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Localization Tactics: A Conversation with Alexander O. Smith

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Alexander O. Smith is a localization specialist who translates Japanese media through his independent company, Kajiya Productions. His projects for Square include Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII. We touched base with Alex to learn more about his career in the game industry, and his most recent projects adapting Square Enix games for the English-language market.

Alexander O. Smith
Alexander O. Smith has tackled genres as diverse as dungeon crawlers, futuristic war sims, and jurisprudence for games on the Playstation, Game Boy Advance, and Playstation 2, among others. His rendering of the fictional world of Ivalice gained notice among Anglophone audiences for handling an imaginative hybrid of contemporary popular culture, medieval feudal customs, sorcery, and moogles. Apart from game translation, the translator has also taken on manga, including Akira Toriyama's series Dr. Slump, the novels Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 1: The Sea of Shadow by Fuyumi Ono and The Guin Saga by Kaoru Kurimoto, and art books by Yoshitaka Amano.

We caught up with Alex to ask him about his career as a game translator and the challenges he faced introducing Square Enix games to the English-language world.

Square Haven: Hi, Alex. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

Alex O. Smith: My pleasure, I love the site!

Haven: Can you tell us a little about how you first became interested in Japanese culture?

Alex: It was sort of on a whim, actually. I was in rural China for two months in high school (long story), and on the plane ride back, I checked out the in-flight menu (you know, the chicken or beef one) and I noticed, beneath the solid block of Chinese writing, an elegant sort of script with some idiograms (kanji) mixed together with these flowing characters (hiragana and katakana). When I got back home, and learned that Japanese used these phonetic characters to represent foreign loan-words instead of the cumbersome Chinese system, the deal was sealed. I defected to Japanese, studied by myself for about half a year, went to Japan for a month the summer before college (my first time ever meeting a Japanese person) and so on. It was only later that I realized some of the shows I had watched as a kid, like Robotech, were products of this same culture. That was the icing on the cake.

Haven: You studied at Keio University and got your Masters in classical Japanese literature from Harvard in 1998. Would you say there are any particular aspects of your academic experience that have proved useful to your work as a localization specialist?

Alex: Learning how to read Japanese critically was a big help, as was expanding my knowledge of Japanese to include the classical language. Keio was great, too, both for the intense exposure to Japanese language and culture, and for the friends I made during that time. One of them, Matt Alt, runs a translation company with his wife just down the street from me, AltJapan, that does a lot of great work on games. That said, an academic focus on Japanese certainly isn't a requirement to become a good translator. You can become widely read in the language and very proficient any number of ways, especially these days with the easy access to Japanese books, manga, and anime worldwide.

Haven: Since a good portion of your life has been spent in Japan, would you say there are aspects of living in the country itself that prove valuable to an understanding of the language and culture? Things you might not get from a university program?

Alex: Absolutely. Context is everything when translating. If you're widely read and widely exposed to the culture, you'll be able to understand a particular line in a game from the perspective of the writer and the Japanese gamer. This frees you from a literal translation. The goal then becomes to leave the word-for-word text behind, and create something that will be as significant to the English audience as it was to the original audience. If you don't really know how a particular line sounds to a Japanese audience, you might misfire when transposing it into English--or worse, offer up a direct word-for-word translation that leaves the game sounding bland because that line that had a vivid life and cultural context in the original is just an unanchored string of words in the target language. Appreciation of context is also the key to creating a localization that is both a good read in English and faithful to the spirit of the original. That's the main difference between a game, book, or manga translated from start to finish by a translator, and one that is roughly translated into English first, and then rewritten by a good English writer that doesn't read Japanese.

The introduction to Vagrant Story

Haven: How did it come about that you were assigned the job of localizing Vagrant Story?

Alex: With Vagrant Story, the game was originally assigned to another translator and I was put on it as a sort of rewriter. I think we did one bit of PR text like that, and then the project was delayed by a few months. It turned out that the original translator was wanted on another project by the time it did start. It was sheer luck that it happened to really mesh well with the sort of writing I was interested in at the time. And the two other people involved with the project (editor Rich Amtower, currently at Nintendo, who has a masters in Middle English, and translator Amanda Katsurada) did a bang-up job with all those funky item names. So, luck happens.

Haven: In Japan, Vagrant Story was given a perfect score by the gaming magazine Famitsu, a distinction belonging to only five other videogames. In your opinion, what were some of the qualities of the title that earned it such positive recognition?

Alex: Well, I could go on for a long while about color palettes, character design, intelligent story writing and above all the direction! It was just so far ahead of everything else at the time. Did I mention the camera angles? If I was to sum up why I think it got a perfect score, I would say it was because of how fully realized the game was. This, too, was its downfall commercially, I'm afraid, because it didn't cut corners, ever, especially when it came to the rather intricate battle system and particularly the skill system. Not a problem for hardcore gamers (in fact, a breath of fresh air for many) but that doesn't play well to the mass market.

Haven: What were some of your goals in writing the game's translation for the English-language market?

Alex: Usually the goal with any game at the beginning is to make it not suck in the time you are given. That said, I think every Japanese game has an inner English game hidden away, and once you start to find it, it sets its own bar and the goal then becomes to meet those expectations, again within the constraints of time available. Vagrant Story was one of those rare projects that was just screaming to be in English from the moment it was made, so the bar, though high, was very clear. Luckily for us, it was rather short as projects go, enabling Rich Amtower and I to do multiple passes on every line, sometimes rewriting sections as many as five or six times. And, allow me to state here for the record, that guy is a deity among editors. I can't count the number of times I'd write something and he'd come back with "that's great stuff, here's what you meant to say" and he'd be oh so right (except he was much more polite about it than that.) Meanwhile, my co-translator Amanda Katsurada was free to give the item names and menu system her full attention, which really added to the richness there... It was also early in my career, so I didn't bat an eye at going without silly things like food and sleep, which helped. I also had worked with Matsuno-san directly on portions of the original Japanese game that were in English, and that relationship proved valuable during the translation phase of the project, because I could go directly to him and ask about changes to the text (and there were many) to make sure nothing we did violated the intent of the original.

Final Fantasy X: Mt. Gagazet (warning: spoilers)

Haven: You were the lead translator for Final Fantasy X. How were you involved with developing the game?

Alex: I wrote the lyrics and helped with the recording in close cooperation with the Square Sounds team (mainly Uematsu and Matsushita, the producer) as well as Nojima, who wrote most of Final Fantasy X's story. I remember my co-translator Aziz Hinoshita and I having a lot of contact with the team as the translation got underway to set the tone of the English--especially for the voice sections. There was also a lot of coordinating with the European translation team, as they had to use our voice translation for their localizations into German, French, Spanish, and Italian. As far as the actual decisions that were made, my standing non-disclosure agreement with Square prevents me from giving much detail, but suffice it to say there was a lot of contact with team, and even more once recording got underway. Oh, and one thing I've already seen in print from an interview with Nojima, so I know it's okay to talk about: yes, I specifically went to Nojima ahead of time to discuss the pros and cons of translating Yuna's last line to Tidus from "arigatou" to "I love you." I've actually written a whole article about that decision for a Japanese literary magazine, Subaru, if anyone cares to look it up. I think it's a great example of translating a cultural context, like I mentioned above.

Haven: You left Square in 2002 to create Kajiya Productions. How did choosing to independently direct work for clients influence the localization process?

Alex: My first big project after going independent was Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, so not that much of a change from my days at Square, except that I got to work from home more. I would say that the biggest change in general was that I became able to dictate my own conditions for projects (including a lot more control over scheduling, which is huge) and being outside the system of a company gives you far more direct access to the original design teams than being in a company and having to go through all the intermediaries and official channels. In Japan, and I suspect elsewhere, vastly more about a project gets decided over a glass or two of beer than ever gets done in a meeting room (where you generally meet to put a rubber stamp on what was decided over drinks the night before).

Haven: Would you say that the facility of the translator is a key determinant to the success of a game's localization for a foreign market?

Alex: While a skilled translator is a great asset, the final product depends much more on several other factors, including:

1. schedule (show me a three month project that was translated in one, and I'll show you a poor localization) 2. the original team (some are very hands on, some are hands off, all with mixed results) 3. the original quality of the game text in Japanese (waaay overlooked. If you have a year, yeah, you can probably rewrite a poorly written game so it sounds pretty decent, but it's so much easier to translate something that's tightly written in the first place. The better the original, the less time you spend on damage control, and the more time you have to add value.) 4. the editor(s)!

...and the list goes on. It's not even a question of all the parts having to be good, what they have to be is complimentary. If the translator writes a good yarn, but makes lots of careless mistakes, it's cool as long as they have an editor with a keen eye for getting the its and the it's and the theirs and the theres in order. If you've got a creative, messy translator, and an editor who's more concerned with being creative and rewriting than fixing what's there, you could have disaster. Likewise, if you've got a team that's too hands-on, they could stifle some great innovations in the English version, stuff that would really make their game sing in its new incarnation. Conversely, a hands-on team could prevent disaster if you've got a runaway translator that is changing things in such a way that the original spirit of the game is being altered beyond recognition. A good project manager, too, can help balance all of these factors, reigning in a translation team when it goes overboard, or helping to explain the reasons for a change to the original team. So much there to go wrong, but when it all goes right: wow.

How all this ties into your original question is that, as an independent, you have a lot more control over these factors that make great localizations possible.

A series of cutscenes leading to Gabranth's arrival in Final Fantasy XII

Haven: What are your thoughts on the various Ivalice titles you have translated into English?

Alex: I'd have to say what sums up the goodness of the Ivalice titles is their complete realized game worlds. Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII had volumes and volumes of backstory and detail that never shows up in the game text, yet shines through in the little details: some piece of armor might be designed to look like a religious symbol, belying a past connection that is never spelled out, but is there if you look closely enough. That level of detail adds a rich texture to the games you just can't get by accident. Even Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had a voluminous backstory that I think makes the characters more three-dimensional. Matsuno and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance's director, Murasawa, were both very generous with giving me access to those background materials. (Did you know the Seeq language in Final Fantasy XII is a fully realized, artificial language, with a grammar and long vocabulary lists?) It's easy to obliterate a subtlety in the dialogue if you don't know where a particular line is coming from.

Haven: Perhaps the most notable addition to games on the Playstation 2 was that of voice acting. What did the new element of audio recording demand from the localization team?

Alex: I think I mentioned in an article many years ago that I found the process of ADR writing (writing dialogue to fit lip flaps) a bit like writing entirely in haiku. It's challenging, especially in Square games that have (in places) incredibly articulated lips where you can see vowel sounds being formed, to match the dialogue to fit all that. Far more challenging, however, were the technical limitations of the PS2 sound encoding used. These required us, early on, to fit not only video on screen, but extremely exacting file lengths in the Japanese. So if a line in the original was delivered in 2.3 seconds, that's all the time we had for the English. You can imagine the kind of pressures that puts not only on the writing, but on the performance! You can't ask an actor for a slight adjustment or say, "a little more angst in line 10". You have to ask for a little more angst, and oh, make it fit in 2.3 seconds. And not all file lengths were so forgiving.

Anticipation of these issues allowed everyone to better prepare, both on the writing side and the technical side, for each new game. By Final Fantasy XII, many of the technical restraints were gone, and I think you can see a marked improvement in the dub quality over the years from Final Fantasy X to Final Fantasy XII.

That's the boring side of the process (though it's actually amazingly fun to write a good ADR script that actually works). The real sea change for voiced games comes with the voices themselves. Suddenly, where there were only pixels and text, now you have a real human voice and a whole other set of personalities (the voice director and the actor) involved with every line. This is where really amazing things can happen, both on the localization side, and the production side. With Final Fantasy XII, for instance, after my co-translator Joseph Reeder and I had finished casting the voices for our main parts (with team oversight, of course), we were then able to go back to the script and adjust large sections of it to fit the voices we now knew our characters would have. When we started recording with a particular actor, and saw they were bringing something to the part that we hadn't anticipated, we could make tweaks on the fly to make the text mesh better with the performance we were getting. Likewise, the voice director or the actor may interpret a scene differently than we'd anticipated, and come up with something truly powerful that we might never have been able to accomplish with text alone. That's the real challenge, and opportunity, of voiced games.

The next step, of course, is to include English speaking game designers in the game design process, something which is going on at several companies, though not widely enough to make a real impact. Still, there are more English speakers working with Japanese teams now than ever, and it's resulting in games that don't just bridge the cultural gap between the Japanese and US market, but really thrive overseas, sometimes doing better sales-wise in the US than back in Japan.

Hopefully, the future of localization means less localization will be necessary!

Haven: Thank you for sharing your time with us, Alex. It's been a great pleasure learning about your work in game localization.

Alex: Alex: Thanks for taking an interest! I hope this helps shed a little light on localization, and some of the people doing it.

Interview conducted by jeriaska. To learn more about Alexander O. Smith's background in localization, visit Kajiya Productions.

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