Interview with Yas Noguchi

   It seems increasingly to be the case that there are two types of people who work on localizing Japanese video games for an English speaking audience. One is comprised of people infamous for translations grammatically shoddy enough to make the greenest of ESL students cringe. The other has people like Yasuhiro Noguchi. The Localization Producer for gaming titan Namco, Yas has worked on the ubiquitous Tekken series among other titles, but is held dear in the hearts of knowledgeable RPG circles for his smooth work on the 1998 PlayStation RPG Tales of Destiny. The GIA recently had an opportunity to sit down with Yas and discuss the localization biz in general and some of his work in particular.

GIA: Thanks for taking the time to grant us this interview, Yas. How did you get into the localization business?

Yas: I did translations as a contractor for Sega in the early 1990's and eventually became a full-time employee there. My first major localization job was translating a Sega-CD strategy RPG called Dark Wizard. I'm not even sure if I'm credited with working on that thing. I did the basic translation on it and other people at Sega polished up the text.

   After doing game-related translations, I went into more software/hardware R&D work at Sega. My final job there was working on what eventually became the Dreamcast system. I was on the American development team for that project. After Sega, I came to Namco to become the Localization Producer here. I suppose I've come full circle now that I'm localizing games again.

GIA: How long have you been working as Localization Producer for Namco?

Yas: About a year and a half.

GIA: What exactly does the title "Localization Producer" entail? Do you do much direct translation yourself, or are you more of an overseer / coordinator of a translation staff?

Yas: A Localization Producer at Namco oversees all aspects of the product from audio-visual content issues to translation quality as well as debugging of the product and submission to our licensor (e.g. Sony, Sega, Nintendo, etc.) for manufacturing approval.

   My involvement in text translation varies depending on the scale of the project. Sometimes I do them myself, or have someone else do it for me. Whatever the case, I make sure the translation quality is something I'm happy with.

GIA: Where is Namco's American localization division located, Japan or America? Does your job involve much traveling?

Yas: The localization team is located here in the US at our office in San Jose, California. I do some traveling between Japan and the US as well as cities in the US. I think I went to Japan at least five times last year.

GIA: Our readers are probably most familiar with you through your fantastic work on Tales of Destiny, which drew many comparisons to the reknowned localization efforts of Working Designs. Did you use their work as inspiration, or did the end result bear similarities to a WD job by coincidence?

Yas: Thanks for your compliment. :) I hope everyone enjoyed playing TOD. I'm aware of WD's reputation when it comes to their localization work quality, but honestly, about the only game I've played from WD is Elemental Gearbolt. In other words, I'm not familiar with the humor content on any of their RPG products. By the way, I think Vic Ireland and WD do fantastic work for all game fans.

GIA: How much of Tales' humorous content was added in by the localization staff?

Yas: If it sounds like American humor, it's mostly mine. However, I tried to make sure the original spirit of the text in Japanese was conveyed in natural-sounding English prose. I don't think I deviated too much from the original text.

GIA: Were there any such portions in the original Japanese text that you abstained from translating due to corniness, crudeness, etc?

Yas: For example, there was a lame scene where Stahn gets caught reading an "adult book" by Philia in the original that I didn't translate. There was another scene that I removed where Philia and Rutee take a bath together…I just didn't think that was appropriate for the US market where taking communal baths is not really an established custom.

GIA: What's your favorite witty line found in the original Tales text?

Yas: I don't have a specific line I like, but I think the love-hate tension between Rutee and Stahn was kind of fun. Also, I liked the text related to the Gourmet sub-events since it kinda parodies a popular Japanese TV show called "The Iron Chef."

GIA: What's your favorite witty line added in by the localization team?

Yas: I thought Milly's line about Leon DeCarpaccio was kinda cheesy, but funny. I'm guilty for coming up with that one. :)

GIA: For those of us who haven't had the opportunity to play Tales or may have forgotten by now (it's been a while!), could you relate the general gist of the joke?

Yas: The actual text sequence goes like this:

"Oh? Ooooohhhhhhh!"

"Your bod! It's so ripped!
And your face kinda reminds me of that way
cute actor Leon DiCarpaccio!!"

"You're soooo cuuuuuuute!
I think I'm in love!"

"Say, why don't you join our gang?
I'll take care of you, if you know what
I mean."

   It's really not a joke per se. This is when Stahn goes into a bar in the bordertown Janos and bumps into the Black Wings gang. Milly, a member of the gang, fawns over innocent little Stahn. I was my doing my best to have Milly sound kind of like a mall rat. It was also a chance to mangle Leo DiCaprio's name too. :)

   I'm kind of proud of some of the accents I gave the characters in the towns too, like the little kids that roam about.

GIA: One of Tales' bigger drawing points was its colorful, eclectic cast of characters. Which did you find most endearing and why?

Yas: I think I liked Rutee the most because her personality is complex; she's mean, sarcastic, witty, sneaky, but has a heart of gold deep down inside.

GIA: In Japan, Tales of Destiny boasted a large amount of in-game voice acting that was never ported over to the American release (with some exceptions, such as battle cries; even these, however, were left in the initial Japanese incarnation). Why was this aspect of the game dropped from the American release, and did American gamers miss out on much from not having the spoken dialogue translated?

Yas: Our schedule was the main reason why we nixed the localization of the voice-overs. Frankly, I don't think American users really missed anything, since the feature wasn't well integrated in the game. In the Japanese version of TOD, you have to let the game sit around for about 20 seconds in the World Map view with your Active Party Window open to trigger the voice-overs.

   I left the battle sequence voice-overs alone since I thought it gave the product a real "Street Fighter-esque" feel to it, which I liked. Besides, I thought the Japanese voice actors' work in TOD was fantastic, so I didn't want to replace it with what could have been lame English voice-acting.

GIA: I found it interesting that you issued a statement in defense of Tales in response to public criticism of the game's 16 bit look and feel. Was this just part of the Localization Producer biz, or something that stemmed from a more personal, "labor of love" type sentiment?

Yas: It was personal. Given the tremendous amount of effort my crew spent working on TOD (at one point, our team was camped out at the office), I wasn't about to let some reviewer shred our game just because of the graphics. I may have sounded defensive, but I cared enough about the game to stick my neck out for it.

GIA: Speaking of the 16 bit look, it seems increasingly to be the case that games (yes, even those belonging to the once graphically independent RPG genre) have to expand to the 3rd dimension or get left behind; there have even been rumblings that Sony refused to approve the localization of Soul Hackers due, at least in part, to its 2D format. Do you think the "old school" 2D style is nearly dead? Are there any merits to a 2D look left behind in the transition to 3D?

Yas: I think 2D is still a viable visual style. I think the real question we need to ask ourselves is this- Is the game fun when you play it? You can have millions of Gouraud shaded, bilinear-filtered, perspective correct textured polygons with real-time lighting on-screen, but that alone isn't going to make your game fun by default. Sure, I love 3D eye candy as much as the next guy, but that alone isn't going to do it for me.

   In short, what I'm trying to say is that gameplay should always dictate whether a game uses 2D or 3D.

GIA: A big debate amongst RPG fans these days centers around the merits and pratfalls of the preciseness of a game's translation; some believe a strict word-for-word translation is best, whereas others prefer a more colloquial, "Americanized" text. Where exactly do you stand on the issue? Is there room for a happy medium?

Yas: I definitely think there is a happy medium. I took the happy medium approach for TOD. My goal was never to subvert the original intent of the text. However, I took some liberties with the text where I thought it was appropriate to do so. I always got a reality check from Jun Toyoda, who was one of the principal producers of the original TOD to make sure that we weren't losing focus on the "big picture" of the game.

   For most games that are text-heavy, I honestly don't think you'd want a strict translation from Japanese. This is especially the case if the game makes cultural references that are specific to Japan. You'll probably end up being frustrated with the game since you won't be able to connect with the game on intellectual and emotional levels.

   In the end, if you want to play the game as it was meant to be in Japanese, you can always go learn Japanese, and play the original game! :) You can never please everyone all the time.

GIA: How important is a good translation to the gamer's appreciation of the game?

Yas: I think a good translation is very important. I think strange translations, weird grammar, and spelling errors destroy the suspension of disbelief in a game that you try to create for the player. Besides, I think we owe a player a well-translated game if they've shelled out $40+ of their hard-earned money for one of our games.

GIA: Many RPGs in America have been chided for sloppy, if not horrendous, translations. Have you ever played through one of these and thought to yourself, "I could have done a much better job!"?

Yas: Yes. In fact, I think that way about the games I've worked on! I'm never completely satisfied with the work I do, so I'm my worst critic.

GIA: In light of this, do you have any regrets in retrospect regarding your work on Tales?

Yas: Not enough time. I would like to have rewritten parts of the game and improve the ending, which was kind of anti-climactic.

   My original plan for the ending was to include the Japanese TOD's opening FMV sequence with Deen's "Yume De Aru You Ni" song while the credits scrolled over it. Licensing difficulties for the song nixed this idea though.

GIA: In localizing the PlayStation version of Tales of Phantasia (Tales of Destiny's SNES prequel in Japan), Namco has promised to spruce up the graphics accordingly. Do you think this will be a large factor in its success? Could Tales of Destiny have benefitted greatly from similar enhancement?

Yas: TOP is selling very well in Japan right now. When I saw early versions of TOP last year, I really, really wished TOD looked like that. I think TOD would have avoided some of the "16 bit criticisms" if it looked as good as TOP.

GIA: Are there any new developments in Tales of Phantasia's American release that we should know about?

Yas: I don't have any US release schedule information for this game at this time.

GIA: Aside from Tales of Destiny, have you worked on any localizations of which you're particularly proud?

Yas: I liked the work I did on Klonoa. I think I was able to preserve the nuances of the original Japanese text in that game. I'm also proud of the work I did on Tekken 3 because I got to work directly with the cool VS R&D guys in Japan (Namco Japan's VS R&D makes coin-op games like Tekken and Soul Calibur).

GIA: Any future Namco localizations that RPG and puzzle fans should look forward to?

Yas: No comment.

GIA: Any words of advice for people aspiring to land a job on a video game company's localization staff?

Yas: If you're doing Japanese to English localizations for the US market, it's useful to know both languages fluently and also to understand American and Japanese pop culture. And most importantly, you must be prepared to work extremely hard to make a great game. It can be a truly rewarding job, but it can be a tough job too.

Interview by Brian Maniscalco.
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