What do Breath of Fire 2, Megami Ibunroku Persona and Final Fantasy Tactics all have in common?
They’re all Japanese RPGs? Right, but not what I’m thinking of.
They all have battle systems that play out in isometric perspective? Also true, but also not what I’m getting at here.
They all involve malevolent organizations masquerading behind a benevolent public front? Clever, but still not quite what I had in mind.
The answer I’m dancing around is this: they all had famously horrible translations.
Today, we point and laugh when things like “the miracle never happen” slip into translations. It’s easy to forget that back in the day, we’d be lucky if a localization project that size had only one mistake on that level. And by “lucky”, I mean that the odds were better that you’d find a four-leaf clover, win the lottery and get struck by a meteorite all in the same day.
The problem with proper localization is that it demands something more than simply fluency. It demands comprehension. It demands context. It demands cleverness, ingenuity, a willingness to invent and improvise. A “fluent” translation is merely accurate: it conveys the meaning without any of the nuance or subtext of the original, a blunt instrument suitable for toddlers and fansubbers. A true localization will capture the essence of its source material, producing something indistinguishable from a native product of the target language: ideally, the only way you should know a game is Japanese is from the ending credits.
Sadly, there used to be a dark time where even fluency was too much to ask. It was a vicious cycle: publishers wouldn’t put in any effort localizing RPGs because American gamers didn’t appreciate them, and American gamers didn’t appreciate RPGs because publishers wouldn’t put in any effort localizing them. To put it as politely as I can without launching into another tirade, RPGs were seen as too nerdy for American gamers; this didn’t stop the handful that did reach our shores from finding their niche audience, though any literary potential was almost inevitably lost. They were epic tales full of character and nuance in Japan, stories that may seem cliche today but rocked the genre once upon a time; in America, though, they were strangely fun little games full of characters who talked funny and often didn’t make a lick of sense, worthwhile if only because you could wring weeks of gameplay out of your $60 investment, even if you were good at them.
Fortunately, not everyone was willing to let this status quo remain.
Ted Woolsey, the translator who worked on such famous games as Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG and, yes, the original Breath of Fire, was vilified for many years after the gaming public realized that his translations tended to be rife with seemingly unnecessary cuts and changes. He was just a convenient scapegoat, for the true villains behind the alterations that made Woolsey infamous were much harder to assail: Nintendo’s censorship policy and the crushing space restrictions of the SNES cartridge. If anything, Woolsey was one of the first translators to understand that a game needed more than simply translation: it needed writing talent. While his skills were less apparent in some games than others – namely, those where he was forced to cut great swaths of script due to space limitations – his work on Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG still stands the test of time: the GBA version of Final Fantasy VI even keeps his translation mostly intact, save for some appropriate edits and revisions, and while Chrono Trigger’s DS version has an almost completely overhauled translation, the names he used are untouched.
Woolsey was not the last to recognize the literary potential of the JRPG, either. His influence in the world of JRPGs ended when Squaresoft severed ties with Nintendo and joined with Sony, but over the years that ensued, the dark age where proper localization was an afterthought at best and frequently not considered at all gradually gave way to the modern era, where professional, well-written translations are the norm and poor ones are laughable – if not tragic – oddities. Today, Alexander O. Smith is easily one of the most famous names in game translation, responsible for translating Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Final Fantasy XII and many others. One particularly relevant work of his would be a certain PSP title by the name of Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions…the remake of the original PS1 title.
A contentious release, by many accounts: the port is imperfect, and the game suffers from inexplicable slowdown as a result of sloppy programming. But the selling point for the game – the reason its original $40 price tag was well worth paying even if you owned the original version – is its brand-new translation, written in a charmingly Elizabethan style that evokes the period feel of the story. Final Fantasy Tactics is set in a fantasy analogue of medieval Europe, focusing on a succession war, a corrupt church, the cruel tyrants who history regards as heroes and the unsung soldiers who fought behind the scenes to save the land: despite its world of wizards, monsters and demons who play games with the fate of humankind, it is a story the likes of which you might find in any history textbook, and the new translation brings this feeling to the forefront.
This is the reason why we have remakes, and it’s a crying shame we don’t have more.
I’ve already discussed Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, and you already know what d4s and I did with Breath of Fire 2, but this is by no means the end of the story. I have played Final Fantasy IV no fewer than three times, across three different platforms, and I can honestly say the translation has improved with each iteration. The original version released on SNES came to the U.S. as Final Fantasy 2 (the real FFII and FFIII were planned for the U.S. but canceled; blame Nintendo), and not only was its translation precisely what you could expect back in 1991, but the game was infamously dumbed down in ways that made Revelations: Persona look like a pixel-perfect port: missing items, missing battle commands, the works. The PS1 version that was released in the two-pack Final Fantasy Chronicles (along with an unplayable PS1 port of Chrono Trigger) was the first I played, and the translation – while still crippled by the limitations of the original SNES version’s programming – was much more faithful and literate, and just as importantly, it was based off the original, unmodified Japanese version, rather than the gutted “FF2”. The second version I played was the GBA port, Final Fantasy IV Advance, which sported extra content and further refinements to the translation. This was the first version of FFIV to use the proper names for its iconic Archfiends, element-themed villains inspired by no less a literary work than the Inferno: Scarmiglione, Cagnazzo, Barbariccia and Rubicante (just don’t say “Cagnazzo” in mixed company; I understand it’s a pun on a dirty word in Italian). Lastly, we have the DS version, which is arguably an entirely new game with the same characters, story and world map as the original: it has new gameplay features, tougher bosses, yet another improved translation and an incredibly beautiful poetic rendition of the Mysidian prophecy, originally a boilerplate little piece of foreshadowing that fulfills its purpose and then vanishes from your memory. I’ve not only memorized it, but I feel compelled to reproduce it here:
Birthed from womb of dragon’s maw
And borne unto the stars
By light and darkness cast aloft
Are dreamtide oaths resworn
Moon is swathed in ever-light
Ne’er again to know eclipse
Earth, with hallowed bounty reconciled
When I saw it in the manual and realized what I was looking at, I could barely contain myself. I can only hope it sticks with all future versions of the game, just like Tellah screaming “you spoony bard!” at the hapless Edward. It’s for this reason that, while the translations for Final Fantasy V Advance and Final Fantasy VI Advance are notably improved over the previous ones, I can’t wait for Square-Enix to announce DS versions of them as well…imagine Gilgamesh and Kefka getting all their best lines voiced!
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen is another shining example. While its sequels, Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride and the upcoming Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie may spark more interest due to those being the two Dragon Quest games we infamously lost out on, DQIV is a remake of the game that the U.S. originally got on NES as Dragon Warrior IV, and it’s interesting to see how the years have changed translation sensibilities. From what I understand, DWIV didn’t have a bad translation, just a more downbeat one suffering from a woeful lack of imagination. DQIV, on the other hand, is positively buoyant, fitting Akira “Dragonball” Toriyama’s classic character designs much better with its more lighthearted take. A dividing issue is the translation’s frequent use of character accents to provide flavor: these can range from endearing little written tics of pronunciation to the borderline incomprehensible Highland vocabulary used by the denizens of the first chapter. Some find the game’s curious accent roulette annoying; personally, I loved the effort that went into it. It’s also worth noting that DQIV is based on the older PS1 remake (which was announced for the U.S. at one point but, surprise surprise, canceled): it includes an extra bonus chapter where the game’s misguided antagonist has a shot at redemption (and the villain responsible for his fall into darkness).
Which brings us back to the point of this long-winded ramble: there are still far too many games out there that deserve remakes or ports so that the developers and publishers will finally get off their portly behinds and give us the translations they should have given us the first time around, the kind they can give us now. I don’t claim my version of Breath of Fire II is the definitive one; that’s for some genius at Capcom to create, but simply dropping the SNES version’s translation into the GBA port was nothing but pure laziness, and I sincerely hope that whoever decided that there was no real need to give the old script a fresh coat of paint is currently spending time in a landfill alongside all those old E.T. cartridges. Estpolis II came to the U.S. as the bug-ridden Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinistrals: there are gameplay mechanics that are completely broken due to horrible glitches and an entire area that displays as nothing but garbage on screen. Hopefully, the upcoming DS remake of the game as a steampunk action-RPG will ease the pain.
There are also some games that we didn’t get at all whose odds of a stateside release would increase greatly with a remake: not just the aforementioned DQV and DQVI, but also Shin Megami Tensei and Shin Megami Tensei II, which have already been remade so many times it’s not even remotely funny, yet all of those remakes came out before the SMT franchise was big in the U.S.. No doubt the next remakes will come Stateside (unless they’re simply emulated, like the PSP version of Devil Summoner)…the problem is, they need to happen first. And of course, I sincerely hope there’s some truth to the long-standing rumor of a Mother Trilogy (or Earthbound Trilogy) in the works, one that Nintendo would hopefully not ignore for a U.S. release (but then, they’ve become rather infamous lately for locking big-name titles such as Fatal Frame 4 and Disaster: Day of Crisis out of a U.S. release).
The one that really burns my biscuits, though? The one that made it all possible: Final Fantasy VII.
I mean, seriously. It’s the oldest and easily the worst Final Fantasy translation still in common circulation: it uses the old-fashioned spell names (”Ice” and “Bolt” instead of “Blizzard” and “Thunder”; “-2” and “-3” instead of “-ra” and “-ga”), it’s the only one that uses “Aeris” instead of “Aerith”, it’s blatantly mistranslated in spots (like the famous fight against the Guard Scorpion, where Cloud is apparently encouraging you to do something foolish instead of warning you against it)…it’s not as bad as Breath of Fire 2, Revelations: Persona or Final Fantasy Tactics, but compared to the modern translations, even for the older entries, FFVII’s localization is pretty bad.
Why hasn’t Square-Enix done something about it already? Beats me, to be honest. You’d think their most famous game in their most famous franchise would deserve some kind of executive treatment, beyond the endless spinoffs that serve to highlight just how out-of-touch the old translation is with the newer ones. It’s even available through the PSN Store now, so for $9.99, you too can scratch your head at this living fossil, this slightly-bewildered coelacanth of game localization. The official word, if I remember correctly, is that we won’t get a proper remake of FFVII until existing hardware is incapable of playing the original. You know what this means: pray that the PS4 kills backwards compatibility, or else you’ll be fleeing in panic from the “Midgar Zolom” and fighting “Safer Sephiroth” for another decade.
Note 1: That’s “Midgardsormr” and “Sepher Sephiroth” to you.
Note 2: For those who think Psaro the Manslayer from Dragon Quest IV is a ripoff of Sephiroth, let me remind you that DQIV predated FFVII by a good seven years. That, and Psaro’s arguably the more interesting character.