Persona 5 and cultural localization

Before continuing, read Kotaku’s article here. It’s short and incredibly frustrating, but what I’ll be responding to in my post.

There’s been a lot of talk about Persona 5’s translation, mostly in regard to clunky dialogue. While I personally have found little to no issue with the game in this regard, it’s also completely understandable that a game with this much text would have the occasional translation hiccup. Part of this is spurred from the necessity of having multiple translators of varying skill working on the game; long gone is the SNES era where one person could feasibly translate an entire JRPG by themselves (and while those games benefitted from uniformity they were plenty to prone to clunky translation as well). I’d say any issues marring Persona 5’s translation are issues you could find in any modern JRPG, even previous Persona games. However, Persona has become the new benchmark for the genre and thus people are bound to be extra-critical of it.

And that leads us to Kotaku’s article, titled This Might Be Persona 5’s Biggest Translation Fail. It points to a tweet highlighting a classroom question in which Ms. Kawakami (best teacher and the love of my life) asks the player character to identify what the cursive form of a kanji means. The tweeter Kotaku cites argues that this is bad localization for two reasons: first, the answer to the question is wrong, and second, the localization fails because it didn’t Westernize itself.

Let’s start by tackling that first point. The tweet, sent by an American game designer who presumably has studied Japanese, states that the correct answer for the question (“gold”) doesn’t properly align with the kanji. A quick Google search for gold’s kanji leads me to believe this is the case but I take this with a grain of salt as someone who can’t speak the language. Languages have their quirks and intricacies that an outsider or foreign student might not pick up on. Considering this perceived inaccuracy likely stems from the Japanese version of the game I’m inclined to believe there’s more to it than what’s being said in Kotaku’s article, although I can’t be sure on this either.

However, it’s tweeter Nathaniel Chapman’s second assertion that Persona 5’s localization fails as a product for the Western marketplace which bothers me most. I am all about the “art of localization” where it makes sense, altering dialogue as needed for each audience to best get its intended impact. Further, I can get behind cultural localization where it makes sense (Frog’s Elizabethan English dialect in Ted Woolsey’s original Chrono Trigger translation strikes me as an alteration that elevated the character in a way the Japanese original couldn’t, and was the one thing I was sad to see lost in the Nintendo DS port’s new, more accurate translation). However, the Persona series is one deeply entrenched in Japanese historical culture, pop culture and locales. It’s not like Ace Attorney where you can be ambiguous as to its setting when bringing it overseas; Persona is inseparable from Japan which is what makes it so compelling and transportive.

Imagine that this question and others like it were somehow changed to be more obvious to an English-speaking gamer. Yes, the player would more easily figure out the answer but it would come at the cost of clashing with the game’s setting. Why would a Japanese language teacher be asking questions about the English language? But alright, imagine that you change each teacher’s area of expertise entirely. You’d then have a stark juxtaposition where the Westernized curriculum no longer resembles that which you’d find in a Japanese school, thus tarnishing the immersion that is so core to what makes Persona work. You effectively strip Persona of its identity by Westernizing it.

Further, one of the classes you take is based on the English language, a subject Western audiences are likely to breeze through with ease whereas the Japanese audience would be faced with the same conundrum presents in Kotaku’s article. This asserts that Persona is a series more interested in realism and worldbuilding than catered mechanics. Effectively, you “preserve the experience” more by not altering the quizzes.

And besides, the game’s online functionality allows you to see what other people answered on each quiz question and given that the correct answer generally sits at around 95% on the polls the whole mechanic is trivialized. This isn’t to say that such a feature should excuse poor localization but, again, nothing about the way Persona 5 handles this aspect of its translation is remotely problematic.

Oh, and by the way, Persona 5 is a masterclass JRPG. It’s lived up to the near-decade wait between mainline installments and scratches the same itch as Persona 3 and 4 did. It’s a great jumping-in point for newcomers and comes with my highest recommendation.

10 thoughts on “Persona 5 and cultural localization

  1. Rocco B

    I’ve played P4 way back on the PS2. Where I got an OST CD as an extra goodie. Personally it doesn’t do much other than have far better visuals, OSTs. The core fundementals hasn’t changed, which is good as it allows vets and newcomers to the game. And that’s where the game ends. People are giving a game huge props when dating sim visual novels have done the whole social link schtick for a good long while now. The only conclusion I can think of, is people are either devoid of having such a game thrown at them. Or they actually think this is new. The themes are pretty much the same from previous persona games.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m still waiting on my copy of P5 (the only way to get a PS3 disc copy in Australia was to import it, it should be delivered next week probably) but I think this is an interesting article.

    I’ve played P3 and P4 (and P3P and P4 Golden), so I’m definitely a fan of the franchise and keen to sink my teeth into Persona 5. Localising a game like this is always going to be massive challenge and one where you can’t make everyone happy. P3 and P4 have set the precedent of having a pretty Japanese feel to the games, which is perhaps no big deal for those of us who are immersed in anime, but there’s definitely some confusing moments for those who don’t have some Japanese cultural background. My introduction to Persona 4 was watching some of Giant Bomb’s P4 ‘Endurance Run’; it’s a very fun ‘Let’s Play’ by two guys who know basically nothing about Persona or Japanese culture in general and they ended up relying on comments to some extent to parse what was going on. I don’t think that this negatively impacted their enjoyment of the game, but I do think that it shows it’s difficult to find a balance between giving the feeling of a Japanese high school and making things comprehensible to people who may not be familiar with Japanese culture at all. There’s always going to be people who think that you’ve ‘done it wrong’. Look at how mad people get with pretty much every dub localisation choice Funimation makes.

    Regarding the question linked in the article, that’s definitely really confusing/misleading, but at the same time, just looking at the question alone as a screencap is different to looking at the question in the context of the teacher discussing shogi. A better choice of question would be something like ‘what’s the meaning of the character on this shogi piece?’. Still, knowing that we’re talking about shogi means that instead of just looking for the meaning of the character alone (と in isolation is just a letter in hiragana, one of the basic Japanese alphabets, the usual character for gold is 金 which is read きん (kin) in isolation but may have other readings in combination with other characters), you’d want to look for the character in the context of what it means in shogi. It’s not ideal, but it’s certainly not impossible. Using context clues is a massive part of solving any academic questions in general. Many of the P3 and P4 quiz questions either required you paying attention in class, or doing a little research on the side (either you can look up the answer from a walkthrough or just research the answer in general). There’s also no real penalty for getting answers wrong so you can just guess and at worst you’ll miss an opportunity to raise your stats a bit.

    I certainly don’t think it’s a failure to have this type of question in a game which aims to give a Japanese flavour to its high school setting. One could make an argument for a more local feeling Persona game (but at the same time, this would only be ‘local’ for people in the US, the English-speaking market is far larger than that and it may end up requiring leaps of alteration far bigger than Ace Attorney’s ongoing burgers/ramen joke), but that ship has sailed and I think that the audience for Persona in general expects a very Japanese tone. I’m not an expert, but I think that the job of a localising team is to translate a product in a way which is comprehensible and appealing for their target audience, and I think that in certain situations, the requirement for a glossary or translator’s notes can be okay. Anime fansubs with perhaps excessive translator’s notes were very much standard when I started watching anime, and I think that having these notes, while perhaps ‘inelegant’, helped to build my cultural knowledge and inspired curiosity about Japan. Persona’s audience expects a very Japanese feel to the game based on their knowledge of previous games, so removing it would be a massive tonal departure and I’d consider it to really be a failure of localisation if you felt like you were playing a game from an entirely different franchise.

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