Persona 5 deserved better: a translator’s take on a subpar script

It’s hard to say where the localization of Persona 5 went wrong.

The game itself is sleek and meticulously polished, from the gameplay to the menu UI. Dungeons are a blast to explore, battles are satisfying right down to the results screen and the plot packs many emotional punches. These individual features all blend together to make a game that feels effortlessly cool.

In stark contrast, the English script feels like a rough draft. Sometimes it sounds like a human wrote it, but those moments are rare.

This is a big problem

I’m a translator, which means I do a lot of reading, writing and speaking. A big part of my process is workshopping — feeling out a line in the script, comparing it to the original Japanese, saying it out loud and tinkering with it until it feels solid.

The ideal line in a game (I’m playing rather than working on) flows smoothly and doesn’t trigger that snag in my brain that makes me try to mentally rewrite it. If it makes me feel funny, it’s often a clue it will pull the player out of the game. It’s hard to enjoy the story when you’re distracted by the writing, even if you don’t quite realize that’s what’s happening.

I found myself mentally rewriting A LOT of Persona 5. What should be a gripping tale of outcast kids became an outright chore to parse … and I was barely a few hours in. The start of every game is the part that’s meant to hook you. There’s no guarantee all your players will make it to the endgame, but they’ll sure as hell see your opening act. Persona 5 nailed this in the original Japanese, but the English translation made me want to put it down and do something else.

So I did. I turned to Twitter to vent my frustrations, and as it turned out, many of my fellow industry professionals were having similar experiences. Their tweets can be found throughout this story.

We all asked the same question: how the hell could Atlus have dropped the ball?

What, exactly, is wrong here?

The complaints you may have seen circulating on Twitter usually involve stilted phrasing and other rookie mistakes. For example, take the stock phrase “it can’t be helped,” a default translation of 仕方がない (“shikata ga nai,” lit. “nothing can be done about it”) and a cliche so rote that it even has its own TV Tropes page.

Here’s the thing: “it can’t be helped” isn’t natural English, and a competent localizer has a bevy of better options to sub in. “Shikata ga nai” is a verbal shrug of the shoulders; anything from “Looks like we don’t have a choice” to “Fine, I give up” would suffice. And yet, surprise surprise, the phrase “it can’t be helped” appears at least 25 times in the English script. This isn’t how people speak, it’s how people write dialogue.

Chances are high this localization was a rush job; a lot of the more egregiously bad lines read like an unedited first draft. It’s possible the localizers were doing everything in their power just…

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