Inside Gaming - Interview with Former Square Enix Translator Tom Slattery
Tom Slattery,
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1: Beginnings
2: FFVI Advance
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5: Chrono Trigger DS
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Dissidia 012

By Michael A. Cunningham

RPGamers often wonder what takes place between the Japanese launch of an RPG and its North American release. Thanks to some back and forth discussion with former Square Enix translator Tom Slattery, we have a better idea about the process. Please note that Tom's opinions expressed in this interview are his own and are not representative of any past or present employer.

Beginning as a Translator

Michael A. Cunningham (RPGamer, Editor-in-Chief): So how did you get started with Square Enix?
Tom Slattery: I had already been in Japan for a couple of years, teaching English at a junior high school through the JET Program. Just as I was finishing up my second year in 2005 and looking for a more permanent line of work, Square Enix happened to have an opening for translators posted on its job site. Localization had never really been something I had considered pursuing as a career until that point--my major had been in computer science--but I had done some translation in the past and enjoyed it. I applied, interviewed, and ended up being offered a position as an hourly translator on a one-month contract. That was renewed two or three times before I got upgraded to a three-month contract, a six-month contract, and then became a salaried contractor and eventually a permanent, full-time employee (seishain). I left in 2010.

MAC: What exactly are the duties of a translator on the Japanese side of Square Enix? Does translation usually take place in Japan and then get edited in the US or did you handle localization as well?
TS: Translators at Square Enix are responsible for essentially everything related to localization of game content--translating all of the in-game text and graphical assets, identifying culturally inappropriate content and proposing changes, auditioning and casting voice talent, overseeing voice recording, and so on. I did have the pleasure of working with the fantastic UK English editor from the London office, Morgan Rushton, on a couple of projects, but Square Enix's main localization department is located in Japan, and for the most part, translators, editors, and localization producers (or coordinators, as Square Enix calls them) all work in the Tokyo office alongside the development teams. Translators have final say when it comes to content, so while editors do review the scripts on most games, it's generally up to the translators to make the call on how (or even whether) to implement any feedback or suggestions they receive from editors and game testers.

Final Fantasy VI Advance

MAC: Tell us a little about when you first started at Square Enix.
TS: When I first started I was working on Front Mission Online, which made it as far as a public alpha test in the U.S., but was never actually released here. After that, another translator and I were assigned to work on Final Fantasy V and VI Advance. We were told we could decide who did which, and being the new guy, I assumed I would be getting V and started familiarizing myself with it. Much to my surprise, however, the other translator expressed that she had no particular preference between the two, at which point I quickly jumped on Final Fantasy VI; it's one of the greatest RPGs of all time, and was one of my favorite childhood games. This was also right around the time of the Game Boy Micro's release (I was and remain a huge Game Boy Micro fan), and playing the English version of Final Fantasy IV Advance on the Game Boy Micro, I found the tiny menu font almost unreadable. They had been planning to use the same one again, so I created a new font from scratch, made some mockup screens, proposed it, and got permission to use it in both Final Fantasy V and VI Advance. I then started work revising the Final Fantasy VI script while lending a hand on V--reviewing the translation, doing some in-game context checking, and offering feedback where I could.

MAC: Is it typical to only have one translator at a time on a game?
TS: On a smaller project, yes. On a larger project, there tend to be more. There is a certain point, though, where the logistics of managing workflows and trying to keep everyone's writing styles consistent begin to outweigh the benefits of having extra bodies. For me, two translators and an editor strikes an ideal balance, but other people may feel differently, and schedules and budgets can demand different numbers.

MAC: Now, there were some changes that were made to this version of the game, one of which was the removal of the scene where Celes was being tortured. Can you shed some light on that for us?
TS: I remember after Final Fantasy VI Advance came out, a lot of people were asking why the scene had been removed. Almost immediately, this explanation arose that there had been some sort of recent kidnapping incident in Japan that people were sensitive about. It spread like wildfire. Interesting thought, aside from the fact no such thing happened. It's amazing how quickly misinformation on the internet becomes accepted as fact.

I was not involved in the decision to remove the scene—it was cut from the entire game, not just the localized releases—but understand that the original Final Fantasy VI was created before the Japanese ratings board, CERO, even existed. Violence is rated very strictly in Japan, much the same way that sexual content is in the U.S. Presumably they wanted a CERO A rating for the Game Boy Advance version in Japan, and you cannot get an A rating if a game depicts violence against a restrained human being.

MAC: One change that bothered me was Setzer's line when joining the team.

SNES: "The Empire's made me a rich man."
GBA: "The Empire's been bad for business."

The original made it seem like Setzer was taking a gamble by joining, but the new translation made it seem like he really had no choice. Not saying that the new was less accurate, but it just seemed to fit better originally. Can you speak to the thinking behind this change?
TS: It may have made Setzer appear to be making a more dramatic and nobler transformation, but that was a mistranslation in the original English script, plain and simple. The expression used in Setzer's Japanese line is an idiomatic one, shoubaiga agattari, meaning "business has dried up." Setzer is beginning to reveal that he has no personal love of the Empire, acknowledging that it has been hurting him financially. Celes jumps on this first sign of receptiveness to their appeal, saying literally "It's not just you," and encouraging him to think about all of the other people who are likewise suffering at the hands of the Empire.

My guess is that the original translator was not familiar with the idiom and translated it literally, assuming it meant business had "gone up," or improved, rather than "evaporated." That was a rather major departure from what was intended there, however, and presumably a wholly unintentional one on the part of the translator. So, there was really very little in the way of a thought process there. I recognized the mistake for what it was and corrected it.

It wasn't as though Setzer had no choice in the matter. An act of open rebellion against the Empire put him at great personal risk, so it was still a huge gamble on his part. However, he had reasons for arriving at the decision beyond a sudden and inexplicable desire to do good. There has always been a fair amount of homage to Star Wars in Final Fantasy (see: "Aren't you a little short to be an Imperial trooper?"), and I think it's fairly safe to say Setzer is our Han Solo. He hates the Empire, loves his money, and doesn't want to join the rebellion, but in the end he follows the right path--in hopes of getting the girl.

MAC: Was the Japanese script for the GBA version the exact same as the SNES version? Just trying to understand if maybe it was a development change between releases that led to this.
TS: There are always some tweaks to the script--correcting legacy text bugs in the Japanese, adjusting line breaks, bringing grammar and style in line with the latest internal guidelines, updating any okay-twenty-years-ago-but-no-longer-politically-correct terms, and that sort of thing--but no, there were no creative enhancements to the script like there were for Final Fantasy IV DS. If you're referring to Setzer's line in particular, it was the same.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

MAC: What was your next project after Final Fantasy VI Advance?
TS: My next project was Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. Another translator, Joe Reeder, had already been assigned to the project and had expressed interest in working with me, or so I'm told, having apparently liked the work I had done on an internal training project in the interim. He had already translated the first scene with exactly the same style I had envisioned for the game, so we pretty much just ran from there. I translated the next scene, and then we kept alternating, checking each other's work as we went along. I was assigned as the lead translator on the project since Joe had to leave in the middle to start work on Revenant Wings, but there was really never any need for one person to decide the direction. We were on the same wavelength from the start. I don't think we ever even discussed style until other people became involved; we would just follow each other's lead. This was also the first truly insane project I worked on. There were months when I was working 12 or 13 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week.

MAC: What is involved with those internal training projects?
TS: It was sort of a one-time thing. There were quite a few newer translators at the time and a lull in projects, so someone had thought it would be a good idea to have us to transcribe and translate a Dragon Quest manga on an unrealistic schedule for practice. It was rather tortuous, to be honest, but it resulted in an opportunity to work on the retranslation of Final Fantasy Tactics, so I eventually found it in my heart to forgive those responsible. Well, mostly.

MAC: Is there anything controversial you can talk about in the re-localization of Final Fantasy Tactics?
TS: The whole monotheism/polytheism thing is something I've seen a lot of people mention. The Church of Glabados is clearly modeled around Christianity, and the religion itself would seem to be a monotheistic one. Yet in the very opening scene of the game, Ovelia's prayer mentions "kami-gami" (gods, in the undeniable plural). Since the game's script had made it clear that followers of the world's religion spoke of more than one god, we retained that plurality in the English.

Final Fantasy IV DS

MAC: So what was next?
TS: After that came Final Fantasy IV DS. I had actually asked not to be put on the project because they had merely wanted someone to brush up the existing text and format it to fit; I knew I could not work on my favorite game of all time without giving it a full retranslation. In retrospect, that may have been why I was assigned to it. Naturally, I ended up putting forth a case for doing a new localization from scratch--offering to do it in the span of the original schedule--and obtained approval. Fortunately, they decided to expand the project schedule to allow me enough time to do a retranslation without having to sleep under my desk.

All things considered, Final Fantasy IV DS was my most enjoyable project at Square Enix. The team was amazingly kind and supportive. They put translation credits in the opening movie, which is almost unheard of. They added the localization staff to the hidden Developer's Room. The director, Mr. Tokita, even suggested I do a cameo voice in the game as he had done in the Japanese version (I'm the "Lord Captain! Monsters at the fore!" in the opening scene). The reasonable schedule also kept things from ever getting too stressful.

MAC: With these projects, did localization begin during development knowing that it was going to be released in English?
TS: They knew that the games were going to be released in English, but every project was somewhat different in terms of schedule. Final Fantasy VI Advance was localized concurrently with development of the Japanese version. With Final Fantasy IV DS, we didn't get started until the Japanese version was more or less in its final form. Tactics fell somewhere between the two.

MAC: On Final Fantasy IV DS, were there any liberties you took with how you thought characters would act based on your experiences with the earlier versions? As a fan I can see the temptation. Any things you just knew you had to fix or make sure got across? Any you wanted to change, but couldn't?
TS: Final Fantasy IV DS was an interesting project. I had been told originally, of course, that I was simply to adapt the GBA version script. That was in some ways impractical and in other ways impossible. Dialogue was split differently between windows to correspond to the characters' motion on the screen for dramatic effect in the DS version, but it had not been translated in previous games with such a fine degree of correspondence to the Japanese that it could simply be split in the same places in English, pasted in, and work. Event scenes suddenly had lip flaps for the characters, requiring ADR and meaning that the old translation for those would have to be thrown out the window. The Japanese script itself was also heavily revised for the DS version; they even modified the name of the Red Wings in Japanese to give it more medieval flair. The item that had been called the Sand Ruby in English before was now clearly not red. There were so many changes that had to be made that it seemed silly to try to shoehorn in a translation that had been patched up and repainted since the SNES days, but never given a proper overhaul.

My overarching goals with the retranslation were to give the world an appropriate and consistent feel, bring terminology and recurring references back in line with the most recent series entries, and correct outright errors in the translation. The GBA version, for instance, had Kain saying "We will rejoin the Red Wings in no time" at the beginning of the game, when Kain had never been a member of the Red Wings; he leads the Dragoons. It's an easy mistake to make working with a language where sentence subjects are optional, but knowing the story of the game, it's a fairly major one.

The Mysidian legend was also something I had wanted to update badly, as previous translations had failed to convey effectively what it referenced. The naming related to summons was another. Every other Final Fantasy had given them a name--Espers, Eidolons, Guardian Forces--but Final Fantasy IV simply called them "summons," or "summoned monsters." "Esper" had just been revived for XII and "Eidolon" hadn't seen any love outside of IX, so I brought it back for IV and then for XIII as well. I also felt the creatures' world deserved a proper name. Who would call their own realm "The Land of Summoned Monsters"? And hey, inventing words is always fun. "Feymarch" had zero Google hits before the game came out; now it has tens of thousands.

The Bomb Ring had to go as well. Talk about spoilers! In Japanese it's not quite as obvious since the "Bomb" part is the English word (the name of the Final Fantasy series monster) and not the actual Japanese word for "bomb." You're simply being handed some sort of signet ring to deliver to the village as a message. In English, you're handed a "Bomb Ring," and as the player you instantly think "Oh, okay. The king wants me to go blow up this place up!" There's no real surprise when you get there and events unfold.

Otherwise, I just did what I thought was best. The audience for Final Fantasy IV skews much younger than, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, so I tried to find a middle ground for the writing style--not so overwrought that kids would find it difficult to enjoy, but still maintaining enough fantasy flavor for an adult audience. Final Fantasy IV is, hands down, my all-time favorite video game, so I knew the game inside and out. The dialogue came naturally.

It was a bit sad to see that the PSP version fell back on the GBA script again, with only the DS version terminology retconned in. I had volunteered to adapt the DS script, even in my own free time, but ended up leaving the company before the project kicked up.

Chrono Trigger DS

MAC: That's a LOT of classics in a row, what did your next project end up being?
TS: Next came Chrono Trigger DS. I have no idea how one amazing, classic RPG after the next fell into my lap, but they did. This was an incredibly difficult project. For starters, I was not nearly as familiar with this game as with the others, to which I had given hundreds of hours of my childhood. On previous projects, I had a much better sense of what was nostalgic in a good way and what was probably best updated. For Chrono Trigger, I had to do a great deal more research. The project schedule was also extremely tight. I had to move at a pace of 5000-6000 Japanese characters of translation a day, which meant I couldn't do a full retranslation even had I wanted to. There are things I would have liked to have done, like applying Frog's Elizabethan speech patterns to the rest of his time period, but I simply didn't have the time to study up on Elizabethan English and get to a place where I would feel comfortable writing in it. Instead, I had to kill his existing style of speech--knowing some fans would be upset--and go with something closer to what we had used in Tactics so that there would at least be consistency in the way people spoke throughout the Middle Ages. Time travel, free party formation, and heavy re-use of messages also caused the sort of contextual issues that make a translator want to scream. I was fortunate enough to have awesome localization coordinators who played through the game recording video of all the events for me as I worked; otherwise, I simply would not have been able to get through it. Still, trying to wrap your head around the flow of conversations in the files of that game--not to mention all of the messages that randomly get re-used in multiple places--was not easy.

Final Fantasy XIII

MAC: Did you work on any first-time localizations?
TS: Final Fantasy XIII was my first non-retranslation. That I worked on with Phil Bright, who has also since left Square Enix. From a localization perspective, that game was an absolute logistical nightmare. I understand any complaints people may have with the localization from the outside looking in. They are entirely valid. From the inside, knowing what we had to contend with, I am absolutely amazed at the level of work we managed to produce.

MAC: I know that Final Fantasy XIII had the fastest turnaround for a Final Fantasy to date. Is that the main reason the localization schedule was so insane? At what point in the development process did you actually come on board? Was the Japanese version completed or did you come in mid-stream?
TS: "Turnaround" doesn't seem like the right word to use with Final Fantasy XIII since the localization was done in tandem with development. There was never a time when the Japanese version was completed and we could just sit back and think about what we wanted to do with ours. We simply churned along, translating, and then retranslating, and then retranslating again as changes rolled in from all directions--or snuck in underneath our noses.

I joined the project at the beginning of localization proper. Some things had been done by others over the years as needed--for example, the main character names were already set in stone, and some of the major locations in the game had already been named--but the other English translator, Phil Bright, and I worked together on translation basically from the start.

The insanity of the schedule came from the fact that we had to localize the game as it was being made, and there were really no concessions made to make such a thing feasible. There was no infrastructure there to support simultaneous development and localization. There were no content freeze deadlines to ensure we were translating with appropriate final context. Cut scenes were still changing after we completed the English voice recording. We probably translated the entire voice script about four or five times. We would translate blindly from text, and then see an early render and say, "Oh, no, that doesn't work. Better rewrite that scene." Then some placeholder audio would show up and we'd realize our lines probably wouldn't match the timing or the emotion that would be on the characters' faces. Rewrite again, and then rinse, repeat with final audio, motion capture, and endless fine-tuning. We had scripts from the writers, videos of events, transcripts of the actual Japanese voice data, and the latest game build, but all four would be different and none of them final. Simply trying to figure out what it was that we needed to translate was headache-inducing for much of the project, and the reason I ended up proposing the Moomle tool that was shown at GDC this year after the project had finished. Without our superbly talented sound engineer, Teruaki Sugawara, who also subsequently left the company, I don't think we would have survived the project. He and I were both serving as representatives from our respective departments at the monthly meetings between Sound and Localization, and we both realized that if that was going to be the way localization was handled on subsequent projects, there needed to be a way of keeping all of that information synchronized without placing any unnecessary burden on the development team, Sound, or Localization. Hopefully having the tool made things a little easier on Final Fantasy XIII-2.

MAC: Were there any changes between the English and Japanese versions that were problematic?
TS: Vocal fans on the internet often complain about translators "changing" things in the English versions of games. This always amuses me, as we're very often working alongside the team to help name those things in the first place. For example, on Final Fantasy XIII, we were asked to help with the naming of the roles--Medic, Synergist, Ravager, and so on. We were intending to use different names in Japan and the US/EU from the start, and we (the English translators) brainstormed and proposed both sets. For the Japanese version, they needed English words that (A) sounded cool when rendered into Japanese, and (B) would be understood by non-English-speaking Japanese players, so we worked with the writers to come up with a set of consistent-sounding terms that met those criteria. For the localized version, our focus was on creating names that would have a more sci-fi feel to a native speaker's ear, and also abbreviate to three letters in a way that looked natural and made the short forms quickly and easily distinguishable from one another. We didn't "change" anything; we just generated two different sets of names for two different audiences.

Retroactive integration of the English translation into the Japanese version happens on projects quite often as well. For example, we were asked to come up with a translation for the names of the transporters in the Nautilus theme park. The Japanese name at the time was not something that really worked for us, so we went with "Nautilift." A few weeks later, that started popping up in the Japanese script. That kind of thing is always a huge compliment. It's a collaborative process. No one is going out stomping all over each other's work just for the heck of it.

Dissidia 012

MAC: But that wasn't all, right? You still had one more game you worked on before leaving.
TS: After XIII, Phil and I were pulled onto Dissidia 012 to work on the voice script for the new scenes. I don't usually claim that one, though, since we only did a tiny portion of it and had limited creative control. We more or less blindly translated a handful of scenes to be added to a game that other people had translated originally--using the existing terminology and characterizations--before handing the text off to a translator at the U.S. office to record, hoping that the lines would somehow miraculously fit the context, timing, and lip flaps of a game that didn't actually exist yet. Writing Kefka lines again was fun, though.

Localization Q&A

MAC: Were there any projects during your time at Square Enix that you would like to have worked on?
TS: I would have loved to translate Nanashi no Game, but it never ended up being localized. I would have liked to update the Secret of Mana localization for the iPhone version too, just to complete the tic-tac-toe of Woolsey retranslations. Otherwise, I think I actually ended up working on every single project there that I wanted to.

MAC: What changes or influences do you hope to have left with Square Enix?
TS: My most lasting contribution was probably creating the localization glossary tool now used there to help ensure consistent series terminology translation. When I joined the company, translators had to try to track down Excel file glossaries tucked away in disorganized folders on an internal server, taking wild guesses at where a term may have appeared. It was easy to overlook obscure references or assume a term was new when it had actually been pulled from a much earlier entry in the series. Now translators have a tool sitting on their desktops that they can paste a word or phrase into and instantly see if it appeared in any other games, and if so, how it was translated in a given language.

Toward the end of my time at Square Enix, I'd also written an article on an internal blog, leveraging some points from a book I'd read recently to call attention to trends in Western game design that I felt were lacking in a lot of Japanese games. It caught Motomu Toriyama's eye, and he asked me to expand on it in an hour-long presentation to the writers group. I think he was aware of many of those same issues. BioWare had given a really great talk at GDC 2010 about their approach to the dialogue system, player choice, and intuitive decision-making input. I shared the things I had gleaned from that presentation, further details from the book, and my own thoughts on a few issues as well, and it seemed to really spark some thought. I don't know how far-reaching the effects were, but I'd like to think it had some influence on the experimental new direction they took with Final Fantasy XIII-2.

MAC: What level of freedom do you really have when making localization changes? How do you balance accuracy against going wild and adding pop culture references?
TS: That's actually a much more complicated question than it sounds on the surface. On most of my projects at Square Enix I had carte blanche, or something very close to it, when it came to translation. However, there are always limitations, be they technical ones, fan expectations, or simply time.

For example, on The War of the Lions, the gorgeous new cut scene videos they added were animated perfectly to the lip movements of the Japanese lines, even though the scenes were not actually voiced in the Japanese version. So while we had the freedom to translate them as we wished, we also had to write lines that perfectly matched the characters' very precise mouth movements. That tied our hands quite a bit.

On Final Fantasy VI Advance and Chrono Trigger DS, while free to modify the translation as I saw fit, I also had to consider the legion of fans that would be scrutinizing every keystroke. There are many things I might have done differently had I been translating the games for the first time, but meddling with classics, you have to consider in every instance whether improving accuracy is worth destroying nostalgia for long-time fans. I think I did a good job at finding a happy medium, but there are certainly people who disagree with changes I made--or didn't make--and I respect that.

I feel that the primary goal of localization should be to produce a game that can be enjoyed as if it had been created domestically for the audience playing it. If it feels natural, immersive, and culturally appropriate, then you've succeeded. Games are supposed to be fun. I am always extremely respectful of the source material, but there is a lot one can do to make a translation come alive without changing the underlying meaning of the text. When changes do need to be made, it comes down to judgment calls. Lightning's real name in the English version of Final Fantasy XIII is not Éclair, because to an English-speaking audience, that is a pastry. The name was phoneticized differently from the dessert in Japanese, so the problem didn't exist for a Japanese audience, but rendered into English, it's very much a chocolate-covered treat. The director understood and agreed with our concerns, and now her official name in English is Claire.

MAC: Are there any games that you saw come and go unreleased in your time there? Any games that were in the process of being localized and were cancelled?
TS: I can think of one that was translated and then shelved, but it was nothing anybody really would have missed. Most of the cancelations that come to mind happened after I left and are things you've heard about—Gun Loco, Project Dropship. I'd actually written the story flow for one of the levels in Project Dropship, which was being directed by a friend of mine. Seeing that get the ax was hugely disappointing.

RPGamer would like to thank Tom (@retranslattery) for his time in answering these questions. Tom, who is currently a translator in the Treehouse for Nintendo of America, continues to work on translating game to English including The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Kirby's Return to Dream Land, and Fortune Street.

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