In July of 2017, I realised I’d never played Final Fantasy VII since learning Japanese. I decided to do so, and make a little video about the experience. In the very first text box of the game, I encountered a nuanced difference between the Japanese and the English. This inspired an obsession. Two years later, I have played through the game sixteen times in both English and Japanese, and made five hours’ worth of videos detailing hundreds of meaningful differences between the English translation and the original Japanese script. Today the project is complete. This is the first part of the two-part finale.
(You can watch all of the videos in order, thanks to this handy YouTube playlist.)
As I always say when presenting one of these videos, my explanation of the differences between Japanese and English lines in this game does not represent a “retranslation.” I am never trying to say the translation is “bad,” or that my suggestions are “better.”
Rather, I’m engaging in what I call “slow translation,” in which I present to you nuances of the original language that the translator could not possibly, for technological reasons, have fit into Final Fantasy VII’s text boxes in 1997. Heck, even if he could have fit all the nuances that I illustrate into the text boxes, it would have been impossible to present them as interesting writing.
With this series, I have set out to “loan” you my experience of having spent the entire decade of my twenties living in Tokyo, speaking Japanese (on the average) thirteen out of every fifteen days. In this series, I discover, unpack, explain, and explore meaningful differences between the English translation and the original Japanese script across dozens of key dialogues. Sometimes I conduct this exploration via brief lectures on the mechanics of Japanese grammar; sometimes I offer anecdotes describing how I personally first encountered a particular word, phrase, or structure.
Many of you have told me that this series has helped you approach the study of a second language. So many of you told me this, in fact, that out of a sense of duty to my audience, I have flown wildly past the original estimate I gave Kotaku US editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo both with regard to the series as a whole (“I think this will be just, like, one five-minute video”) and with the length of this finale episode.
I had originally intended it as an epilogue in which I would briefly explore the most famous scene of Final Fantasy VII, in which main character Cloud’s primary love interest Aeris dies by the sword of Cloud’s hated rival Sephiroth.
Instead, as I reviewed my footage of this last segment of the game, I immediately discovered a tiny, honest translation mistake that, owing to its position and timing within Final Fantasy VII’s narrative, suffices as the most catastrophic mistake the translator made—one that might have set up a misconception that tainted many players’ understanding of the story’s climactic events.
Basically, he translated the Japanese word “Ishiki,” which means “consciousness,” as “knowledge,” which in Japanese is “chishiki.” This is a particularly interesting mistake isolated from Final Fantasy VII, because it suggests that the translator is fluent enough in the Japanese language that he bilingually slipped in a way a native speaker might have.
As for why that’s such a big deal—buddy, it requires a pretty long explanation.
Months later, this finale episode has wound up the length of a feature film. I split it into two parts. This week’s instalment ends in a cliffhanger. I’m sorry about the cliffhanger, so as a way of apology, I graphic-designed what I consider to be a great “intermission” title card.
Next week, we’ll present the finale. I’ll see you then.
Oh! And there’s a YouTube playlist that has every episode in one convenient place, if you want to, for example, watch this on your luxurious big-screen television, perhaps while enjoying a meal or a beverage, a situation of which I encourage you to provide me photographic proof via Twitter.