Persona 5 and the Challenges of Translation

I'm sure by now that you've all noticed the utter madness that is Persona 5 discourse, but I'm not here to get too deep into that. No, I'd rather focus on one particular aspect as a springboard. The thing that's really captured the talk most is P5's translation, which while not necessarily bad, is also not good either. It is the Maroon 5 of video game translations, basically. It's an odd situation where plenty of lines read fine, and then you hit one that technically says what's supposed to be said, but doesn't quit read right. The ordering of words is off, or sometimes it feels like there's too many words. Or, maybe the just use the wrong word (“was a scum”) or doesn't bother to use the obvious phrase being made (“interior of my womb”). Using my own amateur experience translating stuff on Pixiv, I've gained some insights on something like this happens, and I think it might help you all get a better understanding of the importance of localization, along with the difficulties with translating.

The first thing you need to understand is that the Japanese language does not flow like the English language. Where English has a mess of words with a single particular meaning each, Japanese has a bunch of characters that can be combined together into different meanings. Unlike letters, which are based on the sound they make when spoken, these characters usually relate to a particular, more vague meaning that changes based on the other characters used in a sentence. On top of that, there are times when characters relate to sound, mainly with the Hiragana and Katakana scripts, which can be used to sound out names normally constructed with other types of script, and also be used to sound out words from other languages, though almost never exactly. If that wasn't enough, sentence structure flips a bit with how the language functions, so you can't follow English structure rules. Even slang is usually not done in a string of words, but by combining characters to make a term. To just make it an absolute mess, sentences don't even need subjects sometimes because it's expected you figure it out from context. Oh, and tenses that tell the reader when the events described are taking place? Does not exist.

Take “mesu,” for example. This, in Japanese, basically means “female animal.” In Japanese, it's simple and precise, and can be used with a subject to imply something humorous or erotic (you'll never guess what genre loves this word the most). It just reads in two short syllables. But when you translate to English, you can't simply write out “female animal.” It's too wordy and undercuts the original intent of its inclusion. So, you have to find a work around. Check context if a particular animal is named and has a female term, create a new phrase that has the meaning of the sentence but in a localized form that makes sense to an English reader. You will have to do the second one if no animal is being mentioned to add more context, meaning the literal translation is just “female animal” and that just doesn't work in English. Or, if you're translating a ridiculous porn manga, just go all the way because overly long descriptions of sex are hilarious.

Stuff like “All Your Base Now Belong To Us” happens when you translate too literally. These sorts of translations are overly literal, not taking into account how awkward these sentences sound when directly translated to English. They look like a mess at worst, or simply lack flair at best. For example, I almost never see a phrase like “have they all gone crazy!?,” but instead “have they all gone funny!?” This seems oddly dry in English, and doesn't convey to an English speaker what it does for a Japanese speaker. Japanese sentences also sometimes have most every subject in the sentence be named for context, so this can result in repetition when translated to English carelessly. Plus, the Japanese are less interested in prettying up the language with mottoes and sayings you may be more familiar with in English. Instead, they LOVE puns. LOVE them. And puns are actually part of the language's base.

Remember when I said characters change their meaning when next to other characters? Basically, they're doing the same thing we English speakers do when we make puns. They take a certain word, and change it in a particular way to make a pun, make the word sound slightly different, or sound the same with different spelling and new meaning. But while it results in bad jokes for English speakers, it can significantly change the context of a sentence in Japanese. You see this mostly in names, like how you can have multiple different characters named Ichigo, but their names mean wildly different things, like how Bleach's Ichigo has a character in his name that refers to protecting and others don't. Sometimes, this is used for the sake of foreshadowing or misdirection, or maybe just a joke, but it doesn't translate. Unless a character mentions the meaning of their name, it probably won't come up in translation.

All these issues resulted in heavy localization from translation groups that have tried striking a balance between readable and faithful in recent years, but there's the issue that people are people and tend to put their own stamp on these works. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Being into the thing you're translating means that the translator will do their best to give the best translation possible. Some of their ideas may not gel with the audience entirely, like P4 keeping Japanese honorifics, but they generally go over well. Modern Fire Emblem is a good example of both this in good and bad, as there were a ton of changes made to the meaning of sentences and dialog from the original Japanese script, but in some cases, it served the games better and added more personality to a duller script. Its good outweighs the bad, despite it getting a tad too loose and into “let's make a meme” territory. If you want an example of bad translation, we have to hop on over to Funimation since they started doing while airing dubs.

While the Space Dandy dub is fantastic, not every Funi while airing dub has worked. Maid Dragon, for example, has gotten a lot of criticism from queer circles upset by subtle changes in the script changing the dynamic between the leads (who by the by, are into each other, the manga confirmed it) and plays it off as a tired predatory lesbian gag. Also they keep making shotacon jokes in interviews and no. Prison School, on the other hand, aimed at playing up its ridiculous nature, and while that can work because it is an absolutely ridiculous show, doing things like referencing Gamer Gate in a scene meant to set up a massively important plot point and character arc was, maybe a bad idea. It distracts from the scene's intentions, and said scene wasn't meant to be laugh out loud hilarious. It also ignores that the show isn't too interested in reference comedy or making lots of joke lines, but letting absurd, overly well presented absurdity play out seriously from the perspectives of the cast. It's trying too be more Family Guy when the show is closer to American Dad, if that makes sense (formula vs absurd humor).

On the other hand, we have Persona 5, an example of translating the script too literally, resulting in awkward line reads. There have been mumblings that Atlus in Japan ordered a new script from them and not the US team (supported by an endless stream of stock lines commonly used by Japanese speakers that get repeated a ton), and I would not be surprised if this was the case. Along with the general nature of Japanese companies being kind of awful to employees and Western branches, Persona 5 ended up being insanely Japanese, even lampooning actual Japanese celebrities and political figures. Wanting it to be authentic is fine, but applying this to the entire script, including sentence structure, resulted in a very shaky final translation. It's more in line with bad translations from smaller JRPG companies who can't afford voice actors.

Translation is a tricky thing because it's not a science, but an art. There's no hard rules to follow, so it's all up to the translators. How they choose to tackle the translations can change the context and meaning of a work massively. The best you can do is try to strike a balance between what works in English and original context. Also, never make a western reference ever unless it was already there. Let's just be honest guys, Shin-Chan's dub aged like milk, and Ghost Stories was never that good in the first place. These should not be localization standards. But neither should Persona 5, by any stretch of the imagination.

If you believe it should be, you was a scum.

See, that's a joke son, a joke. Oh, sorry, I mean “As expected of A Joke.”

I'm done now.

(This site used to gather these quotes:


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