Let’s try something different this time. I want to talk about localisation. Seeing all the drama around Fire Emblem Fates localisation, I find the topic intriguing. So instead of covering a specific game in full length I’ll take a look at what localisation means and how it should be done. Being German myself I lived most of my life with localised media. There were good, bad and non-localisations. These days I often find myself defaulting to the English version. Nevertheless examples are needed. I decided to talk about the Final Fantasy series German localisation during the PS1 and PS2 era.
Final Fantasy 6
But wait! Final Fantasy 6 came out on the SNES did it not? Well not in Germany. At least in continental Europe (not sure about the UK) FF7 was the first game in the series to be released. It was only after that initial success of 7,8 and 9 that the PS1 remake was released in Germany in 2002. But enough history, what was the localisation like?
It didn’t have the censorship of the original NA version. No repainted sprites to make them less revealing, no renaming “Holy” to “Pearl” for religious reasons. It was quite the purist remake of Final Fantasy 6. Unfortunately it was also in English. Everywhere. It wasn’t until the Gameboy Advance remake-remake that an official German translation was created. Back then this was incredibly disappointing for me. There will always be purists who prefer no translation at all. I myself appreciate to have that option. Yet it should be obvious that this limits who is able to enjoy the game.
Additionally the PS1 remake also had a terrible PAL version. I won’t go into detail about what PAL and NTSC meant back then but rest assured that it generally meant PAL version would be strictly worse. Huge black bars on top and bottom and slowdowns were a common thing back then, but FF6 was ridiculously bad. If there is something to learn from this localisation I would say that the purist version isn’t always the best option and that localisation shouldn’t just mean translation, but also optimisation.
Final Fantasy 7
Oh what a train wreck that was. To be fair, this was pretty much the first attempt at localising a JRPG in multiple languages at once. It didn’t help that the PC and PS1 version for some reason got two different translations. This made it confusing to even talk about this game. For example Materia was translated to Substanz (which means substance in case you didn’t know) in the PS1 version but not in the PC version. Add to that a multitude of grammar and spelling errors and occasionally not being able to display umlauts (Ä,Ö,Ü,ä,ö,ü,ß) and you get a huge mess. It is quite clear that they didn’t know what they were doing back then. The localisation made every rookie mistake in the book like translating everything without context (Level to “Ebene” being my favourite, the latter being more akin to layer or plane). Well not every mistake. I don’t think anything was cut or censored. It was all still there if one could read through the mess.
Final Fantasy 8
But they did learn from it. Final Fantasy 8’s translation was much better. In fact I have almost nothing to say about it. Some names were translated differently compared to the English version but either because they were closer to the Japanese (Artemesia instead of Ultimecia) or because they would look weird in German (Cifer instead of Seifer). Name changes should have a good reason but I don’t think that they should never happen. Using the original Japanese names in a setting that isn’t Japan would seem strangely out of place and might ruin the experience for some people. On the other hand each translation choosing their own names makes the work a bit of a clusterfuck and could remove intended symbolism. It’s a call the localisers have to make.
FF8 is also noteworthy for codifying the names of items and spells for the series. For example it introduced Feuer/Feura/Feuga (Fire,Fira,Firaga). These translations are used for the series to this day and are immediately recognisable for everyone. I find it interesting that an offhand translation might be used for a long time and it shows that when working with a series the past and future should be considered.
Final Fantasy 9
The German version is the best version of the game. Well maybe that statement is a bit controversial but it is still pretty damn good. Final Fantasy 9 was a really interesting game from a localisation point of view. There were a lot of call backs to previous games which were never released in Germany among other things. But the most amazing thing about FF9 is the use of dialects for so many characters. In the Japanese original many characters either speak a specific Japanese dialect or have verbal ticks. Obviously there is pretty much no way to translate this accurately.
I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t think I would understand German spoken with a dialect from Osaka. Instead we got Cologne and Bavarian dialects for our characters and our own verbal ticks. This might seem weird but it gave the translation more wiggle room to convey the message in an appropriate way, making the dialogue more lively and relatable. The English version did essentially the same thing from my understanding. Final Fantasy 9 is a very strange game that can be drastically different depending on the version. Yet it works, since at least the German version of the game seems to respect the original and doesn’t try too hard to create its own identity. They expanded were the room was there but didn’t remove anything from the experience. I think this is the essence of a great localisation and it shows once more that localising a game is so much more then merely translating it.
On a side note I’d like to mention that there were some drastic name changes in FF9 as well. Salamander (JP)/Amarant(E) was renamed to Mahagon in the German version. Both Amarant and Mahagon were apparently chosen because Salamander couldn’t fit the character limit. Similarly Dagger was renamed to Lili in the German version because “Dolch” would have been a terribly name. The scene were she chooses the name didn’t change much it just happened to be a lily-dagger she was holding. I don’t mind those changes since they are consistent and still convey the intended meaning of Lili choosing the weapon as an alias and Mahagon having the color red as a theme.
Final Fantasy 10
I find it interesting that something like Final Fantasy 9 could have never worked in the age of voice acting. It’s worth noting that most longer games don’t get voice acting in German. Few exceptions I can think of are the main Kingdom Hearts titles and that is only because people have nostalgia for the Disney voices in their language. So for the most part we get English voice acting and German subtitles. So there is no way there could be some Texan voice with an east German subtitle.
Voice acting brought more problems with it. The German subtitles of FF10 were based on the original Japanese version and much more closer to the original then the English spoken dialogue. This resulted in awkward moments when the dialogue just didn’t match the subtitles at all. The most infamous one being when Yuna said “I love you”. You may have to brace yourself now if you only played the English version. That never happened in the Japanese version. In fact the German subtitle displayed a simple “Danke” meaning “Thank you”. This really shows that you can’t just mix together two different translations and expect the end result to be a valid localised version. If I would replay Final Fantasy 10 these days I would probably set my PS2 to English. While I would get a localisation that’s a bit on the weird side, it would at least be consistent.
Well that’s it. I won’t talk about FF11 and 12 since 11 never really came out in Germany and 12 didn’t really do anything remarkable (it was decent). Looking at these examples I can think of some guidelines to make a decent localisation:
- Options are great. Let people choose language or even depth of translation when possible.
- Technical optimisation should be considered as part of the localisation.
- Purist localisations only work for certain titles. Should a visual novel set in Japan keep name suffixes? Probably. Should Dark Souls use them? It’s a Japanese game but that would feel weird.
- Expand were appropriate. If something can not be adequately translated then there is room to write something new which conveys the same message.
- Do not reduce or unnecessary expand characters or story bits.
- Consider past and future of the franchise.
- Match the voice acting.
Looking at this I too am not happy with the Fire Emblem localisation decisions. They clearly turned characters into something they were not intended to be, removed valuable dialogue with no proper replacement and flat out cut features. I find it incredibly disrespectful to the original work and I’m truly disappointed.
Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at firstname.lastname@example.org