Persona 5 was a highly anticipated game that was released internationally in April 2017. Only many players were shocked to find there was something off about the Persona 5 translation.
Many people went online to point out all the places where the Persona 5 translation was weird, gibberish or out right mistranslated. Polygon, Kotaku and Japanator are just a few websites which highlight these issues.
Persona Problems was the best at pointing out these errors though. Persona Problems was setup by Connor Krammer, a fan and localization editor, who breaks down a lot (although not all) of the Persona 5 translation errors. He discusses why direct translations is wrong, lists a number of errors and why they’re wrong, and suggests improvements! (I strongly suggest reading it!)
But this wasn’t Atlus’ first rodeo. Persona 3 and 4 were huge hits along with King of Fighters XIV and a huge library of other Japanese games that seem to have no issues. (Or at least less obvious issues.)
So what went wrong?
A Discussion of Errors
The “Literal Translation” Debate
A lot of this ‘drama’ has been caused by people debating certain issues online. Some of these people have gone online in defense of Atlus saying the Persona 5 translation is fine! There’s nothing wrong!
As a localizer I have to disagree with them.
A number of the translation errors in Persona 5 are clearly due to the translation sticking too close to the Japanese. The image on the left if just one highlighted by Connor Krammer.
It’s an incredibly simple sentence that should have never been translated this way. It makes the character sound like a neanderthal.
Many people online argue that having a direct translation is better because it’s closer to the original Japanese.
However, it doesn’t matter if the direct translation is closer to the Japanese when the English sentences literally make no sense.
Also, as Conner points out (see bellow), not directly translating doesn’t mean you’re not being faithful! And I agree! I’ve spoken to many game and literary translators and even they agree the best translations out there are ones that don’t directly translate, but reflect the original feel/meaning/message/imagery.
The “Translating Culture” Debate
I don’t know if this was intentional or not from the part of Atlus, but there were some cultural aspects of the games that were left. I have nothing against leaving aspects of the original culture in a game. In fact, I love it when they do! But if a cultural aspect interferes with game play, then we have a problem.
There was a bit of debate as to whether this section was localized correctly. Atlus confirmed that it was but it still references very, very obscure Japanese.
A few people have complained that this wasn’t a localization error and that the player can easily look up the answer.
But when the player has to stop the game to look up an entire section to understand what’s going on, that’s a sign of poor localization.
Atlus may not have mistranslated the answer, but it would have been more beneficial for the player if they had re-worded the question so the player didn’t have to stop to work out the right answer.
Note: The players could ‘cheat’ in game to work out the answer. But leaving culture in is supposed to educate. But the phrasing of the question and ambiguous answer didn’t really ‘teach’. Even if the player does cheat to get it right.
Training the Voice Actors
This is more of a pet-peeve. The voice acting on Persona 5 is fantastic except for one part. Japanese names.
When you play the game the Japanese names have a very “American” twang to them. Which is strange considering they were seemingly trying to contain so much of the original Japanese language and culture.
It doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to train a good voice actor how to pronounce “Taka-maki” (instead of “Ta-ka-maki” or even “Tamakaki”!)
Many fans of Persona 5 love Japanese games and anime, so they know what Japanese names sounds like. So when you’re playing the game and a character says “Sa-kah-moto” when you’re expecting “Saka-moto”, it can be really jarring and take away from the experience.
Note: I just found out the pronunciations were requested for by Atlus Japan. Atlus USA should have informed them that giving Japanese names American pronunciations probably wasn’t the best idea… It might sound cool to a Japanese person, but to English natives it just sounds grating!
So What Went Wrong?
It’s easy to bash on Atlus, as many people have, but not many have stop to ask why? How did this happen?
I’m sure the localization team at Atlus didn’t intend for so many mistakes to slip through. As a localizer myself I know it’s easy to make a mistake (we are human) while trying our hardest to create the best localization possible. (Which as I pointed out, is debatable among fans as to what makes a “good” localization.)
The Persona 5 Translation Was Big
Persona 5 is a big, complex game with lots of text. For those that don’t know the Persona 5 layout, it’s a role play game with an over-arching story, as well as lots of smaller side-missions involving going to school and making friends. Lots of characters and dialogue for all those characters. There are lots of monsters and weapons, amour, etc.
Yu Namba, the Senior Project Manager at Atlus USA said himself:
“P5 was a monster in terms of localization scope. It boasted the most number of translators and editors on a team, and everyone spent countless nights making the English version of P5 a reality.”
It may have been a large game, but that is no excuse.
Sure the game was big, but that shouldn’t have been an excuse for the number of errors. Final Fantasy XV was a huge game and it had an amazing localization!
I think the issue here was “too many cooks spoil the broth“. Six translators and eight editors were working on the P5 translation (source). The senior project manager himself said they needed a large team. Which is understandable, but it seems like with more editors than translators you run into the issue of too many voices for one project. I can’t imagine the meetings they might have had with so many voices trying to discuss localization choices.
Every person translates a little differently. Their interpretations and approaches are all different in small ways. The same with editors.
When you have a large team translating a large project in different ways you normally need one or two editors to go through the entire thing to smooth it over. Not eight, possibly focusing on their own segments and not the larger picture.
Then play testing the localization! Actually checking the localization in context of the game dramatically improves the quality. I’d be surprised if Atlus didn’t do this. But if they did I’d be surprised that they let so many errors slip through!
The final product shows that seems this final segment of QA – having someone play through the localization of the game – was possibly skipped. Or at least done very poorly!
Not Enough Time?
Persona 5’s initial release in Japanese was on September 15, 2016. This was followed by the international release on April 4, 2017, almost 7 months later.
Editor Nich Maragos laid out the timeline for a localization project at Atlus quoting around 4.5 to 9.5 months! (Source: Endgadget.) So 7 months would have fit into this time frame.
But as Persona is one of their bigger projects I wonder if scheduling issues or hiccups along the way messed with timing. It’s entirely possible that the localization had to be rushed and some QA was missed.
Not Enough Money?
Budgeting issues can also cause an issue for projects. Not enough funds to hire the right people or pay for longer hours means cuts need to go somewhere.
Also when the project you’re working on isn’t guaranteed to succeed in the market you’re translating for it’s tempting to play safe and keep the budget low. Let’s be honest, P5 is pretty niche compared to other Japanese games.
If you’re working on a huge project with a tight deadline and your boss says to avoid working overtime, you’re probably going to just skim read rather than double check everything.
It is entirely possible that people on the translation and/or editing team highlighted the aforementioned translation mistakes. I can easily see someone reporting a translation error to their superior, then their superior or even higher decides not to do anything about it. It’s a common occurrence in most businesses where that one person (often high up) decides something is too much work.
Yu Namba himself has said how he’s not just the project manager but oversees everything “from text translation, to voice recording, to quality assurance.” And that he “can’t save everything from the game—the smallest of the small side quests might not make it through— but the main story line, the main plot, I make sure I understand it fully before moving forward.” (Siliconera 2015 Interview)
In other words he has so much going on that ‘small side quests’ might not make it through QA…
If that’s the case, and they’re aware that errors may slip through, wouldn’t it be best to hire someone to oversee those areas he doesn’t have time for?
What Can Localization Companies
Learn From This?
Much of the above are speculations. Atlus aren’t going to release trade secrets and back-end drama to the public. However, they are highly likely situations that can happen on any localization project.
I think it’s incredibly important to learn from one’s (and others) mistakes. Persona 5 overall was a fantastic game, but it’s localization was undoubtedly questionable at parts.
I think it’s clear from the overall feedback from localizers and non-localizers alike: DON’T SKIMP ON THE QA!
I’ve discussed this before but a poor localization can make a huge impact on an otherwise excellent game. It’s a huge disappointment to fans and reflects badly on the company as a whole.
It’s important to delegate work, but don’t have too many people trying to call the shots.
Hire people who are dedicated to making the best product possible. If someone has a “I guess that’ll do” attitude, you probably don’t want them on your team.
Invest the time and money in something perfect! Even if it means pushing back the release date, the fans will be happier with a more polished end product.
We still can’t say for certain what happened with Persona 5, but I hope more gaming companies realize the importance of a good localization.