Translations of Steel: 6 Things That Bug Me
Fuga: Melodies of Steel has been out for about a month now as of time of writing on basically every platform that plays modern video games and if you haven’t played it yet, I recommend you do so. Not just because context helps with everything I’m about to write but because it is genuinely a pretty good game made from a clear place of passion and I would like to make that clear from the off before I whinge myself inside out about it especially since there is a non-zero chance someone from CyberConnect2 will actually read this, embarrassing me even further.
Very brief plot synopsis for those who haven’t played the game, because it is important that you have some context for what follows. Fuga is a game about twelve children (the oldest main cast member is 12 years old) whose families are taken as prisoners by the local equivalent of invading Nazis, the kids find an abandoned giant tank in a cave and faced with no real alternative are thrown into the middle of war against their wills. The tank also possesses a towering comedically oversized cannon that can be fired to obliterate a tough boss battle, the catch is that it costs a party member’s life to use. War, sacrifice, separation of families and the weight of murder are your premise here. Sounds fun, right?
Well, it is! I like this game, it reflects talented artists, designers and writers making a very earnest game about difficult and unusual subject matter conveyed via mechanics that are unconventional for the JRPG genre it resides in. It’s a highly ambitious outing for CC2’s first self-published game that gets more right than I think it gets wrong to deliver a game that is quite memorable. I wouldn’t have written this if I wasn’t still thinking about it.
It is also a game that’s playing with a mediocre English localisation.
Not a bad localisation, crucially. A mediocre one. There are no major accuracy or technical issues, nor does the localisation interfere with any part of the gameplay and it doesn’t struggle with any of the wordplay, it’s just a little flatly written. Part of my motivation for writing this is that Fuga’s English script represents the type of localisation quality that isn’t likely to get a lot of discussion or analysis from either side of the usual localisation discourse. It’s neither a Ys VIII level shitshow:
Nor is it a very bold localisation like NEO: The World Ends With You that takes a lot of liberty with literal accuracy in service to the overall tone and style of the dialogue:
The former gets a lot of talk as it sparks outrage from interested players and the latter also sparks outrage but from a particular subset of Twitter gremlin who wouldn’t recognise a good turn of phrase if it was beating their ass in the QRTs.
Fuga’s localisation represents neither of these extremes, it is a serviceable but not very spicily written translation plagued with a lot of the usual foibles of slightly stilted J to E translations and if the above paragraph didn’t give it away, I tend to prefer localisations that have the confidence to make bolder edits for the benefit of a breezier read in English. This style of localisation is safe, but ultimately prevents the game from reaching the hearts of international players.
English is my first language, so that was the first language I played Fuga in and while I still enjoyed it overall, I came away without the character writing making a very strong impression on me. But on a subsequent playthrough, I played with the Japanese text on and I found myself having a much better time, characters came off as having a stronger “voice”, subtleties are expressed clearer and more efficiently and my overall opinion of the writing improved afterwards.
I found this to be a shame, because most English speakers who are interested in a game like Fuga are not likely to have the skillset necessary to enjoy it in both languages like I am boldly claiming to be able to do, since, for personal context, this is all Opinions. I’m an Englishman and my Japanese is self-taught and hardly fluent, I’m merely a bilingual player with an interest in the topic and the unfeasibly large ego necessary to attempt to posit how to better translate Japanese to people who doubtlessly understand Japanese better than I do.
This preamble is too long, so let us now get into petty localisation grumbling!!
Contextually Weird Language Use
As established, the main cast of Fuga are children, with the oldest being 12. Kids are difficult to write in fiction because eloquent word usage sounds bizarre coming out of the mouth of a fictional nine-year old, restricting the writer’s options for natural dialogue.
On that note:
On face value, there is nothing strictly speaking wrong with this translation, the problem is context. Sheena is 9 years old and “diligent” is not exactly a word I would expect a 9 year old to be throwing around in casual conversation. This is a problem caused by the equivalent Japanese word, in this case “真面目” being very everyday language in the original tongue, a 9 year old would know this word in Japan. If you don’t know Japanese you’re just gonna have to take my word for that but this is a case where sticking to a literally minded approach harms the English script with contextually unnatural dialogue where the original Japanese doesn’t come off incongruously.
Similar sort of deal here, the original Japanese phrase is literally something like “the prisoners increased and decreased over time” and even my attempt at being literal still sounds fancier than I think is desirable here, but 増える and 減る (to increase and decrease, respectively) are fairly basic words in Japanese whereas “occasionally fluctuated” is a significantly fancier English equivalent. This translation is not wrong, it just reads weirdly because I don’t get the impression Sheena is supposed to come off as being particularly well-spoken here, a bit formal, yes, but erudite, no.
This game does actually have that kind of book-ish nerd character for whom such lines might gel a little better but he doesn’t get the lion’s share of the complex language use.
But ok, those are minor examples and it’s not a huge deal. I don’t think it reads as particularly natural English writing but you could argue this gives her dialogue a distinct flavour which is something I will get into later. But this particular quirk bleeds into much of the cast, most of whom almost certainly shouldn’t have it:
This is a case where the English script seems to have ran the resulting sentence through a thesaurus for a reason I can’t fathom, resulting in dialogue that is both unnatural sounding in English and conflicts with the character’s “voice” (Jin speaks in a generally blunt and direct way in Japanese).
Translated as literally as possible this would be something like “As for me, I can’t do that anymore”, which is still awkward but with a little punching up you’d get something like “I don’t even have that option anymore”. Remember, the character speaking this line is 11 years old and has established a generally blunt personality, it doesn’t really vibe with the character.
The original sentence is quite plain and the English localisation has made the somewhat odd choice to attempt to give this particular line a prosier feel to it where it is not really called for, resulting in a line that reads as somehow both overly literal and strangely altered. You could make a case for this being appropriate for Sheena’s dialogue and if it were just her talking like this, I’d probably agree but a lot of the characters randomly lapse into this more poetic way of speaking which makes it hard to pick out when it’s being done for intentional effect and when it’s just there.
I’m generally in favour of a localisation attempting to imbue the dialogue with personality even if it means knocking some of exact meaning on the head but problems arise when this conflicts with the groundwork of the setting and especially when it’s not applied consistently across an entire character’s worth of dialogue which smoothly segues me onto my next point.
Finding Your Voice
If you’ll permit me to generalise a bit here, Japanese is a language that due to its compactness has a lot of linguistic shorthand for various kinds of mannerisms. For a basic example, sentence ending particles used in places where they do not often convey a whole lot of literal information but are more used to convey a certain tone. There’s a world of difference between a character who primarily ends their sentences in わ (wa) and someone who ends them in ぞ (zo), the former is generally more feminine and the latter more masculine. There are many more complex examples like how a character orders their sentences since Japanese is charmingly vague about word order, but I have a need to keep this brief.
These things contribute to how a character comes across in Japanese dialogue and in games with large ensemble casts, particularly ones without much voice acting like Fuga, this is employed very frequently to distinguish members of the cast from one another.
In the above example, Mei speaks without any Kanji usage at all in her dialogue, as Mei is 4 years old and is thus baby, she would not know much complex language at all.
This is a tool used by the Japanese writing both to make a point of Mei’s diction (or lack thereof) and the fact that Japanese without Kanji is slightly more cumbersome to read, causing your “mind’s voice” to apply a more laboured tone as you read through, creating the mental effect of a character who speaks slower, as a child who can barely string a sentence together in the first place probably would. This gives her dialogue a fairly recognisable cadence even in the written form.
English is largely unable to smoothly make a similar point of this, with much of Mei’s dialogue reading as relatively similar to any other member of the cast. Which I would like to illustrate with an exercise:
If I take the nametags off the dialogue, can you still tell who the speaker is? The above shows three lines of Mei’s dialogue mixed in with another character’s and in English the difference is, in my opinion at least, not especially pronounced. I think most people would get this wrong if I didn’t include the Japanese next to it. In Japanese, Mei’s lines are almost all immediately identifiable even out of context for several reasons, lack of Kanji, the particular way she refers to others and she refers to herself in the third person, a common way of conveying childish manner in Japanese.
English lacks immediate access to many of these options to distinguish character and arguments about how best to translate things like honorifics and speech patterns like this have raged before I understood the language and will continue to rage long after I’m dead but nevertheless a general constant of any school of thought on the topic is that you should probably do something with them. For an instructive example, let’s take another look at NEO: The World Ends With You.
In the above example, Nagi (the purple haired one), uses comedically overly polite language along with a sentence ending と which is hard to explain quickly but it generally sounds dramatic. The English localisation noted the tone of these dialogue quirks and ran away with them, turning Nagi’s dialogue into fanciful, semi-archaic and definitely overly dramatic English, giving her lines personality and energy as well as conveying the intended feeling of her original mannerism to English speaking gamers. Language like this is a pain to translate and you might even think the above example is overkill, albeit I would disagree, but it nevertheless reflects a certain kind of translating philosophy where the writing team definitely considered “If this character spoke English, how would they speak it?” and then created the character’s “voice” for the English script off that work and wrote everything else to remain consistent with that. This approach requires the localisers to have faith in their own writing ability as well as even being permitted to take those sorts of liberties to begin with (if you thought localisers just acted with no oversight on these matters then lol at you), but it’s commendable when it pans out.
I don’t get the impression Fuga’s English script was operating with a similar thought process in mind, it struck me more as something that got written more on a line by line approach, resulting in dialogue that doesn’t read very differently from character to character and individual characters who wildly change their manner from line to line.
These two lines are spoken directly after each other, which reads very badly, bluntly. You can’t have a character say “such a thing isn’t even a possibility” followed immediately by them musing on their lack of ability to express themselves as eloquently as they’d like to. At best it’s mannerism whiplash, at worst it actively contradicts the premise of the conversation.
To be clear, I’m not saying Fuga is a complete disaster on this front, some characters do come off better than others, Kyle, for example, distinguishes himself by being the only member of the cast who uses even mild profanity in English, a choice that I think pays off.
And as mentioned earlier, Sheena’s dialogue while not reading to me as tremendously natural, does at least represent an attempt to give her dialogue a personality. Again, Fuga’s localisation is hardly terrible, but it is uneven. The attempts it does make to imbue personality are applied inconsistently and sometimes inappropriately and sometimes it doesn’t make very much of an attempt at all when something was probably needed.
Comparing it to NEO: The World Ends With You is probably unfair since that is a game working with far more resources and time as a game published by Square-Enix than Fuga, a self-published game would’ve had and I do want to at least acknowledge that, although I will stop myself before I go into gauche speculation about what series of decisions led to my perceived problems with the English script. Localisations are expensive and it takes time to produce a very high quality one for the same reason it takes time to write anything good to begin with, so it is only natural that comparisons with the higher budget localisations are more in their favour.
In fact, you could say…
It Can’t Be Helped
Despite the sub-header I don’t actually think this script has a single “It Can’t Be Helped” in it, so congratulations but nevertheless Fuga contains its fair share of translations that are not literally wrong but are just not things that are likely to ever come out of the English speaking mouth, resulting in dialogue that’s stilted in a way familiar to people who play a lot of Japanese games.
Using this conversation for the third time now, I know, but I want to zero in on “I can’t say it well”. This is not an incorrect translation of the phrase
but “I can’t say it well” is a phrase that I can only describe as being very “Japanese English” in that it is a thing that almost no English speaker would ever say to express their inability to articulate themselves.
Furthermore, I think this line might have even slightly overlooked the nuance in the pursuit of literal meaning since I’ve generally understood 偉そう to mean something more akin to “pompous” or “proud” than necessarily just “well”, so an alternate literal reading could be something like “I can’t say it fancily”, which you could punch up into something like “I’ll be straight with you”. Feels more in line with the character too, actually.
Moving on before I get too carried away in my own rewrites, Sheena’s dialogue suffers from this “Japanese English” a lot. Ironically this is hard to explain intuitively but it’s something you probably do understand if you play a lot of this kind of thing. Saying that you have “come to view” someone a certain way is a turn of phrase that is significantly more common in Japanese but is a thing that people just do not say in English. It sounds unusual, it’s not the conventional way to express a thought like that in this language.
Gamers go numb to this sort of thing amazingly quickly due to constant exposure to this kind of Japanese English but I usually consider it a bad thing if my brain can do the math backwards on the English sentence to work out what the original Japanese was. Language isn’t supposed to be a math problem, I don’t need to see your working, I’d much rather dialogue that flows naturally in the language I’ve chosen.
Now that I’ve hit upon the broader points, let’s get petty.
Font of Knowledge
This is something that will seem minor at first glance but the English font table for this game doesn’t have a couple of special characters that the Japanese does, most notably the tilde “~”.
In case you’ve somehow never seen it before, a tilde on the end of a sentence tends to indicate a sing-song or wavering tone of voice. It’s used in both English and Japanese alike for much the same purpose, so why only one language got the character in its font table is beyond me. One can only guess~
What is not generally used in English, meanwhile, is the long hyphen ー character that Fuga attempts to use to compensate for a lack of tilde. In Japanese, this character is used to indicate an elongated vowel sound which is sometimes used for effect in dialogue and sometimes that’s just how a word is written, but the character isn’t really used in English writing so if you’re anything like me, seeing it will cause your brain to just insert pauses and you’ll mentally trip on the sentence. Not the intended effect, I imagine.
This screenshot has two entirely different examples of the localisers trying to work around the lack of a tilde, firstly by just using the long hyphen character and secondly by just writing out letters several times in a row, the latter of which is not a bad choice but it also tends to work better in tandem with a tilde rather than instead of one.
Weirdly, the Japanese even makes occasional use of this music note symbol ♪, which the English script does not use and presumably doesn’t have in the font table. Minor, but it’s an additional tool the Japanese writers had that the English writers either didn’t use or didn’t have. I would speculate that it’s because Japanese and English characters don’t occupy the same horizontal width (compare ~ and ～) so they’d need to make a new character in the font table for an English tilde, but then they used the Japanese sized long hyphen mark in the English script anyway, so beats me, man.
Seems like a small deal but I think this one small thing did a non-trivial amount of damage to more than a handful of lines across the game.
Abridge Your Ellipses
Ellipses are the bane of the J to E localiser as for reasons unknown to me, ellipsis usage is far more the convention when writing in Japanese compared to English. Seriously, talk to anyone with this overlap of interests or indeed a professional, all of us have opinions on ellipses, it’s an occupational hazard.
Localisers often seek to cut down or replace ellipses in texts with like anything else partially just because localising line after line of “…” gets boring, but also because an overabundance of ellipses causes English text to sound like everyone is speaking with the cadence of William Shatner.
Fuga represents the first localisation I think I’ve ever seen that felt the need to add tons of ellipses in places where they just weren’t originally. On my initial playthrough, I thought this was a problem it just inherited from the Japanese script but I found to my surprise on future playthroughs that the Japanese is largely bereft of them, but the English inserts them almost every other line and I genuinely struggle to conceive of a good reason why.
Obviously, Japanese punctuation and grammar do not work the same as English so sometimes additional ellipses are called for, but the ratio here is like literally 10:1, it is completely out of control. They mostly mean the same thing in both languages too since Japanese copied the ellipsis from European languages to begin with, so there probably shouldn’t be ten times more ellipses in one language compared to the source.
Fuga uses the ellipses constantly in place of full stops, commas or short-hyphens despite also using all of those things and the overall effect is everyone in the English script sounds like they’re out of breath constantly. I don’t really have much more to add to this because this is just a weird Fuga-specific quirk and I can’t really get a sense for why it’s even ended up like this.
This MFer Said Wonan
Finally, we have just the outright errors. These are pretty boring so I won’t dwell too much on them, but yes, Fuga’s English script is also sporting a handful of obvious blemishes.
This happens even with really good localisations and is never really a statement on the quality of the writing but it does bear mentioning that this game is sporting more than enough for me to consider it noticeable and that it does reflect on the overall level of polish of the localisation.
Typos, wrong word usage, sentences that seem to be missing words entirely, and so on. I don’t have a comprehensive list of these because I’m not getting paid to proofread this, but it gets more prominent in the later Link Events and towards the late-game story.
Too Many Words About Words
That about wraps up what I wanted to say about this game, I don’t have any larger point I’m driving at here like an essay, I just got prompted to write out some of my thoughts on the game by a friend and I took it far too seriously.
I would like to emphasise at this point that despite having now written far too much about things I disliked about Fuga’s localisation, I do still recommend the game even if you can only play it in English. It is absolutely not catastrophically awful at all, much of the text is completely fine although I wouldn’t say I necessarily had to look all that hard to find examples of my problems either, I didn’t cherry pick those lines.
I just didn’t focus much on the writing’s better moments in this piece or the game’s broader narrative achievements and it is still overall a far better and more memorable game than most things I’ve played in 2021 so far, so again, if you haven’t played it and are somehow still interested after all of these words, please consider buying it for yourself. It’s worth the time.
I have no particular end-game with this, I just hope you enjoyed reading my musing on Fuga and game localisation in general. Maybe you learned something, maybe you think I’m a massive idiot who sucks at Japanese, either way, thanks for reading!