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.