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

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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.
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.

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.