Global company, local expert: Alum translates Nintendo games for America

Timothy MacKenzie and his siblings had to compete with their dad for time on their old Nintendo console as they were growing up.

“My dad was the one who brought home ‘Super Mario Brothers’ and ‘Zelda,’ and he insisted that he had to be the first to complete them, to make sure they were ‘okay’ to play,” MacKenzie recalled. “He eventually had to change his rule because he realized we were a lot better than he was. I think he died 200 times in Zelda.”

As much as he loved Nintendo, MacKenzie never realized that his gaming system came from so far away. He grew up in Minnesota in a town of just 600 people. Then, one day, an exchange teacher visited his elementary school and taught his class about Japan and its culture. MacKenzie still remembers how she showed the class the Miyazaki film “My Neighbor Totoro.”

To this day, it is one of his favorite movies.

“She also told me that I a lot of things I already liked were from Japan. I liked Nintendo games,” he said. “When she told me that, it blew my child mind.”

“This came from Japan, and someone had to put it into English. That expanded the world for me.”

Today, MacKenzie is one of the people who puts Nintendo games into English. As a localization specialist, he is responsible for translating Japanese text from video and mobile games – either narrative text or user interface text – and polishing it so that it reads smoothly to American audiences. That means replacing Japanese idioms with American sayings, for example, or even just ensuring correct time zones.

“But also, it could be more narrative-focused, looking at characterization or the story. We have the narrative text and dialogue for a role-playing game, or things like that. We look at, what’s the right kind of voice and characterization for our market?” MacKenzie said.

For example, he did work on the mobile game “Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.” One of the characters in the game, Shino, has a Shinto shrine.

“We had a push from some people – should we just write this out and not include it, because some people might not understand it here?” MacKenzie said. “I thought, even if they don’t, it’s best to include it. It’s still in the game visually, and I think people would appreciate learning about other cultures. I think that’s something that really valuable.”

It’s a different approach than other localization specialists have taken in the past. In the 1980s and 90s, MacKenzie said translators tended to “sand off” any aspect of foreign culture by substituting American foods in place of Japanese cuisine, for example, or changing foreign character names to American monikers.

But that method robs audiences of the full impact of the movies, games, and music they’re consuming, he argues. The internet has opened up the world and allowed people a glimpse into different cultures, from Japanese anime and video games to Korean cinema and music to Indian dance and philosophies.

“It just makes sense to me to be as respectful as possible with these sorts of things,” he said. “We should just be celebrating the things that they have to offer.”

MacKenzie has a deep appreciation of Japanese culture. He attended UWM specifically because it had a strong Japanese program. After earning his Master’s degree, he began working at Right Stuf Anime doing subtitles for Japanese movies. Later, he took a marketing job at UWParkside before landing at Nintendo.

What’s it like to work at the company that had such an impact on his childhood?

“It’s very surreal. It still hasn’t really settled in. There are times when it doesn’t feel like work. It’s surprising that I’m getting paid to do this,” MacKenzie said. “It’s been a wonderful experience and I have a very strong appreciation for my coworkers and my work environment. I feel heard and cared for.”

He wants everyone to enjoy their experience with Nintendo, just like he has – no matter where in the world they are.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science