A fan translation is an unofficial translation of a computer game or video game, sometimes into a language that it was never marketed in.
The fan translation practice grew with the rise of video game console emulation in the late 1990s. A community of people developed that were interested in replaying and modifying the games they played in their youth. The knowledge and tools that came out of this community allowed them to work with translators to localize titles that had never been available outside of their original country of origin.
Fan translations of computer and video game console games are usually accomplished by modifying the binary ROM image of the game. In dealing with translations of console games, a console emulator is generally utilized to play the final product, although game copiers or similar devices can be used to run the translated ROM image on its native hardware. The central focus of the fan translation community was of Japanese-exclusive computer and video games being made playable in English for the first time. The work done bringing a game into English was, however, often a starting point for translation into a variety of other languages.
The fan translation community was at its most popular, and attracted the most media attention, when certain popular game titles were still being worked on. These were usually parts of popular series such as SquareEnix's Final Fantasy. Some consider the peak was reached with the translation of Seiken Densetsu 3, a title that was highly desirable to RPG players and also very difficult to translate on a technical basis.
Reverse engineering and the rise of console emulation made fan translation possible. One of the early complete translation patches for a video game was released in 1997. The patch, produced by RPGe, was designed to translate Final Fantasy V for the Super Famicom (also known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System) into English. While translating games had been around by the time of the patch, it was the first to prove to a large audience that the in-depth hacking required for such a project was feasible. New groups quickly sprang up in RPGe’s wake and began translating other works.
Earlier big translation projects were e.g. done by Oasis for the MSX system. Konami’s RPG SD-Snatcher was translated in April 1993, and Dragon Slayer VI: The Legend of Heroes was translated in 1995. Oasis has done a number of other translations before 1997 as well, and Maarten ter Huurne and Takamichi Suzukawa released a translated version of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake in April 1997.
These were possible before emulation on PCs became popular (or even adequate enough to play games) because the games were on floppy disks, and were therefore easier to distribute to the users, in comparison to ROM cartridges used by video game consoles (the MSX also used cartridges, but methods were discovered to copy the content onto floppy disks and other media too).
While fan translations are indisputably illegal (Article 8 of the Berne Convention explicitly reserves the right of translation to the copyright holder and whoever receives permission of them, saying "Authors of literary and artistic works protected by this Convention shall enjoy the exclusive right of making and of authorizing the translation of their works throughout the term of protection of their rights in the original works."), it is unusual for copyright holders to object. This is probably largely because the electronic games in question are generally not considered commercially viable in the target language, so the translation is rarely seen as a source of lost revenue. However, in 1999, one well-known incident in which copyrighter holders took action involved the translation of a Windows game maker called RPG Maker 95. The Japanese company ASCII had their lawyers send a cease and desist e-mail to the translation group KanjiHack. The group shut-down immediately but the project was eventually finished by others. Unlike most other translation projects at the time KanjiHack were working on titles that were still commercially available in Japan. Titles from the RPG Maker series were eventually localized and officially released in the US for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2.
A popular belief in the fan translation community is that distributing only the translation, as a patch to the original game, is legal. The reasoning is that the patch only contains the new data and directives for where it is to be placed, and does not have the original copyrighted material included in any form, and therefore it is useless unless the user applies it to a (copyrighted) ROM, the acquisition and legality of which they are left completely accountable for. This belief, while untested in court, is probably not supported by international copyright law, but this strong anti-software piracy attitude by the fan translation community may have convinced copyright holders to, by and large, turn a blind eye.
There have never been any legal cases involving fan translation issues, and such projects have been relatively widespread over the Internet for years. In recent years, anime fansubbers have started to attract the attention of some American anime distributors; and as of 2004 one manga scanlator has been handed a cease and desist by a Japanese company, but most of this attention has been restricted to polite entreaties asking fan translators to refrain from dealing with licensed material.
This is a partial list of Japanese video games which have been translated into English by fan translators.
Unauthorised translations of computer games are also sometimes done by Russian software pirates. Interestingly, some games, such as Japanese hentai games are localised using the English version as a source.
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