[In his Gamasutra interview, we catch up with veteran game and novel translator Alexander O. Smith to discuss his firm Kajiya Productions' work localizing Square Enix's just-debuted Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PlayStation Portable.
Game translator Ted Woolsey
recalls that upon joining Square during the making of Final Fantasy II
for the Super Nintendo, the state of game localization at the company was clearly lacking in certain respects.
Among the most noticeable mistakes the translator discovered in reviewing promotional materials for the forthcoming RPG was a misprint in the instruction manual. An early draft listed the magical effects of an ice spell as "Blows wizard," in place of "Blows blizzard."
Since then, game localization in English-language regions has come a long way, encompassing game script translation, voice direction and even body language and gesture adaptation. Positioned on the leading edge, Alexander O. Smith
and Joseph Reeder
of Kajiya Productions
have contributed to English-language releases of Vagrant Story
and Final Fantasy XII
among other text-heavy games.
Most recently, Kajiya has been garnering praise for novel translations, including The Devotion of Suspect X
and All You Need Is Kill
(which is being made into a movie.) They will also be bringing Miyuki Miyabe's 400 page ICO: Castle of the Mist
to life in English.
Their latest game, which they will be discussing at a PAX East panel in May, is Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
for PSP. The portable strategy RPG contains more text than Final Fantasy XII
and more than double that of the original Super Famicom release.
We caught up with Alexander O. Smith to hear about the making of Tactics Ogre
, debuting in North America this week, whose localization was informed by extensive discussion with game creator Yasumi Matsuno
. The title marks the game designer and localizer team's third major collaboration on as many game consoles.
You've worked closely with Matsuno before on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, both of which received perfect scores from Famitsu Magazine. How does he go about judging whether your translation is sympathetic with his intentions for the game?
Alexander O. Smith:
I think there is at this point a lot of implicit trust that we will be as accurate as we can be. With the proper nouns of the world, place names and class names, all of these were vetted with Matsuno. Lots of his place names had Western origins.
Was the game designer running terms by you prior to the Japanese-language publication?
Well before. We did a little work on the classes, specifically. He wanted the English and Japanese translations to match up as much as possible.
Ever since the late '80s when Dragon Quest came out for the NES as Dragon Warrior, many console RPGs have been throwing around thee’s and thou’s. Are there drawbacks to using antiquated speech patterns in constructing the narrative flow of a fantasy game like Tactics Ogre?
I’d say they’re disruptive almost all the time. There are two schools of thought on period writing in general. To my ear the more genuine form is to be sparse with language and use words to their fullest potential. That means not relying on convenient tags like “thee and thou.” I think there’s one “thee” in all of Vagrant Story
, which is a direct quote from the Bible.
Richard Amtower, another contributor with Amanda Katsurada to the Vagrant Story localization, has an academic background as a Chaucer scholar. Was that knowledge of use on the Playstation title?
I know he was doing Middle English. That was huge. There are a few Old English and Middle English poems that I did word searches through to see what words ended up around other words. That free association could help in adding a little more flavor to the text.
You’ve mentioned previously that you prefer a process other than “localization by committee.” What are the potential downsides of this practice in translating game scripts?
Every method is going to have its advantages and disadvantages. When we talk about translation by committee, you have a main translator or two, and there is a lot of review by several other translators. In theory, and many times in practice, that’s a good thing. More input and more review can only be a good thing. The scary part is actually the interruptions in the flow.
With the day-to-day progress that you make on a game, the last thing you want to do is be stuck in meetings with people who aren’t as involved as you are. What I’ve found to be the most rewarding method for me is to work with one or two other people, but no more than that.
You’ve been translating a number of novels with Joseph Reeder. Is that experience something you can apply to a game designed by Matsuno, since his strategy titles are known for their narrative complexity?
If I were going to compare any game script to a novel, it would be a Matsuno script. The richness of the world and attention to detail is similar to a novel. But I think the process of translation is still very different. Even from a very practical standpoint, a novel entails a lot of descriptive prose and action prose. Game text has bits of descriptive prose and dialog, dialog, dialog. Novels with a lot of dialog I can do in my sleep because it’s so ingrained in what I do now. Most novels are not solid dialog.
Matsuno’s Ogre Saga and the Final Fantasy series intersected with the Playstation title Final Fantasy Tactics. With Tactics Ogre, which was originally released prior to involvement with Square, was it necessary to steer clear of iconography or tone familiar to the Final Fantasy lore?
I would divide the terminology into two parts. One appears in the game script, for instance place names, character names, diction. The other half would be spell names and similar things. We made a conscious choice not to “Final Fantasy” it up. It wouldn’t be appropriate for this game because it is a separate IP with its own fiction.
There are lots of connections because Tactics Ogre
and Final Fantasy
are both fantasy games made in Japan by people with very similar interests. Where I think it intersects with other works in Square’s oeuvre are in convergences with Vagrant Story
You try to find a cognate in the Western world. As Tolkien shows, the dialog of the text is influenced by the world it inhabits. To take a Japanese game and just slap English on top of it, without first trying to understand and interpret the world behind it, I think you’re doing a disservice to the original. You end up with a Frankenstein: a Japanese world with English window dressing, lacking internal consistency.
Are there strategies for delineating differences of class and personal background among characters of a fantasy game like Tactics Ogre?
That’s another instance where there’s a danger of going the easy route and having all your pirates say, “Ar!” Keeping characterization subtle has been my goal for some time. You can have very effective voices for characters that don’t necessarily fall into categorization.
Especially on this game we were wary to add anything that took away from the characters’ direct expression of their emotions. Borrowing a word that came up in a recent book review, we went for a laconic style, as sparse as possible, as opposed to having our characters playing word games.
To help get something that feels genuine, at the end of Tactics Ogre
we went back through each character’s dialog, filtering for that one character, to make sure that they’re consistent. This is something I like to do when I have time on any project.
We found one person in that process that we’d been translating as a rough and tumble pirate but something wasn’t fitting quite right. We looked into her background a little more and found out that she was a noblewoman that had married into the pirates. We then went back and revisited all of her dialog.
Our bottom line is doing just service to the original Japanese text. You have to keep in mind what the game is trying to accomplish. When you have a little extra time, that’s when you can begin extrapolating along the lines of the original: “If an English-language team had developed this game, what kinds of approaches might they have taken?”
An example that comes to mind is the bestiary in Final Fantasy XII
. Since we had the time, enthusiasm and carte blanche to do what we wanted with that, we rewrote it in the style of a Victorian era biological text.
In a Gamasutra interview with Hitoshi Sakimoto, the game's co-composer expressed the opinion that Tactics Ogre was particularly dark. Were you under the impression that this a more tragic game storyline than you are used to adapting?
For videogames in general, yes, it’s definitely more tragic. For Matsuno—especially if you delve into the backstories—tragedy is everywhere. There’s a lot of similarity you could draw between the storyline of the judges in Final Fantasy XII
and the kind of things that happen to the characters in Tactics Ogre
One difference is that in Tactics Ogre
, you’re playing the role of characters who have grown up in that tragedy. Depending on your choices, the story can become uplifting, or go even darker. That’s something you wouldn’t find in a Final Fantasy
What work informed the style of the voice-over found in the game's prologue?
Joe Reeder monitored the recording, but we both worked on the scripts. It ends up being in tone fairly similar to the world you see in Final Fantasy XII
, if not a little more archaic. Simon Templeman and Kate Higgins did the voice-over, which was recorded here in Los Angeles at Studiopolis.
Were you based in Vermont during the making of Tactics Ogre, and does communicating via email and text files change the nature of a localization project?
I was in Vermont the entire time. My partner in crime, Joe Reeder—who is based in Texas—went to Japan toward the end of the project and was in LA for the prologue recording.
Usually, we’re both working remotely but are in constant contact through Skype. That makes things much easier and I think does away with a lot of the problems that hobbled earlier translations. Another thing that we did this time around was to use an online collaboration tool for all of the translation.
In the case of translating a novel, naturally the placement of all of the text is attached to specific page numbers. How do you go about keeping tabs on all your text while working on a game, which will often be operating non-linearly?
The answer is Excel. You become kind of an accountant, and oddly enough Joe used to be an accountant, so he is our designated text wrangler. Square Enix has some new tools, as well. It’s always kind of a pain to manage the data, but by now we’ve figured it out. For Tactics Ogre
we had full PSP debug stations with daily updates on the ROM. That allowed us to go into debug mode and play the various scenes in the game.
Various returning collaborators—music composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, illustrator Akihiko Yoshida, among others—often do some of their best work on Matsuno's games. Do you find that among his strengths is the ability to foster creativity among the members of his design team?
He appreciates the collaboration that goes into the creative process, which is probably why his games are so good. For instance, during voice recording he instinctively understood that you don’t dictate to a voice actor exactly what you want them to do. You give them a script, let them run with it, and more often than not they’ll give you a performance that improves the scene in ways you weren’t expecting.
Since the release of the first trailer, fans of the Ogre Saga have noticed that some of the names have been changed. What went into the decisions to render certain proper nouns differently for this translation?
What we did when we started Tactics Ogre
was we took a step back from the pre-existing English translation. We looked at the Japanese and the threads of history laid out in the world in Matsuno’s design documents. We found a cognate in the Western world in Constantinople at the time of the Byzantine Empire. We looked at the way that different cultures had come together there. It was a melting pot in a lot of ways, and so was the world of Tactics Ogre
. That gave us a touchstone to use. The changing of the names came from there.
Specifically, when we looked at the letters that were used to make those sounds in that area, the “xy” combination was much more prominent than the “ze.” Thus Zeteginea becomes Xytegenia. That was one of the first terms that we translated, and everything else grew from there. The Byzantine Empire connection was extremely useful when fleshing out place names. If you’re going straight from the katakana, you can get a real mishmash, so we took some creative license with Matsuno’s oversight. We felt really lucky to have that contact to run names by him.
There were places where the original Japanese was taking inspiration from several different sources at once. Where it was possible, we bent that toward a source that made sense in the context of the game. Therefore, more Greek than Roman, keeping things further East. More Middle East than Asian. You’re trying to figure out where the Japanese got its inspiration from, and then bend that inspiration to fit the world that you’re in the process of creating. If you go straight from the katakana, you’ll end up with something not internally cohesive.
On character names, we were less tied to place. Denam Pavel had previously been Denim Powell. When I hear “Powell,” the first thing I think of is Colin Powell, and that jolts me right out of the world. Other names, like Warren Moon, were changed by request from Matsuno who wanted to step away from directly referencing real world people.
Were there situations where the Japanese place or character names had unintended consequences and therefore needed to be changed?
Yeah, there were some place names that were downright offensive. Sometimes your hand is forced due to such considerations.
The Japanese subtitle of the PSP remake is “Wheel of Fortune,” and the English release is retaining the Super Famicom's “Let Us Cling Together.” Are these resonant themes for the game?
I think “Let Us Cling Together” is a great name for the game. Despite the fact that it does sound like a random Japanese mistranslation, it does get at a desperate need to be part of the lives of other people. That’s a major motivation for several of the characters. The main character in the game has an overall goal that people in his surroundings are reacting to. The way that you react to people can change the game, too. It’s great having a game that makes you feel so responsible. It really holds you accountable for your choices.
Were there particular themes that Matsuno wished to emphasize through the plotline and dialog?
Certainly a huge motif is friendship and the two sides of that coin. It’s actually very hard to get through the game without experiencing both the positive and negative sides of the game depending on the choices you make.
Astrology and tarot cards appear rather frequently in Matsuno’s games. Were themes of fate and fortune important reference points for the localization?
The game begins with tarot cards representing choices you must make to define the character you will play. In the localization, we took that theme and ran with it, using the tarot cards and the themes they represent as touchstones for dialogue. If your luck is good, you thank the Wheel. If you want to wish someone fortune in battle, you pray that the Chariot rides with them.
Speaking of the Chariot, one thing that was elegantly handled in the game was the way the Chariot Tarot works. It lets you rewind a battle up to fifty steps in the past. However, it locks in all the random values, so if you make all the same choices you’ll have the same fate. That rang very true to me.
[To find out more about Kajiya Productions, visit the official website and Facebook page. A previous interview on Kajiya's localization tactics is available on Gamasutra. Images courtesy of Square Enix.]