Shortly after the initial release of Final Fantasy VII Remake on PS4, I decided to do a twitter thread that takes an in-depth look at the original Playstation game’s Midgar segment and its English translations. I have since moved that content here and expanded upon it a bit now that I’m not restricted by twitter’s character lengths.
My main goal was to gain a better understanding of FF7’s story and world, and highlight issues in the translation which might have confused players. It was an interesting project to pursue because while the revised 1998 PC translation (which is featured in all the modern console ports) does fix up some sections of the original PSX translation, there are also instances where it ends up being even further off the mark than before.
To be clear, this project is in no way meant as a condemnation of the hard work of the translators or anyone involved in releasing the game in English. Translation is not an easy process and many outside circumstances can lead to a translation being subpar even when the translators (and editors) are infinitely talented. Especially in the era when the original FF7 was released, game developers weren’t often aware of what the process of translation entailed, which left translators woefully short of the support required to do the job properly.
For more insight into what was going on behind the scenes during the original FF7’s translation, see this interview with Richard Honeywood.
The game credits aren’t entirely clear as to who all was involved in each translation, but signs seem to point to Michael Baskett as the sole translator and Aiko Ito as the localization coordinator. (Friendly reminder to credit your translators! #namethetranslator) Honestly, considering all the constraints they likely had to struggle with and the sheer size of the game, they did a fantastic job. So hats off to them.
Which isn’t to say that the original FF7’s English translation is perfect. There’s a reason it’s often brought up when the topic of poor video game translations arises. It’s riddled with typos, confusing or distorted lines, as well as stilted dialogue. The point is that many, if not all, of these problems could have been resolved if the translation team had been given more time and resources. For example, it became clear as I pursued the project that one indispensable resource the team lacked was context.
Allow me to digress a little bit here and demonstrate why context is so important in translation, using examples from FF7. (Adapted from another twitter thread of mine.) I’ll be mainly focusing on the troubles of translating from Japanese into English, but know that context is essential in every form of translation and different language pairs have their own unique stumbling blocks.
To start off, Japanese often leaves out the subject, assuming the reader/listener can fill in the blanks. So in order to properly translate it into English, which usually requires a subject to be stated, the translator needs enough context to be able to infer what’s going on. This is illustrated in Barret’s line right before the Guard Scorpion attacks. The Japanese doesn’t specify a subject (lit. just “Coming!”), so without more context, it’s impossible to know what exactly is coming and if “they” or “it” is more appropriate.
Similarly, if Cloud tells Tifa that Barret’s snoring kept him up, Tifa’s response in Japanese omits the subject (lit. “No… end up hearing.”), with the assumption that the player will see Barret in the room and fill in the blanks.
Japanese also doesn’t often specify whether something is singular or plural. For example, 花 (hana) can mean both “flower” and “flowers.” The translation guesses “flowers” when Tifa responds to Cloud’s gift, but it’s more likely that Cloud bought one flower for one gil.
One word can be used to refer to more than one thing. 柱 (hashira) usually means “pillar,” but can also indicate support structures in general, so it’s impossible to know if it refers to an actual pillar without getting a visual or more clarification.
Speaking of visuals, knowing what’s happening on screen can make a big difference in how lines are interpreted. Aeris’ exchange with Cloud in the church is misunderstood because the translator didn’t have the visual context of Reno walking in. Here we see confusion over both an unstated subject and a verb with multiple meanings. In Japanese Aeris just says “Bad timing” and then uses the verb かまう (kamau) which can mean “to mind / care about,” “to keep company, pay attention to,” or “to interfere, meddle with.”
The only context the translator got is that Aeris laughed at Cloud and Cloud was offended. Given that, they assumed that Aeris must have been saying that her laughing was bad timing, and then telling Cloud not to “mind / worry” about it.
But given visual context, we know that Reno has just walked in, so her “bad timing” comment is directed at him. Then as Cloud walks toward Reno, Aeris calls out, telling him not to “keep company / meddle with” Reno (because Reno is dangerous).
Seeing the placement of the dialogue box can be crucial to know who is speaking when speaker names aren’t specified. The two guards in Sector 7, for example, are never named, so the translator has to guess which one is speaking. At the end of their conversation before Cloud and company leave the sector, the translator assumes two people are speaking. In reality, the position of the dialogue box does not move, indicating that the guard is speaking to himself.
Knowing narrative context, the relationships between characters, and their general personalities is also important. In the first exchange between the guards in Sector 7, the superior officer is taken to be a braggart in English.
In Japanese the interjection “Ou!” can indicate surprise, affirmation, or just “Hey!” The translator interpreted it as an affirmation and had the guard boast about how he doesn’t mince words. (Lit. “chatter pointlessly,” once again no subject is specified.) But this guard is supposed to be a hard-ass who’s extremely serious about his work and won’t abide by frivolous chatter. His subordinate just praised him for telling Cloud off, so he’s now rounding on his subordinate for speaking out of turn. (“Hey! Don’t chatter pointlessly!”)
The importance of narrative context can be seen in President Shinra’s comment towards Cloud. In any other situation, “the look in your eyes” would be a preferable translation since this phrase is mostly used metaphorically in Japanese. (Lit. “glow / shimmer in one’s eyes”) But in the context of this game SOLDIERs’ eyes do literally glow / shimmer, and characters make a point of mentioning this because it’s something that sets SOLDIERs apart.
To sum up, words can mean very different things depending on the context in which they are used. In fact, some scholars argue that words cannot have ANY meaning when divorced from all context. If you’re interested in reading more on this concept, I recommend checking out Chapter 7 of “Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos. He has some harsh things to say about translating without context:
Translating something “from cold,” “unseen,” “out of the blue,” or, as some literary scholars would put it, “translating a text in and for itself” isn’t technically impossible. After all, students at some universities are asked to do just that in their final examinations. But it is not an honest job. It can be done only by guessing what the context and genre of the utterance are. Even if you guess right, and even granted that guessing right may well be the sign of a wide knowledge and a smart mind, you are still only playing a game.“Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything” by David Bellos, page 79
So we can see that a lack of proper context easily spells disaster for any translator. Yes, there are ways to write around these pitfalls if we’re aware of them and LQA can nip mistakes in the bud, but translating without context is still less than ideal. And this is one of the main reasons the English translation of FF7 turned out the way it did, not to mention a rushed schedule and inadequate tools.
In any case, now that I’ve established some of the causes behind the state of FF7’s English translation, it’s time to move on to the comparison project itself. Without further ado, I’ll dive in by noting the overarching changes made in the PC translation:
- reduced ellipses
- attempts to unify writing style and term capitalization (planet > Planet, Ok/ok/Okay > OK)
- a few random swear words turned into symbols
Also, for reference, I’m using the original PSX English version and the Nintendo Switch version for the Japanese and updated English text. From what I can tell, all modern ports use the updated PC translation, and the Japanese text is the same across all versions. For that reason, I’ll be referring to the updated translation as the “E PC” translation for the course of the project, even though my screenshots come from the Switch version.
If you’d like to follow along using the (Midgar) Japanese-English game script or would like to examine the script yourself, you can find the Excel file I compiled here. Note that it does not contain ALL the text from Midgar (because I put it together manually myself), but it should have a majority of the text and certainly anything relevant to the story. Also note that you can find a list of all my Japanese/English game scripts on my Resources page.