Phoenix and Ryūichi: A Case for Transcreation

What do Phoenix Wright and Naruhodō Ryūichi have in common? They are both lawyers with an incredible ability to b.s. the truth, are super sarcastic, and they both wear a blue suit and have spiky hair.  But that might be where the similarities end.  Phoenix is an American in L.A. while Ryūichi is Japanese living in…well… Japan. But Phoenix likes burgers and Ryūichi likes ramen.

Phoenix or Ryūichi?

The answer to our first question: everything and nothing.

They are both the same lead character of the same video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney/Gyakuten Saiban (Turnabout Court in Japanese), but Phoenix is Ryūichi’s localized persona.  While many fans and critics have a lot to say about the decision to fully localize the series, I’d like to present my case on localization and transcreation.

(This article contains several pieces from my graduate thesis, so enjoy!)

Translation is a tricky game.  Do you translate to be closest to the original by keeping all the original names and cultural references, yet alienating a large portion of your audience; Or do you bring it closer to the audience’s culture and localize it to reflect the original in some sort of equivalency? When you need your product to make some money, localization is usually the answer.

But with the right translation and localization team, you can get an incredible product like the Phoenix Wright series.  Localization is to translate the original linguistically and culturally to reflect the target language. In video gaming, this change can include the adjustment of things like character names or even  making the “x” button on American and European Playstations the “action” button instead of “o” like in Japan.

Sometimes localization can be alienating and often crosses the line of whitewashing (coughDeathNotecough); But other times it can be incredible successful. The most successful games and anime that are localized use the method of “transcreation”.  Like the name suggest, this method of localization translates the media and creates a new, third culture for the work to exist. The two best examples of transcreation are the American versions of Pokemon and the Phoenix Wright series.  The localization teams created a new space for these game to exist.

So, how did Naruhodō Ryūichi become Phoenix Wright? Easy. Puns. Yup, both names are puns.  When the main character’s name (and almost every other character’s name in the game) is a Japanese pun, it’s up to the localization team to recreate the same humor and “feel” in English.

Naruhodō means “I see” or “I get it” in Japanese.  As a result, many of the characters in the game say things like, “Ah, naruhodō, Naruhodō-san.”  Now imagine the whole game like this. Obviously, a large majority of the English speaking audience would not understand this, nor would they tolerate the loss of humor. More importantly, the feel of the game would be lost.  So in order to preserve the feel, the localization team made his name Wright. Now, the English script includes jokes similar to the original. “That’s because I’m always Wright!” (Ha!)

If you’re not convinced, let me remind you of the vending machine contents. In the Japanese version Naruhodō says:

“Tea, Miso soup, Red Bean soup, Kuzuyu, oden…The line-up is only super Japanese stuff. Not even some Oolong tea!” 

Soup in a vending machine?! Unheard of! Well, not in Japan. In fact, it’s quite normal to have warm drinks and soup in vending machines. Plus oolong tea is from China.

Now, you might know this and even be used to a lot of these Japanese foods and drinks, but please remember Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was first released in English in 2001. We’ve had nearly two decades to be introduced to Japanese food, culture, etc. (I’ll date myself and tell you that this was very much not the case in 2001. A lot of us couldn’t fathom even a riceball!)  In order to fill this gap, the line was translated to:

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Vending Machine
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

“Let’s see… cola, candy, chips, gum…Huh. It’s so… normal. I was expecting some cool theme snacks or something. Popcorn, at least!”

To an American audience, this is much more normal, with popcorn being a little stand out. Capcom’s localization team was able to keep the feel while still localizing. So this brings us to the third culture. A stated on Capcom Unity‘s blog, the Phoenix Wright series exists in Japanifornia. They combine California and Japan to create a justified place for this localized world.

So the third culture has been created for the localized series to grow. And it did just that.  By the time we get to game five of the series, Phoenix Wright: Duel Destinies, it’s 2015 and the audience has been introduced to more Japanese culture. The game has full mentions of Japanese culture like yokai and ramen shops.  Transcreation not only created a space, but allowed for the audience to grow with the series. Of course there are some downsides to a fully localized, transcreated game. Fans know that this placing of the game in Japanifornia leaves the prequel games set in Eighteenth Century Japan in limbo, but let’s hope we’ll eventually get a team to localize the game while still leaving it set in Japan.

dai gyakuten saiban
The prequel titled Dai Gyakuten Saiban

Nonetheless, next time you might have an issue with your favorite title’s localization, HOLD IT! I urge you to consider the use of transcreation and creating a third space. You might find a turnabout in your way of thinking!


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