Alexander O. Smith Interview

Sometimes when we play video games we forget just how many people were involved in creating the final product. This can be especially true of massive, story-focused games like RPGs, which can have a great deal more contributors due to the nature of what they offer.

One of those people - when playing a game developed in another language at least - is the translator, oft overlooked but integral to the release. We recently had the chance to chat with Alexander O. Smith, a legendary translator perhaps most famous for his work on the Final Fantasy series who also holds much-loved translations for Phoenix Wright, Vagrant Story and other titles, about what it is like behind the scenes. Here's what he said.


RPGSite: Hi Alex, thanks for joining us. As the year draws to a close, how has 2011 been treating you?
Alexander O. Smith: Great! Was feeling a bit of the burnout over the summer, after close to three years without a proper vacation, but with a short trip to Japan this Fall, I started a new project that’s a little more laid back (for now) and taken the opportunity to breathe a little.

RPGSite: There can be few gamers that are unfamiliar with the career that has been keeping you so busy but many of us are unfamiliar with the man, so firstly what can you share about your childhood?
Alex: I grew up in the woods of northeastern Vermont, USA, and my time was pretty evenly spent running through said woods with flashlights and wooden swords (later, paintball markers) and DM’ing marathon RPG sessions (D&D, AD&D, various Palladium Games offerings, and more than a few homebrewed systems) with a dedicated group of local friends, a few of whom (Elye J. Alexander and his brother Ben Alexander) I’ve been happy to be able to work with on projects like Magic: The Gathering, and several novel translations. I only stopped playing RPGs when I started spending lots of time learning Japanese.

RPGSite: Time well spent as it is your skill with the Japanese language that you are most known for. Are you familiar with any other languages in either written or spoken form?
Alex: Dutch (my mother was born in the Netherlands), French, Old English, Classical Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Classical Chinese from school, and some limited bumbling around in Cantonese and Korean.

RPGSite: Beyond the language, you appear have a passion for Japan in general, studying its culture and later living there, so what about the country attracted and inspired you?
Alex: I went to a rural Chinese high school for two months in my last year of high school, which directed my general interest in language toward Asia. My own high school in Vermont offered only Latin and French, and (with apologies to the romance languages) I felt that subject-verb agreement, word gender, conjugations, and declinations were a waste of time. I switched to Japanese on my own by the time I went to college, capping it off with a two-month homestay in Osaka in the summer after senior year. The writing of both Chinese and Japanese was very appealing to me aesthetically, but I leaned toward Japanese because I thought katakana was a far more elegant way to represent loan words than the Chinese method of assigning random characters to roughly approximate sounds. That was about it! It was only after I’d been learning Japanese for a while that I became interested in the culture and history of the country. It’s unimaginable now, what with manga sections in the local bookstore, but at the time I hadn’t even realized that some of the “cartoons” I enjoyed as a kid were, in fact, from Japan. So the language came first, and the culture second.

RPGSite: As a student you attended Harvard, one of the most famous and respected universities in the world. How did it feel to secure a place at such a prestigious university and what was your time there like?
Alex: A point of clarification: I attended Harvard Grad School as a PhD candidate in Classical Japanese Literature. Though the requirements for entry/funding are high, since you have to have a reasonable language proficiency and a good undergrad track record, admission is nowhere near as competitive as it is for undergrad at Harvard (where, incidentally, I was waitlisted when I applied out of high school.) That said, I immensely enjoyed my time there, had some irreplaceable learning experiences (waka poetry with Prof. Edwin Cranston and a Noh/Kyogen course with Prof. Jay Rubin were standouts), and made some lifelong friends, some of whom also became very important business contacts when I was developing my non-game translation career. I also had it in the back of my mind that the Harvard name would be a boost should I decide to bail out of the PhD program and get a job, which is ultimately what I did.

RPGSite: Since leaving university you have built a career in the entertainment industry, but is that how you always planned to apply your knowledge of language and culture?
Alex: Nope! But in hindsight, it makes an awful lot of sense.

RPGSite: It would be fair to say that it is your work with Square Enix that first brought you to the attention of the majority of gamers. How did your relationship with them come about and what was the first game by them that you were involved with?
Alex: I cold called their offices in Costa Mesa, CA (in Orange County, just a little south of LA) in response to a job offer they had placed with the collegiate job network. I’d had a little experience with Sega in Tokyo on an internship during the summer between my first and second years of grad school, and a part-time job subtitling soap operas for KIKU television in Hawaii, but that was about it. Being much more of a PC gamer than a console gamer, the only Square game I’d ever played was FFVII, and that only after applying for the position. I flew out to the West Coast for an interview, which I recall as being rather grueling, with a test that was impossible to finish in the allotted time, and a terrifying moment when the then-president of Squaresoft USA (Jun Iwasaki) walked into the room and interrogated me in rapid-fire Japanese, without having even seen my résumé, trying to suss out whether I was some gamer whose girlfriend had taught him Japanese.

While I was at the Squaresoft offices in Costa Mesa waiting for a visa to go to Japan, I did a little work on FFVIII (the Laguna Loire sections). The first games I could call “mine” were Vagrant Story and Parasite Eve 2, which happened simultaneously.

RPGSite: You were making a name for yourself right from the beginning then, as you received considerable acclaim for your work on Vagrant Story. Now, depending upon who you ask it may or may not be part of the Ivalice Alliance, a collection of games we’ll talk about later, but it does share a similar ‘classical’ approach to the language and acting in those games. What inspired that approach?
Alex: The setting and feel of the game called for it, and it was a mode of writing I was comfortable with, given my background.

RPGSite: Having made your debut on the series two games earlier, your presence can be most felt throughout Final Fantasy X, on which you were credited as ‘Localization Specialist’. What exactly did the role involve?
Alex: There was a bit of terminology shift going on in Square at the time, but ‘Localization Specialists’ were essentially translators. The amount of influence we had over the degree to which any particular title was ‘localized’ or retooled for a new, overseas market, was entirely a matter of luck and individual ability. Aziz Hinoshita and I initially split translation duties on FFX, however, when it came time for the (three month long) voice recording, I went over to LA where we found that much of the dialogue needed to be rewritten in order to fit screen timings. As a result, I spent most of my evenings in a hotel room with a VCR, trying to figure out line lengths from video so I could write the dialogue we would be recording the following day, a process that nearly killed me. It is to Aziz’s everlasting credit that he did not finish me off for mangling his translations.

RPGSite: You were also trusted with the responsibility of creating the language of the Al Bhed. Can you talk us through how you approached the task of inventing an entirely fictional language?
Alex: In the original Japanese, Al Bhed operated by a simple syllable-substitution from the Japanese, so you could find bits of the language as you progressed through the game, allowing you to gradually decipher the text. For English, we used a similar letter-based substitution. Since vowels had to largely be replaced by vowels in order to make something pronounceable, I used the Welsh vowel Y and W in addition to the regular AEIOU for variety. For the accent, I wrote some basic phonetic rules, borrowing from Dutch and Welsh, and often would stand in the booth with the actors, reading their lines to them to achieve a consistency of pronunciation.

RPGSite: Whilst we are discussing the world of Spira, perhaps you can settle a debate fans have been having since release. The scene where Tidus and Yuna are laughing – was it deliberately that awkward? Some believe it is while others think it is just bad.
Alex: Yeah. According to Kazushige Nojima, it was based on an exercise he did in acting class...other than that, I don’t know what to say, other than I think that James Arnold Taylor and Hedy Burress did an amazing job making it as un-painful as possible.

RPGSite: You made quite a brave decision when you changed Yuna’s final words to Tidus from ‘Thank You’ to ‘I Love You’. Many fans, myself included, feel your interpretation works better, but can you explain the thought process behind that decision and was it difficult to get Square Enix to sign off on it?
Alex: I wrote an article about this very subject for the lit. magazine “Subaru,” but to summarize, “arigatou” and “I love you” can play very similar roles in their respective languages. I like to imagine the patriarch of a family on his death bed, looking up at his children and grandchildren gathered around. In Japanese, he says “arigatou,” literally “there was much difficulty,” acknowledging the trouble and effort his relatives have gone through on his behalf, and expressing his gratitude toward them. In English, he says “I love you,” meaning pretty much the same thing. They’re both great scene closers, if you will. Beyond that, FFX is arguably a love story, complete with a kiss, and the Western audience expects an outward declaration of love, as un-Japanese as that may be. Finally, the lip movements for the two phrases happen to match pretty perfectly, which sealed the deal.

Knowing this would be somewhat controversial, being the first time anyone in a Final Fantasy had said “I love you,” I checked with Nojima, who was attending the recording in LA when I was rewriting those final scenes, and he signed off on it, happy to give people something talk about.

RPGSite: According to your website it was on both Final Fantasy X and its sequel X-2 that you served as the voice producer on a video game for the first time. How did that come about?
Alex: By virtue of me attending the recordings as an on-site writer, I also ended up handling other aspects of the process generally considered ‘production.’ Moreso on X-2, by which point I had at least a vague idea of what I was doing.

RPGSite: With X-2 being the first direct sequel in the franchise, and a sequel to a game that had a very serious story, were you concerned that the tone was too light while translating and recording the game, or did you know what they were aiming for from the start?
Alex: Translation credit for X-2 goes to Brian Gray and Joseph Reeder (the former now a freelance game translator/writer and the latter now my partner at Kajiya Productions Inc), I was the editor and ADR writer on that title. ADR writing is the writing of dialogue to fit screen timings and lips, when necessary. I think we all shared misgivings about the frivolous tone of the game, but over the course of the localization, we each came to terms with it in our own way. To a certain extent, you have to embrace the silliness if you’re going to do justice to the original vision of the game, which is ultimately our job as translators/localizers.

RPGSite: Has the addition of voice acting to the Final Fantasy series starting with these two games created any additional challenges when working on the translation?
Alex: Many of the specific challenges for FFX were due to the relative inexperience of everyone on the project. Things got smoother from FFX-2 onward. Voice requires a few things over straight-up text translation, namely A) good preparation, including video of all scenes, B) ability to write dialogue to fit timings and still sound natural, and C) knowledge of how to score a script so as to help (very expensive) recordings go as quickly and smoothly as possible.

RPGSite: With Final Fantasy X being remade in HD for PlayStation 3 and Vita, will there be any new translations and/or any additional recording for the game to take advantage of better techonology and improved understanding?
Alex: Wouldn't that be nice!

RPGSite: Before we move on, you also worked on the music of Final Fantasy X - you wrote the English lyrics for ‘Otherworld’, another brave but successful departure for Square Enix. Can you tell us about the genesis of that particular song and whether you had a hand in translating any songs for X-2?
Alex: The song came to me almost fully formed from Nobuo Uematsu, with a guide track to indicate where the lyrics were to go. The lyrics were loosely based on The Song of Wandering Aengus by W. B. Yeats, and the singer, Bill Muir, was the frontman of a death metal band active in Tokyo at the time. Interestingly enough, the spoken section in the middle of the song was originally just going to be a guitar solo, but the temporary base track Uematsu had inserted sounded just like the guide track used elsewhere to indicate lyrics, albeit more staccato, so I assumed it was one of those Limp Bizkit-style breakdowns and wrote in words. Uematsu was gracious enough to include the unintended results!

For X-2, I believe I did sit in on one of the lyrics-writing sessions with Avex and Brian Gray, but I did not have a major role in the music for that game.


RPGSite: You have worked with Nobuo Uematsu several times over the years, on video games and later for his band The Black Mages. One of those games was Blue Dragon, where you translated ‘Eternity’, a song which definitely has the cheese factor. A deliberate choice or did the original Japanese lyrics steer you in that direction?
Alex: Blue Dragon was me translating Hironobu Sakaguchi's lyrics. While I think they're perfectly serviceable for that song, I recall feeling at the time (and think now, upon review) that they had a severe lack of concrete imagery, which you can get away with in a shorter song, but gets really old when you hit the umpteenth "under the sky above" and you start wondering what that's really adding to our musical heritage. I'd like to think that if I was given that song to work on now I would take a different approach, but hey, it's Sakaguchi.

RPGSite: Have you worked on any of Uematsu’s more recent projects, such as Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, which has new English lyrics for songs like ‘Suteki da ne’?
Alex: Nope, those are being done by someone else. I still see Uematsu and co. on trips back to Japan, but since I’ve been based in the States, I see them a lot less these days.

RPGSite: What is he like to work with and how closely involved is he with the English versions of the songs?
Alex: Always fun, and Uematsu and his producer, Kensuke Matsushita, always saw the English versions through the entire writing and recording process.

RPGSite: I mentioned the Ivalice Alliance earlier on, which boasts Final Fantasy XII among its number. The game had a troubled development, so do you have any knowledge of what happened when Yasumi Matsuno suddenly left the development team?
Alex: I believe the company line is that Matsuno had to leave for health reasons, and that rings true enough to me. I think the team did a remarkable and commendable job of filling in the void left when he departed, while keeping that essential Matsuno-character of the game intact.

RPGSite: Despite their efforts, would you agree that losing the ‘father’ of the game midway through development led to the second half of XII’s story being weaker than the beginning?
Alex: There are so many factors that can influence a game’s story, it’s really impossible to know what parts of the game were affected in what way by Matsuno’s departure.

RPGSite: Did you ever work on the game during the period of time when Vaan did not exist and Basch was the main character, before Square Enix stepped in and proposed changes to make it more palatable for the traditional Final Fantasy audience? If so, just how different was the script at that stage of production?
Alex: Though I was enlisted as the localization lead very early on in the game’s lifecycle, I wasn’t an employee of the company at the time and so missed out on much of the early planning sessions. (I was off doing Phoenix Wright during a few of those early months, as I recall.) By the time I joined the project full-time, the story was looking much like it looked in the final cut.


RPGSite: You have worked with Yasumi Matsuno regularly, most recently on Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. His games always have a very specific style and are usually very polished, so what is he like to work with compared to other designers?
Alex: Matsuno is legendary for recognizing talent in his dev team and using them to their fullest potential, which always shows in the artwork and scene direction. For me, however, it’s the writing that makes the biggest difference, and working on Matsuno games is always a pleasure because the story and dialogue is already so solid, there is little “fixing” that has to be done before localization can begin in earnest. Though the process is often invisible to the consumer of the English-language version of a game, many games are just poorly written, and the localization process in that case becomes an effort to fix what’s broken. It leaves very little time for “adding value,” which is a necessary part of translation where you fill in the richness and texture of the world that is often lost by a straight-forward adaptation of the Japanese.

RPGSite: After 16 years, Matsuno recently parted ways with Square Enix and joined Level-5. How do you feel about events surrounding his departure from the company?
Alex: I think Matsuno parted ways with Square Enix during FFXII, as evidenced by his work with other companies, such as Platinum Games (Mad World). This is just my opinion, but the Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together remake wasn’t so much a triumphant return, as a one-off job for his old company. So, as far as him leaving Square during FFXII, he had to do what he had to do. As far as him joining Level-5, I hope it gives him the environment he needs to make more amazing games.

RPGSite: Moving on to your career at large, can you walk us through the translation process, from when you first receive a script, how involved the producers are, how long it takes, etc?
Alex: There are as many answers to this question as there are games I've worked on, but it ranges from 2 months with intense team contact on Vagrant Story to 3 months with absolutely no team contact on a game like Phoenix Wright (by the time Apollo Justice rolled around I was in considerably more contact with the team) to 2 years with intense team contact on a game like Final Fantasy XII. To put it another way, Phoenix Wright was entirely translated on my laptop in the Starbucks nearest to Inokashira Park in Tokyo's Kichijoji area while FFXII was translated/tweaked by two people (me and Joseph Reeder) 10% in our homes, 70% in the Square-Enix offices, and 20% in a studio in LA.

In general, I'd say I tend to have more contact with teams these days than I used to, even while I spend far more of my time working from home.

RPGSite: What is the most difficult aspect of translating a script, particularly one written in such a strictly regimented language – the accuracy or emotional marks?
Alex: Always emotions. Accuracy is, frankly, not the highest priority, since being 100% accurate is often the wrong choice when translating dialogue, especially emotionally charged dialogue. I try to always work at the scene level when translating, striving to maintain emotions, character development, and important information, without getting hung up on preserving every nuance of every word. That way lies madness (and a really bad translation).

RPGSite: Do you ever find it problematic when Japanese designers want certain things to be translated literally even if they won’t make sense in English? We’ve seen other translators express that frustration.
Alex: Less and less problematic, since I can usually push back when developers are being silly these days. If I’m working through a third party (like an agency) on a game, without direct contact, then I do occasionally have to suffer client-side changes, but I will always inform them of the error of their ways in hopes they’ll relent.

That said, I see the translator’s job as roughly analogous to the screenwriter’s job. You do your work, submit it to the director, and from that point on it’s no longer yours. Obviously there’s a lot of opportunity for back-and-forth, even after that point, but if you find it difficult to accept the fact that the work is, at best, a collaboration, I’d say translation/writing isn’t the job for you, and you might want to consider becoming a director instead.

RPGSite: Do you have a set routine for when you are struggling with a particular project?
Alex: That would depend on the kind of struggle involved. If it's a challenging project, like FFXII, the work is usually so engrossing that my 'routine' is to not sleep until it's as close to done as I'll ever be able to make it. If it's a more tedious "for the money" job, the struggle is to keep at it, which requires lots of time management skills, and is probably the least recognized, biggest challenge facing any writer, be they a translator or a novelist. There's a reason why lots of Stephen King's book "On Writing" is talking about daily schedules and routines. It's in the hourly toil, not the big ideas, where productivity lies.

RPGSite: You’ve translated, directed and even done some voice acting – have you found that having experience in each field in turn helps your work in each of those areas?
Alex: Absolutely. And I still learn a lot every time I step out of my comfort zone.

RPGSite: How has the world of localization changed, for better or worse, during the ten plus years you have been a part of it and where do you think it is headed?
Alex: With the occasional exception, localization in general is much better organized than it used to be, with much better informed translators, agencies, and clients. You will occasionally run into the client that has no idea what they’re doing, but at least most translators/agencies worth their salt will be able to take that client by the hand and lead them through the process.

RPGSite: With the Japanese gaming industry suffering this generation, and with longer gaps between new JRPGs making the journey West, have you had to focus less on the gaming side of your career and focus more on anime, novels and so on?
Alex: I'm still splitting my time roughly evenly between the two, though I find my work for Japanese game companies is taking on more of a development role. Joe and I were involved in writing the screenplay for a large project that was unfortunately cancelled a year or two ago, and are now back in the saddle on the scenario creation side of things for another title. Hopefully I'll be able to talk more about that in a year or so.

RPGSite: Do you ever translate English language projects, be they games, books or TV shows into Japanese?
Alex: Nope! I can put English concepts and dialogue into Japanese if I must, but I'm not very fast at it (relatively speaking) and I'm not the best writer in Japanese. My E->J translation these days is almost purely translating my own writing into Japanese for purposes of vetting story ideas with clients.

RPGSite: Which projects were most fun to work on and which were most challenging?
Alex: FFXII wins for being the most fun and the most challenging. Phoenix Wright (the first one) gets honorable mention as being most fun without being terribly challenging. My challenging without being fun titles are almost all novels, or games I have managed to entirely forget working on.


RPGSite: Talking of Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney was a franchise that Capcom considered quite a risky proposition for the Western market. When translating it, did you sense or suspect that it would actually be the hit that it was?
Alex: I personally really enjoyed the original (which I hadn't played until I got the job), but that's rarely an indicator of whether or not a game will do well. In short, I had no idea it would do anything at all, but I'm glad it did, because there's a shortage of action lawyer comedies in this world that only Phoenix Wright can remedy.

RPGSite: After the first one, you didn't return until the fourth entry. Was there a reason for that and were you surprised by how much it had changed?
Alex: I think corporate confusion on Capcom's part was to blame for me not hearing back from them until volume three and four were up for translation (work on those happened simultaneously, if I recall correctly). That and they had a perfectly capable in-house translation team so it's not like they were hard up for outside help. I was definitely happy to return to the series, even if I felt the writing on episode 4 wasn't quite up to the admittedly very high standard of volume 1.

RPGSite: Are there any writers/translators that you particularly respect and admire or try to emulate?
Alex: On the novelist side, Gene Wolfe, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley loom large for me. On the game writing side, Marc Laidlaw and Erik Wolpaw at Valve. As for translators, I really don't play enough games/read enough books in translation, which is something I'm trying to remedy at present.

RPGSite: And finally, what are you working on either now or in the near future?
Alex: Over the next couple of years, most of my translation work will be devoted toward a new project - Bento Books - that I started with an old translation friend, Tony Gonzales, and my partner at Kajiya Productions, Joseph Reeder. We will be translating and publishing (both physical and ebook versions) quirky, off-the-beaten path titles that aren’t getting the attention they deserve from the larger publishers. Our first title, Math Girls, a high school romance where the romance is light, and the math is about as heavy as it gets (but described so well even a total neophyte can follow quite a bit of it) is about to hit the stands and we’re all very excited about it.

On the game front, I can’t say what I’m working on, but I will say this: it’s not translation.

RPGSite: Alex, thank you so much for your time.
Alex: Thank you!

Thanks again to Alex for generously giving us so much of his time. To keep abreast of all the latest info on his work, check out the Kajiya Productions website, and also be sure to keep your eye on Bento Books!