Hello! It’s been a while since I last posted, and I must apologize for this write-up not being directly about Fifth Love despite it having been so long since a real update.

I wish I could say that me spending so much time reading up on and discussing politics and literature over the Internet, alongside playing through other visual novels, are all necessary activities for creating 5lvn. But they’re not, so that would just be a poor excuse 😦 However, I have recently been involved with a certain project which has indeed helped immensely with how I view the approach I will take for Fifth Love.

I first came across Your Smile Beyond Twilight while trying to find a Chinese VN to read. I hadn’t had the chance to read anything in Chinese for a while and also wanted to take advantage of the ongoing Steam summer sale, so I went into my Discovery Queue and found YSBT as one of many matches for me.

I paid two bucks (CAD), downloaded the game, and pretty much immediately changed the language into Chinese without thinking too much about it. For the next hour and a half, I was so charmed by the beautiful sprite art, captivating voice acting (for best girl Jingxuan in particular), and incredibly fitting music. The almost-noble story of a person rejecting objectives-oriented materialistic living in the context of Chinese society also rang with me. I was very pleasantly surprised at the one and a half hours worth of entertainment and near-tears.

(Check out the vndb page for a nice non-spoiler summary for the game.)

Then, I went to the main menu, switched the language to English, and started reading. I could have sworn that the translator had known I would read the English version right after the Chinese one and was trying to cheer me up with how horrible the localization job was.

I don’t know what it was that compelled me to take this into my own hands, but I jotted down some notes for a new translation and contacted the developer Lingtan Studio. Their leader and I discussed the possibility of me providing a new English translation; in the end, he gave me the translation spreadsheet and sent me on my way.

I worked on translating the game on-and-off over the next six days before I sent the file back to him. Fast forward to a week later, and my fan translation became the official one.

This is a pretty small thing in the long run (in fact, I don’t even think I can really write down on a resume that I did a fan translation for a Chinese doujin side project). But I feel like the past two and a half weeks have been quite illuminating on many issues that will inevitably come up as Fifth Love moves farther into development.

I will attempt to articulate the things I learned over the past while, although it is probably more of interest to my future self than to any of our followers.

Culture and weight lost in translation/localization

After I forked over my first draft and received a testing file from the developer, the leader was kind enough to provide me with several keys to give to testers of the soon-to-be-ascended fan translation.

The next few days were spent procuring readers from among my friends, then the Discord community for /r/visualnovels. (I want to take time right now to thank them for their time and their gentle but firm guidance.)  Aside from some horrendous typos and some lines which I forgot to re-translate from the original Chinglish, there was a common thread among the feedback from my readers:

This part doesn’t make sense. What do they mean? Why are they saying that?

Usually, this is in relation to specific character interactions. Without spoiling too much, there was one part where a character was said to be gently comforting the other, but nothing that was said was especially comforting in English. A lot of this has to do with what is considered comforting among Chinese people and among most Western English speakers; while the first is often quite firm and empowering (“Stand up and go get ’em”), most Westerners are much more familiar with a more nurturing version of comforting (“You tried your best. Take it easy.”). It can almost be seen as a typical paternal vs. maternal dynamic. In any case, anyone not familiar with Chinese culture would have assumed one of the characters was being kind of insensitive.

There was one very specific example, though: when the characters go to a grave site, they talk about “burning money and clothes for X”. Non-Chinese-speaking readers instantly thought that this was talking about spending money on clothes and that I had committed some giant grammatical fail. However, those well-versed in Chinese culture would know that burning fake paper money and other combustible symbolic goods is a way to send our loved one stuff that they can use in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the lack of translation notes means that anyone who either hasn’t heard of this before or who can’t nearly immediately infer this much on the spot is bound to be thoroughly confused. Especially since the term used is so similar to a commonly-used phrase in the West (burning money = spending it very fast).

Why do you keep using this word/expression/phrase/syntax?

“Although/even X, Y.” This sort of syntactical format is totally normal in Chinese, but is immensely tiring in English. “Y, although X” or “Y despite X'” is the preferred structure for this kind of thing in English. As well, extremely long sentences along the lines of “The person of this description who did a specific described action is the person to which I performed another action” are much more fluent in the original Chinese and have a much more intuitive order. Compare this to: “我对做过某件事的某种人做了某个动作”. The syntax for this, with English substitutes, is literally “I to the (specific verb phrase)-ing (adjective phrase) person (verb phrase).” I can assure you that this kind of syntax is super intuitive to Chinese people.

This problem often came up for voiced lines where I wanted to match the phrasing and placement of names and such extremely close to where they are actually spoken, so that you don’t read a character name at the start of a sentence then hear it near the end in the audio.

I feel like you translated this too literally/liberally.

Obviously, being such a different culture with so many different historical experiences and development means that the literary devices and colloquialisms used by modern Chinese are still distinctly different from those of current English speakers. Notably, Chinese people love dropping four-word phrases in common parlance that imply an entire fable; one specific occurrence of this involved the phrase “掩耳盗铃” (covering one’s ears to steal a bell”), which could be casually dropped in Chinese to invoke an infamous parable about a guy who committed such an action and only managed to fool himself and get into trouble. However, it is immensely unwieldy to describe in Chinese and also does not have the same cultural weight as it would for a Chinese person. The best equivalent I can think of is saying to an impatient child, “Slow and steady wins the race” (clearly invoking the universal allegory about the tortoise and the hare). However, in Chinese it’s much more like, “This is a classical example of the tortoise and the hare”.

There were other instances where the expression is quite similar to a certain English equivalent, but I didn’t know whether to prefer the Chinese wording or to adopt the more familiar English one (“fishing a needle out of the sea” vs “finding a needle in a haystack”). I almost always leaned towards the side of faithfulness to the original Chinese.

Chinese readers commented that I was very close to the original Chinese script. This apparently made some of my more liberal translations in specific sections that much more disconcerting. One of the issues came from me having gained a different understanding of the story after discussing it with the original writer, meaning I ended up writing quasi-commentary instead of actually translating the Chinese story. Thankfully, I was kindly accosted and rectified my artistic failure.

Overall, I was actually pretty surprised at the difficulty of properly translating/localizing the original Chinese text. Although English to Chinese can work syntactically one-to-one nearly all of the time, the reverse is simply not true. A lot of this comes from Chinese having rather lose grammatical rules which are often just implied via context, as well as this language allowing the easy shoehorning of non sequitur phrases into sentences. This, alongside my practice of trying to match the phrases to voices, someones necessitated adding or removing (usually removing) information that is extraneous and unimportant in English.

Typing out my translation in Excel

This part was an incredibly annoying part of the process.

How the translation file looked was a four-column spreadsheet: Chinese speaker info, Chinese text, English speaker info, and English text. I would basically be editing the English text. Sounds simple enough.

I ended up doing a LOT more work than this.

First off, the Chinese names were very aesthetically pleasing. All the character tags had like pretty Chinese brackets around them (like this: 【名字】). Meanwhile, the English names had the much less impressive normal English brackets (like this: [Name]) which looks ugly as hell. My first order of business was search-replacing Yunshan and Jingxuan’s names to make them all have the beautiful Chinese brackets (【Name】). Then, I went the document and looked through the other character names and tried to replace them on a case by case basis—

And I realized the kind of territory I was heading into with this translation.

In Chinese, the mysterious girl is referred to as 少女 shaonü (literally “young female”), which is typically used to mean young woman. So, I replaced the existing English name (something along the lines of “Mystery Girl”) with Young Woman and moved on.

That’s when I realized, while translating, that Yunshan referred to Jingxuan as “girl” all the time. Specifically, 女孩 (literally “female child”), which is typically used to talk about young women. However, it is seen as obviously younger than 少女 young woman, which I was using to describe the mysterious girl. You can quickly see the problem with this just by looking at the character models… (As well, the mysterious girl is supposed to be six years younger than Jingxuan, so it makes no sense that she is a young woman while Jingxuan is often referred to as a girl.)

So, I changed the translation for 少女 from “Young Woman” to “Maiden” and left it at that.

When playtesting came around, this new name was mentioned by almost everyone who played the game. Apparently, calling girls “maiden” sounds pretty neckbeard-y and evokes an image of a fedora tipper. Perhaps I didn’t think over it too carefully, but I was pretty surprised at how universal this comment was. They almost all suggested I change it back to “Young Woman” or settle for “Girl”.

I didn’t really want to go back to “Young Woman” for reasons I already outlined. Concerning “Girl”, this would double up immensely with every single other reference to other “girls” (like Jingxuan). “Girl” is casually used to refer to females all throughout the script, and also using it as a proper now to denote a certain girl feels a bit awkward.

In the end, though: Spirit Maiden sounds way cooler than Spirit Girl. Let’s be real.

Other complications with editing the game script:

  • My Excel kept jumping to the bottom of the page whenever I accidentally double-clicked on a cell border. Until I turned this off, I probably wasted at least a few combined hours just scrolling up.
  • I was writing over the existing translation in order to have a reference to what the old translator considered important. In a few of the first versions I gave to play-testers, I forgot to change some of these lines and surprised everyone with some nice bursts of high-quality Engrish.
  • Sometimes, I typed my translation into the wrong cell; namely, in the name field instead of the dialogue field. This resulted in some really funky screenshots.
  • I couldn’t always get a good grasp of the size of a translated line. Chinese is a much “shorter” language than English, so the translation for some of the longer lines currently flows out of the text box. I hope this gets fixed by the developer sometime.

Difficulties of working across time zones (or with a team in general)

I’m sitting in my room at 3pm translating the game. I have a burning question about intent in a certain line. What does she mean by this? Am I missing something when he says this? Did the writer explicitly say this detail before or is it supposed to be implied? I stop writing and message the head developer (who I have added on Steam and QQ) about the original story and script, because I want to make sure I do the original Chinese version justice. I don’t get a reply and start getting a bit antsy.

Then, I remember that it’s 3am in China.

The writing for the translation was probably the part where I needed the most immediate feedback. One of my gripes about the Chinese version was that it didn’t state outright the circumstance between the two main characters; Jingxuan and Yunshan both left their company on the same day, but the fact that she resigned because of his dismissal is never stated by any of the characters. Rather, it is essentially implied through context. The problem is that I feel this context would be totally lost on most Western readers; given that China is especially chauvinistic and a place where women giving up their life aspirations for the sake of a man is still accepted and commonplace, I think that most non-Chinese readers would scratch their heads at Jingxuan quitting just because Yunshan was made into a scapegoat. Even if this idea game to mind, they would probably reject it as too ridiculous.

Wanting to make the subtext and between-the-lines stuff more obvious to readers while not betraying the intent of the original Chinese version meant asking the developer a lot about what they meant exactly, lest I added information that wasn’t part of the original story or simplified details that are major mood-setting/characterization in the eyes of Chinese readers. Only having a small gap every day where I could ask questions (early morning or late evening) meant that I would sometimes spend all day writing a script with a certain mindset then having to go back that evening and revise everything based on advice and guidance from the original writer.

This was my first time working with a team online. In most projects I have done, I knew the other team members on a personal level and saw them almost every day. This meant that I had almost unlimited means of communication with them and could make very sharp turns in project direction or paradigm without any loss of momentum. A lot of people who know me know that I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to writing and updating; as a result, I am usually in charge of the final document so I can tweak it whenever I can think of a subtle improvement or of a better presentation.

This made the process of getting my translation live especially frustrating, because of the delay between me sending my translation file and my translation going live on Steam.

This was rectified a bit by the programmer for Lingtan Studio giving me a translation file conversion executable which let me make personal edits to test and hand out to beta testers. This still had the frustrating effect of having seven different people telling me the exact same mistake over and over until I finally created a new file and posted it online.

Although, maybe the real lesson here is, if you’re in a team project, try to do your part right the first time. If everyone else works around your mistakes and maybe even (God forbid) made your mistakes into features, your team is going to lose a lot of time and resources trying to adjust for your constant corrections and fixes.

Even now, I am waiting for the head developer to get back from his vacation and push my latest update live. Until then, people can try to spot the typo in the game right now :^)

Now… how does this all relate to Fifth Love?

Great question. If this seemed like a long incoherent rant about my incompetence, that’s because this is exactly what it is. However, it did teach me a lot that I hope will become useful in my own projects moving forward.

For instance, since I already plan on releasing Fifth Love in multiple languages, I will try to approach the themes in the story from a non-localized point of view. There are many concepts that are universal (love, anger, despair) which are universal, but their particular expression and manifestation are all unique to each culture or region. However, there is still usually a telltale trope which comes up in every culture; for instance, having to settle for someone you like but don’t love is a heart-wringing plotline anywhere you go. Usually, these tropes are far-removed from popular culture and politics (which I didn’t want as a huge part of the game anyway), so trying to avoid loading up the script with references and instead thinking of how to present a timeless story of love and self-discovery should be the focus for Fifth Love.

As well, I figured out the hard way this time around that your working procedure and your interface matters a lot for productivity. This time around, I used a method I thought was efficient (writing over the previous translation in Excel) but which was both conducive to common stupid mistakes and which is extremely frustrating to use, resulting in less levelheadedness and means low-quality work or even more mistakes. This all translates into spending more time to get less done. In the past, I tried to make visual novels from the ground up, typing my entire story right into Ren’Py script format. The result is a big incoherent mess strung together by dubious code which no human can intuitively read. It seems like a good idea to do everything at once instead of in clean steps, but the cost is that if you screw anything up you basically mess up every step instead of just one. This is, obviously, a horrible waste of time and resources. This is why for Fifth Love, I hope to be able to create a good story in just normal text format (and maybe release the body as a web novel) before working on turning it into a functioning game.

Lastly, I now have a new appreciation for trust and independence in teamwork. The developer gave me free rein to translate the original Chinese script in pretty much any way I wanted and according to whatever schedule I assigned for myself. The flip side to this was that I had to in turn respect their autonomy and their schedules. The result was an implicit trust in the other person’s work ethic and talents, alongside the strengthened sense of personal responsibility and of one’s own agency. At no point did I feel forced or coerced into doing anything I didn’t want to do; every step of the way, I had a ton of fun (between my unintelligible screaming at my screen every time I caught a typo) and knew I was working on this project because it was exactly what I wanted to do at that time. Translating this into Fifth Love might mean to be much more open to independent working processes instead of trying to centralize all of the work like I did before; this might mean letting my friends draft up scenarios without my input or me giving an artist an open-ended work schedule with just a few milestone deadlines to meet. There are definite benefits to constant communication and mutual micromanagement (after all, the many fulfilling things I did in high school revolved around a strong sense of team unity which stemmed from the closeness of all the project members), but the flexibility and increased overall sense of personal accomplishment can help a team produce a lot of good work while staying happy and motivated for much long stretches of time.

I can never thank Lingtan Studio enough for letting me be a part of Your Smile Beyond Twilight. This was a very unique experience from which I took a lot away, and I hope that in the future I can grant similar experiences to the people working with me on Fifth Love.

I will also be translating Lingtan Studio’s other visual novel The 9th Day (第九天)a story about a high schooler who deals with his last days lingering on earth after he enters a coma. Stay tuned for updates on that!

Until then, enjoy Your Smile Beyond Twilight for free! Here are some Steam keys I have left over from the beta test. Make sure to contact me if you used a key or if a key isn’t working!

  • 7BRW3-93AQZ-GN609