Localization: The (Assumed) Audience is the Problem
Let’s talk about localization. To some (read:dumb) people, it’s the greatest sin in the world.
Localization isn’t a problem. The problem is the target of localization. More accurately, the assumed target.
To localize something is to translate and interpret it for a particular audience. Problems arise in identifying who exactly that audience is. This is likely an issue in many languages but I’m going to focus on the target audience being American English.
To start, the American English speaking audience; who exactly are they? Speakers of English in America, right? Well then, who are those people? There’s not a fixed profile of them, is there? They come in all kinds. Genders, colors, ages, regions; there’s a wide gamut of peoples under that identifier.
But when something is localized for the American English audience, it’s only done once, isn’t it? There’s only one version made, right? So assumptions happen. Since something gets localized only once, typically, what target is aimed for?
The largest potential group, right?
The reason for that is Capitalism.
Capitalism, and specifically the concepts of intellectual property and copyright demand private ownership of everything. The work being localized has an owner, and that owner licenses the right to localize it in such a manner to retain their ownership over it. Therefore, only one version gets made. Furthermore, because Capitalism wants to maximize profit, it’s going to aim for the largest share of the market it can get.
Backing up then, who is the target audience? How do we define them?
Well, it kinda has a lot to do with White Supremacy, unfortunately.
See, the United States of America rests pretty heavily on the idea of the Melting Pot. Peoples from all over the world came/come to the US and all mix together.
There’s a dark side to the Melting Pot though; assimilation.
In order to be accepted into the Melting Pot of the US, people aren’t allowed to just come as they are. The White Supremacist mindset that controls the US demands that all rough corners be rounded down until they are no longer threatening to Whiteness. When peoples come from South America, from Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East, they are expected to abandon much of their culture and adopt the US culture instead. Since the US is predicated on Whiteness, they are expected to live like Whiteness. They are expected to drop their native tongues and speak English, to change out their native clothes for western styles, and so forth. They have to assimilate and act White, even if they will never be accepted. And if Whiteness happens to like any of their cultural milieu, it will gobble it up and whitewash it and sell it back to the public at an inflated price in a neutered form.
The Melting Pot boils away anything threatening to the dominance of Whiteness, leaving behind that which Capitalism can prey on for profit.
English may have started being spoken only in England, but because England was so darn good at Imperialism, it spread all over the world to become a global language. Many different peoples speak English because their ancestors were forced at gunpoint to assimilate or perish. So while it’s a language of Whiteness, it’s not only spoken by Whiteness. In fact, there are more non-white speakers of English than white ones, because of Colonialism.
Despite that, the target audience of American English is assumed, by Capitalism, to be a mediocre white boy, or sometimes a mediocre white lady. But it’s not even about their skin color; it’s about their adoption of the Whiteness mindset. Assimilation demands colonization of the mind of even non white people to make them think in Whiteness and act in Whiteness. The assumption of Whiteness targets internalized Whiteness much more than actual skin color, which you’ll notice isn’t actually white; it’s pink or light tan or similar.
That’s the problem, the Whiteness assumed by Capitalism, not the process of localization itself. It’s not the localizers, it’s the demands of Capitalism. The requirements of the system, not the actions of particular actors within that system.
Occasionally, though, the centering of Whiteness goes off-kilter and starts to recognize other peoples, rudimentary though it may be.
The troglodytes who are used to being centered so much they take it for granted often notice and kick up a temper tantrum and say “No localization! No localization!” because the target audience is shifting off of them and it makes them uncomfortable to consider being anything other than the center of the universe. They feel dissonance when recognizing attention given to someone other than themselves, the dissonance people who aren’t ensconced in Whiteness experience every day. It pulls them out of the experience and they don’t like that feeling. It’s pretty much the same as any other reactionary when this happens in other arenas. Evidence: nearly everything that has happened in the US in the past half century. Whiteness harms everyone it touches, even those who call themselves white. It demands dominance at the top of a constructed hierarchy, a pyramid of poison.
What belligerent buttheads fail to see is how barely the target is even shifting away from them. Fractions of a millimeter, really. Localization is still centered on Whiteness and will continue to be as long the United States’ foundational basis remains rooted in White Supremacy that Capitalism props up.
To recap: the problem isn’t localization; the problem is localization to assumed Whiteness as the target audience. Breaking away from the assumption of Whiteness when localizing to American English requires breaking Whiteness. And breaking Capitalism too, because Capitalism and Whiteness are interlinked and inseparable. It’s not even just localization. Writing to American English as the initial language often defaults to assuming an audience of Whiteness too.
The assumption of America = Whiteness.
The assumption of English = Whiteness.
The assumption of there being a singular, universal experience, and that experience expected to equal Whiteness.
Whiteness isn’t the only assumption, by the way. It’s just the most harmful one. The use of slang, memes, references, all make assumptions about the audience. It assumes knowledge of such things by the audience. Compared to centering Whiteness these things are mild and largely benign, but operate under the same principle. It requires audience access to, not Whiteness, but to other media, or to Urban Dictionary and Know Your Meme and TV Tropes. Seeing these references and not having them part of audience vocabulary causes dissonance that detracts from the experience, while on the other side of the coin it can heighten the experience of those who do possess knowledge of what’s being referenced. And again, only one version is allowed to exist because of copyright under Capitalism.
There’s not really a solution for this issue as long as Capitalism governs localization. But we can come close by realizing that every person’s experience is going to be unique because no two people are identical. Every person’s interpretation is going to be different, independent of localization. Every experience is going to be different even reading something written in one’s native tongue. And that’s really sweet because that means that any of us can make whatever changes we want. There is nothing obligating anybody to accept the version given to us, not by localizers, and not even by authors.
Authorial intent doesn’t have to matter. It doesn’t!
As a creator myself, I say screw intent! So what? You want to make the entire cast of the Lord of the Rings girls instead of guys? Go for it! Don’t like the ending of some superhero movie? Write your own! Authors create frameworks and we can use those however we want because that’s what already happens anyway! Every experience is a person’s interpretation, is their own personal localization. No two people, no matter what they do, will ever have the exact same experience of a work. Capitalism tries to enforce a singular vision so that copyright can lock it down and extract profit from it. So that it can claim who has right to make an Official Interpretation and sell that sole authorized version to make Line Go Up. Kick that crap to the curb and accept storytelling into a communal process because that’s what it already is! We only pretend otherwise.
Oral tradition had tales evolving with every retelling. Fixity only arose out of locking stories into concrete forms where the medium of storage remained static. It’s the difference between a recording of a song and hearing it played live. The recording is going to be identical no matter how many times you listen to it, but a band’s performance of the same song will be a little different each time.
A solution is moving towards a world where there isn’t One True Version, brought to you by Capitalism™. A world where Capitalism doesn’t swallow everything, grinding it down to a grey slurry of Content, and crapping it out for consumers to consume in the Approved Manner™. A world where the ideology of Whiteness is crushed and tossed in the rubbish bin where it belongs, and then that rubbish bin being strapped to a rocket and launched into the sun.
That’ll take a lot of effort, so the first step is to deny the assumption of Whiteness as the target of localizing to American English.
tl;dr: The problem isn’t localization, it’s Capitalism assuming Whiteness and the supremacists that whine like weenies whenever that assumption gets a little wobbly.