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Interview: Kajiya Productions on Translating Final Fantasy

We talk to veteran Square Enix translators Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder on the intriguing history of localization at the Final Fantasy creator, and their work on classic titles like Vagrant Story.

November 16, 2009

14 Min Read

Author: by Jeriaska

[We talk to two veteran Square Enix translators on the intriguing history of localization at the Final Fantasy creator, and their work on classic titles like Vagrant Story.] At the most recent Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Kajiya Productions gave a presentation on their work localizing Japanese games into English. Operated by Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, the two translators have also worked in novels, manga, and anime. The team is perhaps best known for having had a hand at various times in bringing to life the English-language dialog of such Yasumi Matsuno-inspired Square Enix titles as Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. In this interview, the writers offer their insights into the advantages of paving an independent course as freelancers, having previously worked in-house at the Tokyo-based Final Fantasy developer. The discussion delves into the evolution of the Square localization strategy, from the early days of the Playstation console. Also influential to the development of Kajiya Productions has been the experience of working with the music department of Square Enix. The interview sheds light on Smith and Reeder's work translating lyrics into English and even lending their voices to game audio projects. The informal talk provides some background on the challenges underlying localizing Japanese games with sung and spoken word, rich story and characterization. Alexander O. Smith at the Penny Arcade Expo Last time in the Square Haven interview you had mentioned that ironically while in-house there are often greater obstacles to communicating your needs as localizers directly to game designers. Do you find there are a number of distinct advantages to working freelance? Alexander O. Smith: I would say there are far more benefits than disadvantages, especially in terms of flexibility. The problem with working in a company is that you’re subject to their stratified structure. You’re basically forced to only talk to certain people and go through all the official channels. When I was working as an employee, we would have a meeting and they would say, “You’re going to be working on this with this person.” And if you wanted to change it, you had to go smoke cigarettes with someone. I don’t even smoke and I would willingly sit in the smoking room, inhaling secondhand smoke in an attempt to curry favor. On Final Fantasy XII, I was already freelance at that point that [Yasumi] Matsuno tapped me for that game. When it came time to do the translation I got to grab [Joe], and we got to pick our own editor, Morgan Rushton. That was huge, because we knew there was going to be a lot of British English in the game. As a freelance localizer, they treat you like a business partner, as opposed to the indentured servant that you are when you’re in-house. Joseph Reeder: Of course working for a company and then going freelance gives you a lot more clout as a freelancer. AOS: You can make your needs known to the development team in a much more direct way. There's also flexibility of place. Even when I worked at Square I would as much as possible take my laptop and go to a cafe or something. There’s nothing conducive to being creative inside four gray walls. (The worst problem was there was no oxygen in the Meguro building. You’re sitting there kind of wheezing the whole day.) In a perfect world we would have complete control over every element of the game development process for the English-language version, but that’s never the case. Half of our job is pursuing a vision and executing it well. The other half is compromising and picking your battles. There are definitely some battles where Joe and I have said, “Okay, this is the hill we’ll die on.” You've both worked on a number of the same Square Enix game localizations, but how long have you been collaborating in this company? JR: We’ve been working together on Kajiya Productions for just over a year now. July 31st of last year I left Square and moved to the United States. AOS: I started it as an idea back when I was working at Square. It was a known secret that I was working for other companies at the time, just doing editing work and other stuff like that. I knew that I would eventually go freelance, and it’s very beneficial to actually have contacts outside of the company when you do break out. It was also brought on by the development schedule. When I arrived at Square we would have half a year of intense work, working nineteen-hour days, and half a year of doing nothing. There just were not that many games, especially before the Square-Enix merger. We actually had too many localizers. JR: Since you don’t have control over exactly when the Japanese is going to be at a point where they can assign someone to translate it, inevitably you get these really long downtimes. AOS: Because I couldn’t list my name on the credits when I edited The Misadventures of Tron Bonne. I signed my name as AO Kajiya: My first two initials, plus "Kajiya" which is "blacksmith" in Japanese. Joseph Reeder at PAX Many of your localizations have been for Yasumi Matsuno titles, who is known to put an intense amount of effort into research for his literary and historical references. Is it especially demanding working on the translation of a Matsuno game like Vagrant Story or Final Fantasy XII? JR: It is a little more demanding than your average run-of-the-mill Japanese game in that there is more of a sense of pressure to live up to it. AOS: You do set a much higher bar for yourself. In terms of translation it’s usually a breath of fresh air. He’s very good at writing terse dialog—he’s not wordy. It’s a blessing, because Japanese RPG’s are all about talking and talking and talking. The first day you’re on the game, he will send you a preliminary glossary with all the character names and their backgrounds. There are literally paragraphs and paragraphs of text on each character. JR: When we first got the voice scripts, there were pages of notes before you even got to any dialog, talking about background and what was going on. Obviously that’s all stuff that does not directly show up in the game, but it influences the level designers, the artists, everybody. AOS: We then have to reconstruct a framework for this English version of the world. If you know how people are related, and that this guy came from this region, it really helps you construct something with a feel of realism. When did you first meet with him in person? AOS: There were English-language parts in the Japanese game that were easter eggy. For instance there were evolutionary scale rankings that you got if you went through the game and got certain achievements. I remember the first time I went into speak with Matsuno, he talked very quietly and he wouldn’t slow down at all. I had to lean in a little bit. He was looking for silly ranks that you’d basically feel insulted by, and one of the lower ranks I suggested was “platypus.” He smiled at that. At what point did you feel that the game designers at Square were getting the message that your work as localizers deserved more consideration than it had received previously? AOS: Vagrant Story was the first Square game that got recognition for its localization after the post-[Ted] Woolsey rough period. I was not very subtle about printing out reviews and giving them to the people that I thought would care, because they didn’t read English periodicals. You sort of had to be a lone gunman, out for yourself, in those times, just letting people know you were doing something important. “People are seeing us as part of the company, so treat us as part of the company.” Does he have an ear for English? JR: I think so. If you look at his class names or weapon names, you have do far less adaptation of the original Japanese to get it to a usable form in the English. AOS: He’s very interested in Western fantasy, far more than any of the other developers. I’m sure he’s read the Japanese translation of every major fantasy work in English, because he’s always drawing from things there. A lot of the preliminary work on Vagrant Story involved going over to Europe and taking photos of French castle towns. You've spoken about game director Takashi Tokita having supported your efforts to improve the localization standards at Square. It seems he must have a crazy sense of humor, because his games Hanjuku Hero and Live A Live are totally off-the-wall. AOS: Yeah, in a great way. We actually started this thing called the "Maniac Nabe." Basically we’d watch crazy videos and eat nabe that were also kind of crazy... chocalate nabe. Me, Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda of AltJapan would bring American stuff that the Japanese guys hadn’t been exposed to, like the early Æon Flux stuff. Actually, Tokita-san and [Michio] Okamiya-san played guitar and bass at my wedding reception. That’s why I’m on one of the [Black Mages] albums saying, “Maybe I’m a lion.” No kidding, that’s you? AOS: Yeah, my non-game spoken performance. You’ve both worked with the music department at Square Enix. Is it true that you’ve even recorded vocals? JR: Yeah, mine were for a game project that had been canceled, but they used it for a compilation. That track is Ryo Yamazaki’s “Feel Gravity” on the Official Bootleg Compilation Volume 2? AOS: That’s right, you were doing some techno. JR: Some techno ambient songs—I’m on iTunes. I had never done music before, in the least, so it was a unique opportunity. I was sitting in my cube working on FF XII at the time and I got the call to come down to record for a couple hours. Half of one floor in the Shinjuku building is dedicated to their sound department, and so everyone there has their own little studio. I got to tweak the lyrics before my performance. AOS: That's very cool. My involvement with the music has been more incidental--mostly because I happened to be there when they needed somebody who was fluent in English. I have a musical background, and I translated “Melodies of Life.” That was composed in Hawaii, where the FF IX team was at that time. If you know the lyrics for [Final Fantasy VIII's] “Eyes on Me,” it’s not really English English, though it works great. The first draft of “Melodies of Life,” the theme song for Final Fantasy IX, I don’t think even worked as well, so they had me do some rewriting. Later they called me in to the studio to help [Emiko] Shiratori-san with pronunciation. Shiratori in fact sung that song at the 2008 Press Start Symphony of Games concert, alternating between both the English and Japanese lyrics. AOS: That’s awesome. I basically had to sing the song for her, and that then became my job at Square. Whenever they had a recording, I would rehearse the part for Japanese singers. The other thing is I did vocals for “Otherworld,” [a battle theme in Final Fantasy X.] First of all I rapped that section, and then the singer said it over my voice. You can actually hear both of our voices in the rap. My voice is also overlaid on top of that as an announcer, saying “Go!” It was all kinds of cheese, but it was fun. JR: There’s also the two songs for Final Fantasy X-2, which Brian [Gray] worked on, “1000 words and “Real Emotion.” AOS: There, I was working as a moderator, keeping Brian’s vision for the song aligned with Avex Trax’s concerns, who basically wanted something that was easy for the singer to pronounce. They didn’t want stuff that Japanese people couldn’t get a handle on. The final lyrics were decided in a two-hour meeting with Avex. JR: As all good lyrics are. Originally the English lyrics were sung by Koda Kumi, but we felt that because it’s supposed to be Yuna singing—or Lenne (Yuna’s doppelganger)—having that voice have a Japanese accent from the game’s perspective wasn’t working. So ultimately it was Sweetbox who sang the US version. On the subject of voice recordings, what process goes into finding actors like Gideon Emery and Kari Wahlgren? There are some great performances in Final Fantasy XII AOS: We were very pleasantly surprised, though we did spend a long time on casting with the voice director Jack Fletcher. Voice on XII represented 7% of the total text volume of the game, and we spent the first nine months doing voice. When I play it now, there are one or two words I would change, but that's about it. For the main roles we would have thirty people audition for each role and have to listen through mp3 files. From those we picked roughly top five and the voice director had a few picks. He had contacts in theater and for all the minor roles we went with stage actors, a lot of people that had never done voice acting for games before. JR: We did remote recording through an ISDN line connected to London while we were in the studio in LA. I think it gives it a different vibe than you get from most videogames. I'm also so glad we didn't go for a woman for the voice of Larsa, [voiced by Johnny McKeown, son of Tracy Ullman.] AOS: The interstitial dialog is amazing. The characters sound Shakespearean because they're all Shakespearean actors. Since many of them were in London with no video reference, we would have to read the lines to the actor over the ISDN connection to the pacing that fit the lips. It's funny because everyone's blindfolded. One team is describing the elephant and the other team is painting the elephant. You did work on War of the Lions, the localization of Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP, which was originally Matsuno’s first game for Square. Had you been exposed to the notorious North American Playstation localization? JR: I had a friend in the US that was playing it at the time and he would call me and quote a particularly hilarious screen. AOS: There are actually some quotes in FF XII relating back to the FFT translation. When is that? JR: If you listen carefully in a particular scene between Ashe and Basch, you can hear Vaan, Penelo and Larsa goofing off in the background with lines from the original FFT translation such as "I got a good feeling!" and "This is the way!" AOS: I try to get a "spoony bard" in every game. What are your thoughts on Ted Woolsey's contribution to the history of Square game scripts during the SNES era? JR: A lot of people online complained that he wasn’t literal enough or that he took too many liberties, but I think that’s ridiculous. At the time it was a great localization. He was way ahead of the curve at the time. A number of his choices appear to have had a lasting impact. For instance, no one campaigns to have "Terra" called "Tina." Tactics rolled back some of the Woolseyisms, like “Mogris” in place of his “Moogles,” and it read markedly worse. JR: And also on VII. That definitely proved to be a step in the wrong direction. AOS: To set the record straight, from Brian Bell’s account on VII the head translator had only a month to do it. I’m amazed that Woolsey managed to do what he did, because in my first two years at Square much of my time was spent creating some semblance of order in the chaos and making sure development knew what we needed. Up until that point it was a free-for-all. We would get a copy of the game, and we would say, “Well, what about files?” And they would say, “Oh, I don’t think you need those.” So we all bought Game Sharks. Literally on Final Fantasy VIII we were playing our own game and hacking it with Game Sharks for the translation. It was very sad. While for Final Fantasy XII we got mpegs of all the gameplay and movies to reference them. In the space of six years it’s definitely progress. [Find out more about Kajiya Productions on the official website. This article is available in French at FFWorld. Images courtesy of Square Enix. Photos by Jeriaska]

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