capture configuration. While the process doesn’t take longer than a minute at most, it can end up taking a long time when you have a lot you want to translate. The game I’ve used as an example for OCR; Macross Triangle Frontier’s Academy mode has a lot of text which took me multiple days to get through.

But the worst flaw with OCR translation? It’s one of the most tedious tasks in the world. Constantly stopping and starting the game as to capture the text, and then using OCR to capture the screenshot to text, then taking the captured text and pasting it into three online translators is a very boring thing to do. My sanity has only survived because the games I have used this method with, are not too big in terms of the amount of Japanese text. I couldn’t imagine the boredom in translating the text of a sixty hour RPG through OCR.

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My heart sinks whenever the text I want to translate is translated into a complete mess.

Yet despite all these flaws, I am glad I discovered OCR for translating video games. Using OCR has allowed me to enjoy games in my collection like Triangle Frontier that caught my attention, and I bought, but quickly lost interest in after realizing they were more text-based than I had expected. While OCR isn’t the best method to translate games fully, it is possible if you are passionate enough about a game, to translate in-game menus and such with ease, to make foreign games playable. I no longer solely reliant on the charity of kindhearted Internet users to translate games for me. If you want a free translation method this is for you, just don’t expect to be able to translate visual novels or other text heavy games without a few teething issues.

What are your thoughts on using OCR to translate video games? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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