How the English Translation Messed Up Final Fantasy VII's Famous Death Scene

By Tim Rogers on at

I first played Final Fantasy VII in English immediately after it was released in 1997. I was at university at the time. In 2017, possessing two fresh decades of life experience and a fluency in the Japanese language, I decided to revisit Final Fantasy VII. I didn’t meant to revisit it quite as, uh, thoroughly as I ended up doing, though here I am: two years later, I have finished a meticulous assessment of the Japanese script of Final Fantasy VII.

In Japanese, the game is very well written. It lacks typos. It’s never awkward. Many affectations of the English translator have no counterpart in Japanese. Seeing as the English translation formed the basis for the Spanish and German translations of the game, I can conclude that the Japanese version differs meaningfully from the version of the game Spanish- or German-speaking readers might have played as well.

This last half of the 11th episode of my 11-part series focuses on what is perhaps the most famous scene in the game (and one of the most famous scenes in all of games), in which main character Cloud’s primary love interest Aeris dies by the sword of antagonist, Sephiroth.

In 1998, when I moved into new residence halls, I remember a kid seeing Final Fantasy VII in my pile of games.

“Isn’t that that game where a chick dies?”

“Oh. Uh. That’s a weird takeaway, bro.” (I promise this was my actual reply.)

“What, a girl dies in that game?” another guy said. “So what?”

“She’s like a main character,” I started to say.

“Doesn’t Mario die like every five minutes?”

“Not if you’re good at Mario,” I said.

I remind you that it was 1998. You couldn’t get a Red Bull sponsorship for being good at Mario yet.

Here was a man who did not fathom the difference between an arcade-style action cartoon game and a serious game with CG cutscenes and a story.

He didn’t know the difference between pressing the jump button and equipping a materia.

He knew about Aeris’ death.

It doesn’t feel wrong to say that Aeris’ death “elevated the discourse” surrounding games in this pre-social-media era.

Several boys whose back-then hobbies suggested that today they live in houses full of furniture they made with their own hands gave Final Fantasy VII a spin on the PlayStations they only used for Madden. All of them gave it back. All of them performed massive Cloud-Strife-worthy shrugs upon handing the game back.

“Like, you’ve gotta choose ‘fight’ to fight? That’s dumb.”

“I dunno man, like, it’s pretty hokey.”

Only one of them had a give-up reason differing from disinterest: he gave the game back to me because he’d bought his own copy.

I’ve been discussing him throughout my series. I’ll refrain from spoiling the ultimate revelations he shared with me, because they form the climax of the final video in my series.

Though I will say that he did not like Aeris at all. He said she was equal parts annoying or boring. He said he felt nothing when she died.

I was amazed. How could he have felt nothing?

22 years later, playing through the death scene in both Japanese and English at the same time, cross-analysing their scripts, I think I have arrived at an explanation.

Back in 1997, the game had enthralled me, a fan of the Final Fantasy series since I first saw it in Nintendo Power in 1988, so that I was blind to the hokeyness of its script.

Now 22 years after first playing the game in English, I experienced the Japanese version. I have extracted every bit of nuance I could, and I have a long, wild explanation for how exactly this scene lost some of its impact in English.

In this final episode, I exercise all of the observations I’ve made about Aeris’ character throughout my series. I reiterate the original Japanese script’s portrayal of her as a caring, brilliant, hilarious person. In Japanese, she is a paragon of emotional intelligence, inner strength, and feminine power.

In English, she’s the girl in pink who says “This guy are sick.”

In this final episode of my series, I arrive at the end of a thousand hours of work over a period of two years, to lay down my 20-years-late rebuttal upon the boy who shrugged off Aeris’ death.

I zero in on and indicate what I believe to be the five key translation errors which miscontextualised both the characters and the conflict, reducing the power of her sacrifice, the evilness of the villain, and the grief of the hero.

In the end, I hope that I have sufficiently redeemed Aeris in the eyes of at least one viewer who might have overlooked her back in the day.

Specifically, I hope that guy from my residence halls is watching.

If the above interests you and you are just hearing of my videos for the first time, you could watch my series from the start! It also functions as an interesting visual journey: watch as I learn how to properly edit videos and graphic-design text onto the screen! In the spirit of Final Fantasy, every episode has a different look and feel! Let’s pretend this is intentional.

I now approach the end of this, the last post I will write about the last episode of this series, confident that Final Fantasy VII has become my second-favourite Final Fantasy game after Final Fantasy IV and before Final Fantasy VI. I suppose that, after all these years of telling people after punk rock shows that I read literature in my spare time, it turns out I like cyber-magic trashcan shonen manga dystopias with fairy princesses and whale-shaped spaceships and eight-foot-long swords more than delicate sprawling Dickensian romances.

This series was extremely difficult to make. It was the result of about a thousand hours of work and contains roughly 80,000 words of voiceover script. I want to thank everyone for watching it. And if you haven’t watched it, I want to thank you for maybe being about to start watching it. You’re in for a long, weird spiral down into obsession, linguistics, and discovery.