We learned a lot about Final Fantasy VII through Matt Leone's excellent oral history, but there was one factoid that didn't come as a surprise: Square-Enix put very little thought into the game's translation.
Game translation and localization was a rough business through the '80s and '90s. There were certainly exceptions – Ted Woolsey's translation of Final Fantasy III SNES and Chrono Trigger remain legendary to this day – but if anything, some of the comments from Final Fantasy VII's developers in Leone's oral history make it clear Square Japan never realized Woolsey had talent.
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But Final Fantasy VII's western success convinced Square-Enix to do better with its translations on a consistent basis. 2000's Vagrant Story for the PlayStation marks a clear turning point for Square-Enix's localization efforts. Translator Alexander O Smith worked hard with localization editor Richard Amtower to bring life to Yasumi Matsuno's grim, rusty medieval world.
USgamer contributor John Learned interviewed Smith and Amtower, and the exchange unveils a lot of new and interesting information about what it was like to be part of such a pivotal moment in Square-Enix's story writing history.
On adding thematic voice to Matsuno's original dialogue without destroying the original meaning: [Smith:] "Part of the spin added came as a reaction to the rich setting of the game, not to fix any 'shortcomings' in the script. If the setting is a pseudo-medieval European setting, while the Japanese language should stay fairly standard (there weren't many Japanese speakers in medieval Europe), the English really wants to at least nod its head toward that time."
On adding imagery via wordplay: [Smith:] "There was also a lot of nudging of words going on to help support the imagery in the game. In the original, the city of Lea Monde is referred to as a 'farm' for undead, but this was changed (with team approval) to a 'spring,' and all the words related to the dark power of the place changed to fit that theme—words like 'surge,' 'stream,' and 'well.'"
On playing with (appropriate) pop culture references: [Smith:] "Yeah, the room names were a fun challenge, because the Japanese names were very long, and we didn't have anywhere near the space in English to directly translate, which gave me free reign to translate very, very loosely. I also took a queue from Matsuno's many homages to Queen songs and lyrics, by throwing in some Bauhaus references in keeping with the gothic feel of some of the areas in the game. Some samples:
"Direct Translation: Mineshaft where (someone) spent all their strength for the one they loved.
"Final English: Passion of Lovers."
Game localization is a fascinating subject, and Learned's interview with Smith and Amtower is a treasure house of insight. Be sure to check it out.
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