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- This was a quick little post I threw up on Twitter about the Persona 5 localization, the nature of the game's contents, and my hopes for how it's received and examined abroad without losing its native Japanese context. None of this is meant to be criticism directed at Atlus' localization team or the localization process in general, given that I myself work in Japanese-English game translation myself. Rather, this is directed at players, critics, and bloggers abroad who, having largely not lived in or at least deeply studied Japanese society as the game depicts it, may have trouble at time fully grasping some of the finer nuances of the game's sociopolitical commentary. I'm confident that the localization team at Atlus USA will do the best job they can in bringing such a complex game to the English-speaking world, but I still feel the things I discuss are worth bearing in mind.
- Thanks for reading,
- -Tom James
- Short of a botched Engrishy localization that I know won't happen, I'm confident Persona 5 will globally be considered an important game in this generation. There's plenty about it to like no matter where you're from. It's visually and aurally striking, the characters emote, and it's moody. People will like the plot arc where characters go from merely acknowledging macro-level problems in the world to finding ways to tackle them at a micro one.
- My one big fear is that the source of that theme, the Japanese sociopolitical experience informing the whole game, won't get widely noticed overseas. It's wonderful when works can transcend cultural boundaries and find new appreciation abroad. I believe in it. It's why I work in game localization. But sometimes I feel that the search for universality and relateability inside foreign works by consumers and critics abroad also robs those works the ability to keep living and breathing the distinct cultural contexts that give them their fundamental character to begin with.
- I've seen this happen with discussions of Persona 3 and 4. While they both have excellent localizations, some characters, I feel, aren't well understood by foreign players and critics and are read in ways they wouldn't widely be in Japan. The English version still contains signals laid out in the original Japanese versions that hint at particular nuances, but are often missed by foreign players due to a lack of awareness about how to interpret or how to even find such signals. Having said that, differing interpretations aren't bad per se. It's a consequence of localizing anything and can enrich the work even more. Creators certainly appreciate the feedback, too. But I think many Western critiques of Japanese games like Persona lack that cultural nuance and examine their contents wholly in Western terms. They recognize it as a Japanese game in terms of geography, where it came from in a strictly factual sense, but not necessarily where it "came" from in terms of identity and the baggage that comes with it.
- Japan is not a Western country. This shouldn't surprise you, but I feel it bears reiterating in this instance. There are certainly similarities in terms of its politics, architecture, economics, and much more. To say that those similarities are reason enough to evaluate it and its output wholly on Western terms, though, denies what makes it different, for both better and for worse. This isn't to say that there's no value in discussing Japan and Japanese issues from Western perspectives. Far from it, I do it all the time. But it needs to come from a grounded, empathetic awareness of at least some of those differences or else it greatly risks absentmindedly reeking of preachiness and Western cultural supremicism.
- Persona 5, even more so than the previous games, is a game that is informed by the sociopolitical, cultural, and economic realities of Japan in 2016. It is a game about the consequences of conservative nostalgia for the bubble economy of the 1980s and even the decades before it. It is a game about the power dynamics at play within Japanese social hierarchies at school, work, and at home. It is about a new generation coming of age more and more independent in a society not quite ready for that yet. It is about far too many things to count, but suffice it to say that it is about a Japan and a Japanese people that I very much so recognize from my own experiences, even as a foreign translator.
- The English localization, I'm sure, will do its best to capture that essence, but it'll have to often do so from a slightly different angle. In Japanese, Persona 5 can talk about Japan and Japanese issues from a Japanese perspective that assumes a certain shared understanding of how the fundamentals work. The discussion can start at square 3 or 4 or 5. A translation, though, has to start at square 1. It rightly can't assume most of its audience will be informed by the exact same sorts of experiences that drive the Japanese script and make it so powerful. As a result, the localization will have to make these topics and issues relateable in foreign terms, at least insofar as can be afforded within the confines of text boxes and voiced lines. As a video game, the localization team doesn't have the luxury of adding footnotes and an appendix of translator notes in-game after the fact. Even if they could, it practically takes a Japanese studies degree to comfortably wrap your head around some of the things the game discusses; short of offering a slew of textbooks with preorders of the game, truly, it's an uphill battle for all sides involved no matter what strategy is taken.
- But even if the path Persona 5's English localization has to take to reach those same points will have to be different at times, the core destination and the stops made along the way will still invariably speak of its origins as a Japanese game made in Japanese and for a Japanese audience. That DNA can't be erased short of making an altogether different game entirely. And while I'm very glad that's the case, having that story told in its non-native language is also precisely what I feel may make it easy for many Westerners to overlook or undervalue the things that make it the product of a Japanese development team within a Japanese society.
- So to my friends in media and blogging circles, I say this: when April 2017 rolls around and you can finally play Persona 5 yourself, know that, on some level, it's not really a game for you or about you or about the West in general. When it's out in English, it will be a game that Western audiences can play, but one that was made to speak to Japanese players first and foremost to a significant degree. In a post-Trump election especially, Western players will find a lot of surface level things in the game that may well speak to them and their anxieties. As people play through the last third of the game in particular, which is where it gets really political, I absolutely expect to see inadvertently condescending headlines about how aware, how woke Persona 5 is to the ails of Western society "despite" being a Japanese game, one that can apparently speak to Western liberal sensibilities "for once." People overseas will analyze it from front to back like the games that came before it for years to come and it's totally deserving of such attention.
- But those discussions need to come from a recognition that Persona 5 is driven by a Japanese team's understanding of their world, that any potency the game has in English comes, in this instance, not only from a strong translation behind it, but especially from a strongly Japanese sense of self present in its original language. There is, on some level, no resonance in Persona 5 within the English speaking world without that resonance having first taken root in Japanese. It only accomplishes what it does because it was made by people speaking from what they specifically know above all else and it's a much, much richer game for it when you learn to read between those lines. Enjoy it. Poke and prod the hell of what it has to say because you should. But know that it wasn't necessarily meant to speak to you as a foreign player out of the gate, only that it was made to do so later.
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