Skip to main content

How games like Final Fantasy XII and Phoenix Wright are translated into English

How games like Final Fantasy XII and Phoenix Wright are translated into English

Share this story

Final Fantasy 12

Today, PS2 classic Final Fantasy XII is launching on the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. It’s the same enhanced remake of the game that hit the PS4 two years ago, which proved that, in many ways, FFXII was an experience ahead of its time. Fourteen years ago, the game represented a strange turn for the ever-changing role-playing series, introducing features like real-time combat and a sprawling open world that felt foreign to many players. Today, FFXII feels downright modern — but it doesn’t just hold up well for players.

Alexander O. Smith has worked on translating Japanese games into English since the late 1990s. He says that, despite such a long career, FFXII is one of the few games he’s worked on where he doesn’t feel the desire to go back and make lots of changes. “I still feel pretty good about it,” he says, “which is not something that I feel about a lot of the other things that I’ve worked on.”

It’s an interesting time for Smith. In addition to the rerelease of FFXII, earlier this month, a remastered version of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney trilogy also launched, and Smith translated the English version that came out in 2005. When it comes to both games, Smith says that he didn’t expect them to have such a long life when he first worked on them. “A lot of these games I figured they were a shot into the darkness, and people might like them at the time, and then they’d get forgotten,” he says.

Alexander O. Smith.
Alexander O. Smith.
Photo: Square Enix

Before tackling FFXII, Smith spent four years working at developer Square Enix’s Tokyo office, getting his start doing translation on Final Fantasy VIII. Prior to that, he interned at Sega. After a few years of working directly for studios, he and fellow translator Joseph Reeder formed their own localization company, Kajiya Productions. Two of their first projects were Phoenix Wright and FFXII, which presented very different challenges. In the case of Phoenix Wright, the game was already finished by the time translation began; the series originally debuted on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, but it remained exclusive to Japan until it was ported to the DS four years later. “They gave me all the text and said ‘Go,’” explains Smith.

Playing today, much of the experience still holds up, but there are times when the dialogue can feel dated. The first Ace Attorney features a TV producer who speaks entirely in lolspeak, for instance, and in 2019, that kind of language feels like it comes from a long-lost era. But Smith says that the original goal was to make something that felt contemporary. “It’s difficult to do something that’s super timeless,” he says, “especially if the game itself is set in a particular time.”

For Final Fantasy XII, the process was much longer and more involved. The translation team actually began work very early in the process before production on the game began, helping the developers with early world building documents. Then, after a break of around a year and a half, Smith and Reeder got to work on the actual text. But even then, the game wasn’t complete; instead, the pair had to translate things like menus and in-game dialogue as they were finished.

“You end up waiting and grabbing the parts that you can, and playing through the game and familiarizing yourself with the text, and hope that the timing works out,” Smith explains. “We spent nine months doing the voiced part of the game, which was something like 12 percent of the total volume. And then we spent around five months doing the remaining 88 percent, which was non-voiced.”

Ace Attorney

This stop-and-start process did come with some benefits. The moments of downtime gave Smith a chance to think of ideas he wouldn’t have otherwise come up with. For instance, he felt that the bestiary in the original Japanese version of FFXII would be a bit too dry for an English audience. “Japanese gamers have very different expectations when it comes to their in-game text,” he says. But since he had a bit of extra time, he was able to use it to pore over Victorian-era medical textbooks, which he then emulated when describing Final Fantasy creatures in the bestiary. “I think it gave it this nice flavor that still felt very much a part of the world,” Smith explains.

“It’s difficult to do something that’s super timeless.”

There are other elements of the game that had to be shifted in translation. Final Fantasy XII takes place in a massive fantasy realm, one with different regions with their own well-documented history and culture. In the original Japanese game, everyone spoke in the same standard Japanese accent, but early on, Smith realized that wouldn’t work in English. Instead, people from each region in the game speak with distinct accents, which added an extra layer of challenge when it came to recording dialogue. (In addition to translating the text, Smith also served as a voice producer on the game.) “It’s something that doesn’t exist in the Japanese version because it wouldn’t make sense,” he says of the regional accents. “But if you don’t take that extra effort in English, you end up with a fantasy world that feels flat.”

In addition to working in games, Smith’s company has also expanded into other media as well. His translation work includes Keigo Higashino’s award-winning crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X, and multiple manga from famed Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama. Meanwhile, when it comes to games, he says that, of late, his work has primarily shifted to the mobile space. Working on console epics was a much more time-intensive experience that required long hours of research and translation. But looking back at a game like FFXII today, one that’s so fondly remembered, Smith says he does sometimes miss those larger-scale projects.

“They really don’t make games like that anymore,” he says.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 12:00 AM UTC Dimorphos didn’t even see it coming

R
Twitter
Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.


M
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.


Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther WangSep 26
E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?


R
Youtube
Richard LawlerSep 26
Don’t miss this dive into Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio flick.

Andrew Webster and Charles Pulliam-Moore covered Netflix’s Tudum reveals (yes, it’s going to keep using that brand name) over the weekend as the streamer showed off things that haven’t been canceled yet.

Beyond The Way of the Househusband season two news and timing information about two The Witcher projects, you should make time for this incredible behind-the-scenes video showing the process of making Pinocchio.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 26
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.


A
External Link
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.


J
James VincentSep 26
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.


Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
J
The Verge
James VincentSep 26
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.


E
External Link
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.


R
The Verge
Richard LawlerSep 26
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.