Like many, I first came across the name Alexander O. Smith during the groundbreaking cinematic intro to Yasumi Matsuno’s Vagrant Story. Now for those who know me (or have read my bio on this site), you know I’m a huge fan of Matsuno and his aforementioned masterpiece. So you can image my excitement when I got a one-on-one with Alexander O. Smith, whose English translations of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII have made me as much a fan of his as Yasumi Matsuno himself and earned Smith a number of recognitions for his high-quality work.
Though Smith has worked in other areas as a translator (such as music lyrics and novels) and as a writer (for Wizards of the Coast), he’s best known for his English localizations of Japanese video games. With a functional knowledge of English and Japanese and reading knowledge of about six other languages, Alexander O. Smith is a highly qualified translator with an extensive resume.
He has worked on a number of the Final Fantasy games (including Final Fantasy X and Tactics Advance 2), but also MadWorld (another Matsuno project), Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, to name a few. Not to mention, he’s looking to replace Ringo in Rock Band: Beatles (his ‘latest time waster’).
On a Tuesday afternoon I spoke with Smith to ask him a few questions about his involvement in the video game industry, his company with translator Joseph Reeder, Kajiya Productions, and some of his own gaming likes and dislikes. What he gave me, in addition to the aforementioned, was an intimate look into the process of translating some of the industry’s best selling titles, the background and working-mind of one of the greatest video game translators today, and even a surprise reveal about another PSP re-release of an old classic.
Game-Flush: Looking at the list of languages you’re familiar with, you seem more like a choice-man for a CIA translator, so why video games?
Smith: Yeah, that’s funny. That was one of the jobs, not that I got anywhere with it, but that was one of the jobs I was thinking about pretty seriously when I was a college undergrad.
I’ve always enjoyed video games, and when I actually started looking for work, I did an internship at Sega Entertainment. This was in the summer of ’97, when I was in grad school. That was sort of a non-event really, but it did get me in touch with a few people in translation in Tokyo, and then I started looking for a job out of grad school.
I had just got a Masters in Classical Japanese Literature, and when I started looking for jobs, I saw that Squaresoft had a posting. I’ll admit I had played a little Final Fantasy, but I was not a big Final Fantasy buff. I said, ‘Squaresoft, that sounds vaguely familiar.’ That was my limit.
I wasn’t a big console person. I’d played a lot of pen & paper RPGs and PC and Apple games–Bard’s Tale, Ultima, that sort of stuff–so I was familiar with the genre, but I wasn’t about to recite the plot points for every FF, and I would admittedly have a hard time doing that now. [Laughs] But the job sounded really interesting, and since I was a pretty hardcore gamer at times, the thought of combining my two passion really appealed to me.
So I followed up on the Squaresoft posting with a cold call, I went out to Costa Mesa, California for an interview, and they offered me the job. And that’s why games.
Game-Flush: After you left Square-Enix, you did a little bit of work for Capcom and a couple other companies, but then you started your own business, Kajiya Productions (kajiyaproductions.com). Tell us a little about the company.
Smith: The company is really me and one other person, Joseph Reeder, a fellow Square-Enix localization veteran. I first saw him when he walked in for his interview literally on the day I went to turn in my company badge.
So I pass him in the hall: here’s this guy who’s completely shaven bald, and he comes in wearing a full suit with one of those metallic cache cases. You know the kind that you put H-bombs in and stuff? A real borg kind of thing going on, and I’m in my shorts or whatever. So I’m like, ‘Who’s that freak?’ Of course, he turns out to be one of the best translators I’ve met.
That was right after I quit in 2002, and one of the first jobs I did for Square after that was Final Fantasy X-2. On that job, I was a voice script editor and ADR writer, which is a term for rewriting for the voiceovers—an incredibly arduous process because the script has to be good for voice and then you also have to get it to fit roughly within the lip flaps of the preexisting Japanese rendered game scenes. So I joined that project, and Joe [Reeder] was one of the main translators on it. I liked his style, and we got along really well.
Then several years later when Final Fantasy XII started up, they asked if I wanted to translate it. This is a massive project, so there was no way in Hell that I was going to translate it by myself. They were kind of expecting a three or four person team and I said, ‘I think if they have enough time, and I can get this Joe Reeder guy (still an employee of Square-Enix at the time) on my team then I think we’ll be good with two translators and a good editor.’
So we did Final Fantasy XII together with a great editor, Morgan Rushton, and that went really, really well, at least for us. That was our trial-by-fire. After that I knew Joe wanted to get out of Japan, so I suggested that we might do what I had been doing together, because I kept getting so much work that I sort of needed an extra person. He said, ‘Great,’ and so far it’s worked out really well.
Game Flush: As far as the company goes, what can we expect from you going forward?
Smith: We’ll still do more localizations. We’ve been using other people, not just myself and Joe, but in essence we’re a translation boutique, not an agency. Our product is who we are and what we do, so it doesn’t make sense for us to farm stuff out and then stamp a company logo on it. So we only use people whose stuff we really, really like, and we read through every line they give us. We’re snobs that way. [laughs] That too has been working out really well. We have too much work actually.
It’s a good situation to be in, it’s just sometimes we need to take a break. That’s a constant struggle for freelancers. The time management aspect of it can be really…challenging, to put it lightly. [laughs] I don’t know if you have kids, but I have two kids and that adds a whole other element to the time management game.
One thing that we’re doing that’s a little different than what we’ve been doing in the past is some straight up writing for games. Unfortunately, the big writing project we have lined up now is still under NDA [Non-disclosure agreement], but when that is not under NDA anymore I will be happy to tell you all about it.
We’re doing just straight up writing, basically, for the movie scenes which has been great and it’s actually not really that different from the normal work that we do. Which isn’t to say that when we translate something, we just make shit up. [laughs] They are translations, but there is a lot of writing that goes into it because it’s our policy to not look at every line, per se, but to look at what a scene is doing and the information that the scene is getting across and try to create a scene that does that same thing in English.
I’m not that concerned with getting every line exactly where it is in the Japanese. I think a translation often gets better and better the further away you get from the original in terms of structure and form. And of course sometimes it is just straight line-for-line translation.
One thing that separates an okay translation from a really good translation is the finesse with which you navigate those choices: Where do I diverge from the original? Where do I add in something? If something feels missing, is it supposed to be missing? Is this a flaw in the original that we should augment?
So you will see more writing, hopefully, and more game translations. Pretty much a steady stream of books as well.
Game-Flush: Well that segues into my next question which is: are there any other areas of the gaming industry, other than translations, you’d like to get involved with?
Smith: Writing! [Laughs] Writing, and actually I’m happy with what we are involved with already which is the translation or script work and that extends into writing. And voice work. We also do a lot of recording, monitoring, assistant directing, assistant casting.
I like to use local directors, and I’ve had a lot of success with Jack Fletcher. He’s the voice director for FF XII and several other games we’ve worked on. It’s great to have someone who knows how to work with the actors and knows casting and has a really good feel for the scenes.
I think it’s also very valuable to have a knowledgeable person, somebody who knows the script, basically the stand-in for the writer, in the recording studio as well, to keep things on track and to improvise if something needs to get changed, for whatever reason, on the spot. To keep it real.
I’m not terribly interested in other aspects. I think there are millions of much better game designers out there than I will ever be. I love creating stuff and doing world design and that sort of thing but not a game designer by trade at all.
Game-Flush: Do you think you might get into that area though, doing the world design and even scenario? Obviously you want to get into storyline.
Smith: Yeah. We’re doing a bit of scenario stuff right now, and I’ve done world design for Wizards of the Coast. That was a lot of the writing I did for them when helping to design one of their worlds for the Magic: the Gathering game. Kamigawa.
Click here for part 2 of the interview and to learn more about which games Alexander O. Smith enjoyed working on and those he would even like to go back and re-do (or click here to skip ahead to part 3).