GameSpite Quarterly Interview: Richard Honeywood on The Rise of Square Localization

Richard Honeywood Interview

In January 2011, I conducted a series of email interviews with Richard Honeywood, who worked at Square and Square Enix from 1997 to 2007. Honeywood contributed immensely to the development of localization practices at Square, building up a team of translators and building tools that are still relevant to the industry today. The bones of this interview appear in an article I wrote, “This Guy Are Sick: The Rise of Square Localization,” for GameSpite Quarterly 8. It was also published on 1UP.com. Please read it, and think about buying a copy of GSQ8, which chronicles the history of Sony’s Playstation over the course of nearly 450 pages. Thanks again to Richard for giving me such a wealth of information. Writing an article with the information he gave me consumed my life for weeks and was far and away the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on. The full interview is presented below.


Q: I know you began working with Square as Final Fantasy VII wrapped up, but take me back to the transition between SNES and PS1. Ted Woolsey is famous for his work during the SNES era. How was translation changing within Square as gaming shifted to 32-bit?

 

A: I actually applied as a programmer and Ken Narita (the lead programmer at Square at the time) accepted me for the FF team. But suddenly the US office’s president heard about me and asked me to come back for another round of interviews. At the time he had just one translator in the US and wanted to create a full localization team in both Tokyo HQ and his office. I jumped at the opportunity. As soon as I heard it, I just knew it was my calling. So just myself and another Loc Producer, Aiko Ito, founded a team in the Tokyo office that would eventually grow to become a fully-fledged department.

Soon after, FFVII sold 1 million in the US, then later succeeded in the rest of the world. Up till then, we were preaching the benefits of localization to the dev teams. But suddenly they realized it was no longer the “pocket money” level of the SNES era, and it was a relatively easy way to boost sales and profits. (i.e. instead of putting all that effort and risk into new titles, they could just translate their current ones for easy returns. Also, now that the PS was using CDs, there was no longer the costs and risks involved of creating an inventory of cartridges.) Suddenly the dev teams that wouldn’t listen to us were inviting us to do their titles as well. We became very busy and could then grow the team from there.

Q: Final Fantasy VII doesn’t seem to have quite the same strict limitations of earlier games in regards to fitting text into dialogue boxes–the limitations for names weren’t as strict. No “Crono” there! Even so, there were a lot of grammatical errors and funky translations in the game. What went on with the English translation there?

 

A: It was still early days. Michael Basket was the lone translator within Squaresoft USA (though he had some external help from Japanese speakers whose text he also had to edit). The QA team was just finding its feet then too. We didn’t have editors and the full review and checking processes we have now. The dev teams were not accustomed to localization either, so there was a serious lack of communication and best practices back then. (For instance, “Aeris” was supposed to be a mixture of Air+Earth, so perhaps a spelling more like “Earith” would have brought that connotation across in English better? On the other hand, “Barret” came from “Bullet” in Japanese, but it probably wouldn’t have been wise to stick to the Japanese naming here. Either way, the translators couldn’t ask and receive this kind of information in a timely fashion back then in order to make informed decisions. They just did the best they could.)

The translators were stuck with fixed-width fonts, so there were still strict limitations compared to if they used proportional fonts etc. Worse, the translators had to write all their translations in double-byte (zenkaku) text. It was a horrible system where, for instance, if they wanted to type an amlaut-A “Ä” they had to type a Chinese character like “亜”! It wasn’t until FFVIII when I wrote a convertor, so the translators could then write plain extended-ASCII text in their own language and let my convertor change it to double-byte Shift-JIS for them. So you could imagine, writing everything in that style stopped the translators from using spell-checkers and so forth. It was a mess, but it took years for us to rectify those old practices and find best practices.

Basically, instead of writing ASCII text as:
Barret
“C’mon newcomer. Follow me.”

The translators had to write it as Shift-JIS encoding:
Barret
”C’mon newcomer。 Follow me。”

Doesn’t look much different to you (just bigger looking, probably, depending on the font you use), but word processors treat this as Japanese text and won’t carry out spell check on it. Worse, there are hidden tokens also used that mess up the text further. And if you use any European or special letters, you had to use Japanese Kanji characters. So to type
“Déjà vu at the café!”

The translators had to write something like:
”D画j阿 vu at the caf画!”

(I don’t  remember the actual kanji characters but you get the idea, I hope.)

You can imagine how slow this was to type and how it would make spell checkers (and the European translators) go crazy.

The hidden tokens were like <WAIT 5> in the text, and even in FF9 the Japanese were still using obscure Chinese characters to represent the game’s main character names (that would get replaced with the actual character names or player-defines names at run-time). Yuna was written as 愈 or some other obscure (i.e. unused in the game text) Chinese letter. It was expected the foreign version translators would enter these in their text as well, but instead my intervention allowed the translators to write <Yuna> and my converter would change it back to this character (along with all the other letters). Well, at least the text became readable an stopped the translators going crazy!

Given those early day restrictions, I think it was a miracle the games even came out at all, and I respect my fellow translators for doing a decent job despite the challenges that the players would never know were happening in the background.

Q: When cleaning up the PSX translation of Final Fantasy VII for PC, did you give any thought to the impact some mistakes had on the game? Barrett, for instance, had a very unusual way of speaking, and some of that was definitely due to weird translation or bizarre sentence structure. Was any of that deliberately left in, or was the focus to make the best “proper” translation possible?

 

A: We did clean up the PC version a little (particularly in European languages which were worse than the English as they were just thrown to any random outsource company by Sony for the PS version back then). However we did not have the time and budget back then for a full retranslation. Plus even the PC port still had the same limitations as the PS.

In the defense of Michael Baskett’s rendition of Barret, he was trying to give Barret a “Mr T”-like characterization. (It was obvious the Japanese character was influenced by B.A. Baracus too, so this was actually in line with the Japanese to a certain degree.) The early-day super-deformed polygon graphics were rather cartoony with pantomime animations. If the graphics had been up there with the current FF graphics, I’m sure it would have inspired a different characterization. Plus characterizations in text are always hit-and-miss depending on the player. (Something I also learned the hard way too.) It would take years for us to better refine characterization styles that Michael and Ted Woosley pioneered before us.

Q: FFVII was huge in 1997. What was the localization team like at Square when you joined, and how was it different by the time you started work on Xenogears? More people? New methods?

 

A: (I kind of answered this above.) I joined just as FFVII was about to be released in America. Apart from Michael Baskett in the US Squaresoft office, it was just Aiko Ito and myself in Tokyo HQ. (Aiko had worked as a general assistant on the old Chrono Trigger and Super Mario games and, because she spoke English, was assigned to the foreign versions as well.

The original idea back then as that we took all the code off of the dev teams’ hands and did everything for them so they could move on to their next title.

On my first day I was given the source code to the original PS Chocobo’s Dungeon and told to both program and translate it all as a one-man team. Within a few hours I realized that the source code was incomplete and was not in any state to be compiled, let alone translated. But the dev team had been dissolved and no one had backed up the source code that existed on their individual machines. So we gave up on Chocobo’s Dungeon and learned our first lesson: to make the dev teams back up their source code so we could even begin to work on their titles! (In the end, after several similar cases, we gave up on the idea of taking over and doing all the work for the dev teams. Instead we asked their programmers to incorporate the translation back into the text and make any programming for us while their planners were in pre-production of their next title.)

The next major title was Xenogears, which I was assigned as Localization Producer on. We hired some new translators in our US office. However within a few months, Michael had decided to leave Squaresoft and the two new translators were left lost not knowing what was happening on the translation. Having a lot of religious content (some of which was considered controversial), as well as a lot of scientific jargon and psychological concepts, it was above the level of the then newbie translators and they soon asked to be taken off the title. I had to ask the dev team for an extension of several months as I took over the remaining translation myself. They couldn’t spare the staff to help with the title at the time, as they were moving onto Chrono Cross, so they taught me to create QA builds and master up the game myself. I slept at the office as I tried to get the translation out within marketing’s timeframe…but the quality suffered. This was the catalyst to hire editors to review translator’s writing, and to make sure translators cross-check each other’s work. This led to us to establish best practices such as planning properly for the worst case, allowing for familiarization and glossary creation periods, and so on, that later become standard. We also began to create our own tools to help with the translation and file conversion and slowly increased our headcount to match the growing needs of our titles.

Q: What were the biggest challenges (either technological or within the company) you faced as you started working in localization at Square? Did those challenges lessen over time?

 

A: When I first joined the dev teams were not even thinking of the foreign versions and were just focusing on the Japanese market. They didn’t want to put any effort into the foreign versions and their programming practices made localization a headache.

I mentioned the whole “type all text in double-byte (zenkaku) characters” system for FF games (up till FFIX), but there were worse programming follies going on. For instance, Tobal 2 couldn’t be reprogrammed to allow English text into its memory…which was kind of embarrassing seeing as Square had some of the greatest programmers in the industry for graphics and special effects, but couldn’t fit English text in their games! (Most of it was caused because their programmers quickly moved on to other titles, and no one else knew how to correct their code. So the loc team had to makes sure to schedule/lock-in the programmers’ time going forward to avoid repeats of this kind of thing.)

We had to fight for simple things like proportional fonts. (In fact if you look carefully, Xenogears and Chrono Cross used the same font. The dev team told me it was impossible to implement a proportional font, so I went and used the same font and quickly re-programmed the display routine to make it proportional in order to fit more text on screen. The director wasn’t too happy that I messed with his source code, but seeing as it was in there and was working, he allowed me to keep it.) I often had to call the teams out when they claimed our requests were impossible, or had to present them with design docs and workarounds until they learned what was expected for the foreign versions.

We lost some battles on the way, but I guess we eventually came to win the war. The dev teams slowly began to trust us with their babies, and even came to confer with us to plan ahead. (By the time the PS2 came along, the dev teams were planning for localization at the start. For instance we recorded The Bouncer’s voice overs in English so we could make the lip movements right in English, then dub it back into Japanese, as Japanese voice recording studios and actors were more familiar with dubbing to English than the reverse in America at the time.)

At the end, we had directors like Ishii-san and Tanaka-san working closely with us to name their titles, characters, and plan their game system. (For instance FFXI was planned to use English character names in both the Japanese and English versions from the beginning. We had to rework all the spell names in both English and Japanese to have a compromise that worked in both languages. I sat next to the Japanese name planner for 4 years and we worked together to name everything rather than simply translating what the Japanese team came up with.) But we had a major reset when Enix bought out Square and the companies merged to become Square Enix. Suddenly everything we achieved with Square had to be re-earned with the new Enix side. After 4 years, I was taken off FFXI, and assigned to the Dragon Quest team in order to bring the best practices we established at Square to the DQ dev teams.

Q: Square’s games in the PS1 era obviously varied quite a bit in tone. How did the localization process differ for a game like Brave Fencer Musashi versus something like Xenogears or Parasite Eve?

 

A: Myself and the other Loc Dept co-managers would try to choose the best translators for each title whenever we could. After a while you came to know which translator was good at writing sci-fi, who was better at high fantasy, who was good at contemporary writing, and who had a whacky sense of humor for the titles that needed that (the latter was usually my forte).

Further, we would always try to establish a style guide for the title, and characterization guide for the characters and world as a whole, so yes, we tried to adapt our style to match the subject matter of each title.

It was a learning experience and you could not always get a perfect combination of talent due to scheduling issues, but I think the localization quality was better off for trying (rather than just farming it out to the cheapest translation house, say).

Q: When translating a more lighthearted game like Brave Fencer Musashi, how much of the humor was already intact in the Japanese script–how much would be added or embellished for the English version?

 

A: It depended on the translator and how much the dev teams were willing to give us freedom. Some dev teams would be adamant that their Japanese names (even pun names) should be kept in all languages, despite the nuances of meaning being lost between languages. Other dev teams would trust us to change whatever we wanted. (For example, by the time I left Square Enix, even the Dragon Quest team, the strictest on Enix’s side, had reached the stage where they trusted us and were willing to help us better localize the content. Just look at the difference between previous Dragon Warrior games and DQ8, and then look at how crazy we went on DQ Heroes: Rocket Slime. That was a blast…especially trying to explain what was funny to the team in order for them to change artwork for us etc.)

Generally we tried to stay true to the spirit of the original. Brave Fencer Musashi was pretty funny in Japanese, so the translator kept the idea of naming all the characters after Korean BBQ by replacing it with Western BBQ names. However, alcohol names were problematic with US and other ratings boards, as well as our distributors, so the translator renamed the alcohol-based names with soda-pop names. But the idea is the same.

Humor and tone is always a tough balance. In Japanese you can have ridiculous looking or super cutesy characters taken seriously within their game world, while in English-speaking countries it would look totally out of place and break the world’s feel. Sometimes it may be hard to keep a serious tone, but if you add too much humor, it becomes a parody of itself. Apart from fellow translators, I liked to bounce my ideas off of each country’s QA departments during translation. If a joke or idea was too silly, they would gladly tell me so (sometimes via threats of physical violence for really bad puns!) and often give me their alternatives. That was one of the benefits of having a pool of talent from differing backgrounds on hand…even if using them in this kind of capacity wasn’t strictly in their job description.

Q: Recently I was watching some early episodes of Dragon Ball Z and was amazed at how all of King Kai’s “puns” were based off of the pronunciation and meaning of Japanese words–the jokes didn’t work in English at all! What was it like translating jokes between languages? How often did you completely rewrite them for western culture?

 

A: Yeah, I would have loved to have translated Dragon Ball. The names are so crazy in those manga. But I was able to fulfill that dream on Toriyama’s Dragon Quest games, where I actually added more Toriyama-style naming humor back into the English version of the game. : )

Once again, we’ll always try to stay true to the spirit of the original work, but then adjust it to match the audience we are targeting. In some games it was impossible to translate a joke correctly so you’d replace it with a different joke or put some in elsewhere to get the overall balance of humor correct.

Obviously we’d make necessary changes, like replacing folk heroes Momotaro & Kiji in the Japanese version of Chocobo Racing with Hansel & Gretel in the US version (which even allowed me the set up to a “Grimm ending” pun.)

For Dragon Quest we would amp it up even more, replacing a lot of the names with jokes or parodies of things Westerners are more familiar with. I think the ultimate in pun-manship was DQ Heroes: Rocket Slime. Why, we even wrote all the job titles in the credits to be slime puns! This was a case where we were allowed to go all out and the dev team helped us redo artwork to best get the jokes across. The plan on Rocket Slime was to make every line a joke or pun, with the full range of humor, so the player can’t help but laugh…after we eventually wear down their resistance.

Q: About two years passed between the releases of FFVII and FFVIII. What was the team like by the time you began working on FFVIII?

A: I think I covered the general changes above, but more specifically for this title… While Aiko, myself, and a few others coordinated things from the Tokyo Office, FFVIII’s text was translated by the staff in our US office as they had the bigger team at the time. We flew the main translators to Tokyo for the key parts of the title, and we had not one, but two editors, working on the text, adding extra polish as they made four translator’s work into one consistent style or “voice.” For a few years, Squaresoft in Costa Mesa had the bulk of our English translators in there office. Despite the time difference and communication gap, there were other benefits of having translators in the US. They could know local trends in language and pop culture to better localize the games to the US audience, for instance.

But eventually things swayed to the Tokyo Office where there were great benefits of having the translators sit within each dev team and work side-by-side with the original writers. I guess it is just a cycle to match the needs of the dev teams and the availability of the translators. Nowadays there are only 1 or 2 translators left in the LA office, and they are mainly there to attend voice recording on behalf of the teams in Tokyo.

Q: FFVIII doesn’t seem to have as much “character” as its predecessor–it’s a more serious, down-to-Earth game despite its fantasy world. How much input did the localization team have in crafting the tone for this game–or others, if you have an apt example?

 

A: Basically what I mentioned above about adjusting style to the game content applies here. The translators brainstormed together and created a style guide for the feel of the game. The tone is definitely much more serious as the graphics became more realistic than the super-deformed polygon models used in the bulk of FFVII. Also the plot dictated that you couldn’t go very far with differing accents (at least without creating contradictions with the setting of the characters). But our translators did make some great choices, such as fixing the spell names to be more FF-ish (being truer to the Japanese spell names, more systematic, and .more original than your standard fantasy genre magic names.) This could only be done because we started to follow the best practices of allowing translators to familiarize with the content, then give them time to brainstorm and create both style guides and naming glossaries. I’m sure you’d agree that the translation quality improved vastly over VII’s and the differences in tone of this title versus the games being translated in parallel (Chocobo Racing, Legend of Mana, Saga Frontier etc) showed that we were flexible in our style and were giving thought to the translation.

Q: Out of all the Square games released in the PS1 era, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story are the two that most strongly build from an Old English style. Are both these games examples of your teams coming up with style guides that fit the games in question? (I ask because FFT was released before Xenogears) Or was this more a result of Yasumi Matsuno’s influence?

A: FFT was before I joined. Part of it was outsourced, part of it was done by Michael Baskett in-house at Squaresoft USA. (That is why players with a keen eye will see two different spellings of Ahriman between the parts done by different translators, for instance. It was early days for QA, and by the time they found the issue, they didn’t have the power/time to ask the dev team to re-render the attract mode movies etc.) I can remember Michael telling me he had originally wrote the characterization with a much stronger “Olde English style,” but that it started to effect the understandability of the game as well as made all the characters sound the same. So in order to solve the comprehension and variety of characterization issue, he ended up toning it down. So yes, even though Michael might not have had a fully fleshed out style guide to work from (seeing as he was mostly working alone on it), he probably had the overall style of the game’s voice that he felt best matched the game world in his head as he translated the text.

Q: Did you have any involvement in the dialogue system employed in Chrono Cross, which would take a line of dialogue and spit it out differently based on which character was in the party? What was it like writing for such a diverse cast?

A: I actually created the English auto-accent generation system and programmed it as a stand-alone tool (for checking purposes) before handing the code over to the CC dev team to implement in the game itself.

The Japanese version had over 40 different accents that were mainly created by changing the verb endings and adding a few different ways of referring to the main character. It is relatively easy to pull off in Japanese. But in English, we had a serious problem. Either translate the game with no variation between characters at all, or somehow cram in 40+ different characterizations. We didn’t have the time or the PS memory to retranslate the same line up to 40 times for each character, so I took a stab at a system that would try to change the text real time into differing accents or speech patterns to match the colorful array of characters that made up the cast of the game.

I composed an initial characterization guide for all of the characters. Then I looked at what patterns of speech we would need to accomplish those accents and broke it down to the syllable or phoneme level. I made a list of each phoneme in English that would get changed according to different accents or speech-impediments, so that the translators and I could replace those phonemes with tokens in our text. At run-time, these tokens would be changed to match the speaker when that text was displayed on screen.

I made a rudimentary search-and-replace tool that replaced all those syllables or phonemes with the corresponding tokens. We translators would tweak these by hand, then we would add those tweaks to a dictionary file so the system gradually improved as we taught it better implementations. It was a real head-ache that I doubt many loc teams would ever be able to implement. (Thanks to Yutaka, Sammy, and Rich for putting up with all the extra workload I added to them!)

I flew over and worked in the US office for over a month (while the dev team was on vacation recovering from the Japanese master up). This allowed me to work side-by-side with my fellow translators while I also had the QA team help me on one of the greatest testing efforts ever. I created a tool that expanded out the tokens as if it was shown on the game screen, using the actual font and window widths. So the testers could run through every single line of text for every single character’s way of speaking and confirm that it read correctly (or at least within the parameters of the style guide, as of course this system did have its limitations) as well as to ensure it didn’t go over the line length limits. The QA testers were only a few weeks behind our translation, so we would be implementing their changes into both our text and the search-and-replace tool. After all that work, the testers then would have to recheck all that text in-game, to make sure the context was also correct and that everything was fine in the final product. So it wasn’t just the dev team and translators that needed to be sold on the idea, but the QA dept. I really don’t think most companies would allow someone to try to pull off such an ambitious system nowadays. Looking back, it was a risky move. While I agree some of the accents seem over-the-top, the game definitely benefitted from having variety in the speech patterns to match the characters. (Seriously, would a pirate, a voodoo doll, a mermaid, an effeminate wanna-be-French Muskateer, a Mexican wrestler, a glam rocker, a pink fluffy dog, a skeleton clown and an alien, to name a few, all speak in the same manner?)

I still love the look on people’s face that see the name they enter for their character become all manner of nick-names depending on who is speaking to them. That was a simple trick that still surprises people to this day.

On a side note, the knowledge and courage gained from this auto-accent system also paved the way for a range of grammatical tokens that made latter games (FFXI, DQ series etc) more natural in English and European languages by adjusting the text real-time to handle capitalization, articles, singular/plural, masculine/feminine/neutral, and even German grammatical cases.

Q: Let’s talk FFIX. What was your position in the localization department while FFIX was being worked on–how had staff changed since you started at Square?

 

A: Games of the scale of each FF were always all-hand-on-deck affairs, so almost everyone in the department supported in some way. I was always a jack-of-all-trades who changed role on each title depending on the needs. For both FFVIII and FFIX I worked in a more supportive role. FFVIII was the last game that forced the translators to submit their text in Shift-JIS double byte (zenkaku) letters. I had written a tool that converted the text for them (along with line-width-checkers and a few other tools). On FFIX we convinced the dev team to allow us to use extended-ASCII from the get go, helping them implement that encoding into the program along with better fonts etc.

We had several projects running simultaneously, and newbies to train etc, so after the other staff and I who helped run the department selected the EFIGS translators, we handed it over to them and backed them up in whatever way was needed. (At this point we actually were translating directly from J->FIGS instead of going via English. It had taken us a lot of effort to find and train such translators so we started to bring them in-house wherever possible.)

Q: The world of Final Fantasy IX is particularly rich with references to other games in the series. Talk a little about these–were they all there in the original script?

 

Were the numerous cultural allusions to Shakespeare, Star Wars and Star Trek (I love the “Dammit Jim!” quote) added in the English translation? On a related note, when and how did Biggs and Wedge first find their way into Final Fantasy?

 

A: Some references are in the Japanese original; others are Western/English replacements for something only a Japanese audience would understand. I think the Star Trek references were added by our translators. Translators often will add strange references as Easter eggs into more obscure areas of the games for people to have fun finding. Often the crazier ones come out of late night overtime translation delirium where everyone on the loc team starts to think anything and everything is funny.

Biggs and Wedge appeared in the original Japanese FFVII, but the translator did not have the background info on the naming, so had “Biggs” rendered as “Vicks.” Later on, we made it a policy that if we received new light on the references or background information, we would try to correct the mistakes. However, we have to walk a fine line between what has already been released to and accepted by the general public, and what should be corrected. (For instance, it would be hard to changed Cinderella’s glass slipper to a fur slipper just because someone argues that it was a mistranslation of the original German. That’s way too established now!) Also each translator wants to leave their own mark, often making changes for change’s sake. So towards the end of my service at SQEX, we set up a panel of translators that would review any name changes to content that was already releases in order to assess what is okay as is, and what definitely should be corrected. In this case, we are all unanimous that Biggs and Wedge should be corrected, and in later titles it was. (Our translators even tried occasionally to sneak Biggs & Wedge references into the games that didn’t have them in there…but were often met with resistance from the dev team, who thought that they might add a real Biggs & Wedge reference in future remakes or spinoffs so didn’t want us to paint ourselves into a corner.)

Another is our attempts to sneak the word “Spoony Bard” into every FF game we could, as we thought it was the most hilariously random rendering from Japanese to English ever and worthy of becoming FF canon.

Another great example of a naming issue that I chanced upon was when creating the spell names for FFXI with the Director Ishii-san. While brainstorming together, he mentioned in passing that the spell “Dia” actually came from abbreviating “Dispel Undead” in Japanese. I freaked out thinking that I would have to change it to “DIU” or something similar. But after speaking to my fellow translation staff, we all agreed that “Dia” has a nice sun/daylight reference, which just happens to work in the case of dealing damage to undead creatures, so we kept it as “Dia.”

In fact, a lot of people who argue about the correctness of our translations of character, spell, and item names would be surprised where some of the references came from! The translators for NES & SNES titles had crazy 6-letter or less length limits on menu screens etc., so they had to be creative to get the meaning across and could not be true to the original even when they knew the reference. As we gained more screen space, we now had more freedom to improve these. Also, ratings boards and legal issues can prevent you from using a name you want to in certain regions or at certain times. So we hope people understand why we try to improve namings in some series rather than sticking to what the translators back then probably viewed as a compromise (with occasional mistranslations due to lack of context information). The FFIX translators polished up the FF namings to be truer to the Japanese original by changing the old Fire1, Fire2, Fire3 system to Fire, Fira, Firega, etc and we tried to maintain that convention since then. Similarly, I later reworked the Dragon Quest spell names to be closer to the Japanese onomatopoeia naming convention, in order to make it more expandable (as the Japanese name set was growing) and to correct a few mistranslations here and there. What people probably don’t realize is that, although we gained a lot more insight into the original by working closer with the dev teams, there was a flip side. The more involved they are in the translation approval, the more they would push their will on a language they don’t fully understand. So we now had to make new compromises, like when you take localized names back to the original creator and he would veto ideas you’d want to put in, taking you back to the drawing board over and over.

Interestingly there were times where the dev team took our translator’s ideas and re-applied them into the Japanese original. Alex and Joe who translated FFX coined the term “machina” to refer to the machinery in that game’s world. In the sequel, FFX-2, the dev team thought the word cool and used it elsewhere in their new game. While our translators were chuffed at the team borrowing back the idea, they now had to come up with new ideas for translating around two different “machina” terms.

Q: The storytelling in FFIX has always struck me as more sophisticated than most of Square’s earlier games–or later ones, with a couple exceptions like FFXII. The ATE system fleshes out subplots, the story is told from multiple angles and gradually shifts from lighthearted adventure into a quest for identity. Can you comment at all on how that story developed, and how the localization department helped it on its way?

 

A: Well I can remember receiving an initial draft of Sakaguchi-san’s script early in production to review as preparation for our Loc Dept. I was surprised that it didn’t really have any structure or even grammar to it. The plot was just a series of nouns. “Darkness. Matches. Light. Candle. Boy with tail…” It made me laugh as I tried to imagine how a dev team would make game out of this, and how much the planners would flesh out that basic story draft to have a very involved plot.

At FFIX’s stage, we weren’t too involved on a daily basis with the Japanese version though. We would assign a Loc Producer to check in on the team during development, but it wasn’t until we were closer to master up before the translators were all brought on board to familiarize with early QA builds and start translation. So we didn’t help or influence the development of the Japanese original game very much. FFX, FFXI, FFX-2 FFXII and onwards we had the translators move to sit within the dev team at an earlier stage and there was more collaboration. For instance, over time some dev teams became very good at choosing product and character names that work in all regions by discussing them with us. That way we could release information on their games to all regions simultaneously rather than having the press coin their own working names which could confuse the international audience.

As you can see, there were a lot of amazing improvements over the years. The dev teams went from being very hands off and just farming out the translations to any random vendor to working in with our Loc Dept to improve the quality of the game in all regions. They started to allow us to not just translate the text, but to do true localization by adjusting the difficulty, graphics, or other content to better match differing target audiences. So while it was never perfect, it was way better than when I first joined the company.

Q: Is there anything else interesting to say about the localization of the Ivalice games in general? Did Alexander O. Smith’s influence as a translator help define the styles of those games? (Final Fantasy XII’s English translation is blow-my-mind good. I’m not sure there are even any western developers doing medieval politics that well!)

 

Alex’s forte is definitely writing high-fantasy English. (Compare his writing style on parasite Eve 2 and Vagrant Story, two games he was working on simultaneously, and you can see that his work really shines with the games his style matches and he is most passionate about.) Alex’s work on Vagrant Story blew us all away. He really stepped up to the plate and showed us that he could hit it out of the ball park. (And to think, just before that we actually had him re-writing translations written by a fellow Japanese native translator, cleaning up classic “Engrish” lines as the description for a Cactaur: “It ejaculates needles!” You can imagine he was being under-utilized there, but he saved those old PS1 FF remakes from severe embarrassment! LOL)

Once he showed his fellow loc staff and the dev teams what he could do, he set himself up for being first choice for a lot of the games that required that kind of style going forward. FFX was again a great work, and it was where he was joined by Joe Reeder, who went on to work again with Alex on FFXII. (9/13/13 Note: Alexander O. Smith mentioned in a Twitter discussion that Joe Reeder joined Square at a later date. Smith and Aziz Hinoshita translated Final Fantasy X.)  You can see they aren’t just re-using the same style but are adjusting their writing and characterizations to match the needs of the games. They thought very hard about what style matched the “world feel” of the games. As you can see with the Ivalice series, we are not just translating one game, but are creating a fully fleshed-out world that may have spin-off titles and novels. What a waste if those titles had just been farmed out to the cheapest translation vendor without correct background information and without a thought to style or setting up the game world in foreign languages going forward as well!

(An interesting side point is that I was just finishing the translation of Dragon Quest VIII while Alex and Joe were on FFXII. I had to fight hard with the US office to use British English voice acting and writing in the new DQ reboot as the US office staff thought it would cause the game not to sell in the US. One of the reasons I was using British English was to further separate DQ’s style from FF’s, and so that we could use a different pool of voice talent than the same American voice actors that were being re-used on every title by every other game publisher. So it was ironic that Joe and Alex come over and asked me if they didn’t mind if they now used British English for one of the two warring countries in FFXII. As my game’s style was light-hearted and over the top in the humor and acting sides, I knew their style was going to be very different, so it wouldn’t be a problem. I happily introduced them to Morgan, the British English editor on DQ I had just trained up in our London office for DQ, and it was Morgan that helped Joe and Alex give their text a royally British polish. Looking at their finished work, I feel a lot of pride and awe at what they accomplished. It’s a pity the original dev teams and management in the company will never know just how amazing some of our translators’ (and editors’) work is, as I think it would make them pay localization much more respect and hopefully encourage them to keep talented people within their company, rather than allowing that talent to leave and go freelance. Sometimes you look at a moment and realize you had the perfect combination of translators and title content, and as a result the results really shine. I just wish we could repeat that magical combination on every title!)

Q: Any advice for people wishing to pursue game localization as a career?

A: First off, you need to be a good linguist in both the source and target language. You need to read widely and be able to draw from other forms of literature and cultural references. I always reminded my staff that our translations have to compete against novels, movies, and TV shows so our writing ability has to be on par with what is currently on our target markets.

Although I meet a lot of translators that don’t actually play games much but are happy to translate games because they love to translate, I sincerely believe that fellow game players will pick up on what is important to the game-playing audience. So I recommend that you play a variety of games in both the source and target languages.

Game translation is way more complicated than novels and movies, as there is interactivity where the players affect the storyline. So there is branching and convoluted text. You also need to understand audio timing, lip-synching, be able to subtitle, write poetry and songs, and even change graphics and animations…so it isn’t simply about text!

A good place to learn about localization is with the I.G.D.A. Game Localization Special Interest Group. I am one of the co-chairs of the SIG and we carry out regular discussions in our mailing group, as well as put on talks and one-day summits at industry events such as the Game Developers Conference (GDC). Apart from learning the tricks of the trade from people that come from all aspects of the game localization industry, it is also a good way to network. (http://www.igda.org/localization)

I recommend you try to work for an actual game company wherever possible. If the company has an internal loc team, they will help train you up to be a fully-fledged game localizer. The freelance route is attractive if you like to work from home, but you will be working in the dark most of the time in respect to both the game context and with working in a team that will teach you the trade. Not many companies follow the best practices of game localization, and you may end up being told to just shut up and translate a page of text with no information as to what game it is, who is talking, and whether they are male/female or singular/plural. So if you can’t find a good game company to work with, at least try to find a good translation vendor that knows how to translate games properly externally.

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