Michael-Christopher Koji Fox Part 2

WE GREW VANA'DIEL is a series of interviews with those who were involved in the development of FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI), as well as guests from other companies. In this installment, we interviewed Michael-Christopher Koji Fox (often referred to by his middle name, "Koji") from the Localization team, who worked on English translations for the North American version of FFXI. As an American who has loved Japan since childhood, how did he come to be involved with FFXI, and what were his thoughts on the past two decades as a member of the Localization team? In this second part, Koji shared his experiences with translating for FFXI after joining Square (now Square Enix).

Michael-Christopher Koji Fox
(Michael Christopher Koji Fox)

Senior Translator in Square Enix's Localization department. Born in the U.S. in the state of Oregon, he taught English at a junior high school in Japan after receiving his teaching license from Hokkaido University of Education. He later joined the Localization team at Square (now Square Enix) in April 2003, where he has worked on FFXI's English translations for scenario text and item names and is currently (2023) the Localization Director for FFXVI. Koji has also been a drummer in THE STAR ONIONS (a band of FFXI staff members) and is the vocalist and rapper for THE PRIMALS (the official band of FFXIV).

FFXI was a great learning experience as a translator

  • Koji, you joined Square in April 2003. That would’ve been right when the North American version was being developed, before its release in October of the same year.

  • Koji

    They called me about two weeks after my interview and I was immediately assigned to the FFXI team, but I actually spent my first week or so in the company translating support desk inquiries. I remember being a little disappointed since I was really looking forward to translating the game itself.

  • How was development on the North American version (Windows version) coming along at the time?

  • Koji

    I think the release date for the North American version had already been announced by the time I joined.

    The Japanese version of Rise of the Zilart had just been released, so the North American version was being translated while that was being developed. The plan was to launch the base game and Rise of the Zilart together in the North American release, so all of that had to be translated. By then, they were about halfway done translating the base game.

  • Sounds like there was still a massive amount of translation work to be done…

  • Koji

    Not long after I started translating for the support desk, the Localization team began assigning in-game translations and I was suddenly put in charge of Windurst. It was challenging for me since it was a tremendous amount of text, and I was still new to translating.

    The hardest part was creative writing, which I’d never done before. Even when I thought I did well on a translation, my fellow translators would look at my work and say, “You got the meaning of the sentence right, but is it fun to read? Try reading it again.”

  • That must’ve been quite the conundrum to run into early on.

  • Koji

    A lot of the time, I’d go over it again and be like, “They’re right, this isn’t interesting to read…” Before working on FFXI, I was pretty confident in my English and Japanese and figured I’d master translations in no time, but I was very wrong.

  • I see, so just getting the meaning across wasn’t enough.

  • Koji

    For the most part, non-Japanese players will never see the original story that was written in Japanese; in other words, whether or not the Japanese version of the story is interesting is irrelevant to them. Their evaluation will be based on the translated version, so there’s no point in having a translation if it isn’t entertaining. Most importantly, the scenes that left an impression in the Japanese version have to be translated to impress the players who are playing the English version instead.

  • So you’re saying that a translation needs to provide the same enjoyability as the original game.

  • Koji

    That’s right. When I was first hired, my translations were very faithful to the original, so if someone were to translate my English back into Japanese, they would end up with original Japanese text. But when a translation has phrases that aren’t used in English, the players won’t understand what you’re trying to convey. Translators need to consider the intentions behind the words, or the emotions won’t be conveyed to the players at all.

  • So even if your translations were passable in exams, they were still lacking for a translation job.

  • Koji

    That’s right. My senior colleagues pointed out that while accuracy was important, that doesn’t mean we should translate word-for-word; the meanings and emotions that the text is meant to convey are more important than the words themselves. Once I understood that, I learned to translate while considering how to convey the intentions behind words.

  • That might mean that sometimes you might even change the words and phrases around.

  • Koji

    There’s a pretty big difference when you compare the Japanese and English text in FFXI, and I imagine I’d get marked down if I translated the same way on a language test. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that our translations managed to preserve the message behind the stories, and that they’re just as dramatic and emotional as the original Japanese. When I was translating for FFXI, I tried to convey emotions and the true message as naturally as possible, even if I ended up ignoring the grammar or sentence structure of the original text to some extent. I’ve maintained that outlook on translation since then, even after moving on to other projects.

  • So I guess we could say that your career as a translator began with FFXI.

  • Koji

    FFXI was a wonderful learning experience for me as a translator. Thanks to the other translators I worked with in the FFXI Localization team at the time, who read and revised my work, I was able to learn about the ins and outs of translation and what I should or shouldn’t do.
    I was able to get to where I am today thanks to FFXI.

  • Did you have a mentor figure who taught you the ropes?

  • Koji

    That’d be Richard*. he was an experienced veteran who built our Localization department from the ground up. He taught me to not just faithfully translate the words, but also faithfully convey the message and feelings behind the text.

    * Richard Mark Honeywood, original Localization Director for FFXI.
  • Nowadays, machine translations using deep learning AI have come a long way, but they might still have a lot to improve about those aspects of translation.

  • Koji

    Machine translations are good enough to get the meaning across, but the true essence of our work is to capture the feeling. Even if there wasn’t a localization for FFXI, I’m sure people could still play using machine translations. But I’m sure certain sections wouldn’t translate very well, and most importantly, I don’t think players could feel connected to the story. When someone is moved by what they read, that’s because they associate those words with their personal memories or environment.

    Being able to choose the words that evoke those feelings and giving them weight comes down to having the intuition. Perhaps AI will be able to translate those nuances one day, but I think it’s still a long way off.

  • With how our world is constantly evolving, we’ll never know what the future has in store.

  • Koji

    At the very least, I hope it won’t happen until after I retire. I’d be in trouble if AI made my job obsolete like five years before I hit retirement age. (laughs)

Choosing words that match the feeling and situation

  • I’d like to ask about the obstacles you ran into during localization, such as translating Japanese expressions that didn’t have an English equivalent.
    For example, I’ve heard that the Japanese phrase “otsukare-sama” (thank you for your hard work) can be difficult to express in English.

  • Koji

    In that kind of situation, I’d set “otsukare-sama” aside for later.

    As I mentioned earlier, the main point is the feeling that we’re trying to convey, so I would look at the context of where it was said: was it an informal greeting before leaving the office, or a sincere appreciation for someone’s hard work? I would then choose the English words that would best convey that feeling, or in some instances, if the surrounding sentences are enough to convey a sense of “Good work!” then I might even omit the “otsukare-sama” in my translation altogether.

  • On the other hand, the auto-translate feature in FFXI has standalone phrases; was it difficult to translate those?

  • Koji

    It certainly was.

    For example, I always said that the word “yoroshiku” (with regards) shouldn’t be added to auto-translate, since it has many nuances in Japanese. Since I played FFXI, I knew Japanese players used it to mean different things based on the situation, like “Nice to meet you!” or “Could you take care of that? Thanks!” Because of that, adding “yoroshiku” under one English translation would only lead to miscommunication, so I asked the development team to come up with alternatives instead.

    But even after I explained it to them, whenever there was a new expansion and it was time to add new phrases to auto-translate, “yoroshiku” was always in the list without fail. Like come on, I already said we shouldn’t add that! (laughs wryly)

  • Incidentally, FFXIV also has an auto-translate feature, and I noticed it translates “otsukare-sama” as “Good game!”

  • Koji

    That’s right. “Otsukare-sama” is yet another phrase used in many different situations, but at least with “Good game!” you can somewhat understand what the other person meant, even if it wasn’t used correctly.

  • Another point I wanted to bring up is how convenient katakana letters can be in Japanese.
    For example, the Roc ability “Stormwind” and great axe weapon skill “Sturmwind” are basically the same words, just with English and German etymology; however, the names look completely different when spelled with Japanese katakana. Did you have any trouble translating words like that?

  • Koji

    Those can be tough. (laughs wryly)

    For example, let’s say a version update introduces an item with a Japanese name that means “sword of bronze,” but the game already has something else named “Bronze Sword” in katakana. Those kinds of situations really had me stumped.

  • How did you resolve those conflicts?

  • Koji

    As we pointed out those kinds of problems, we started to make our own suggestions for names from the Localization team.

    Otherwise, we’d have to deal with constant revisions and it’d be difficult to settle on a name. Even now, most of the naming for items and such are handled by the Localization team. We have cases where we provide an English translation for something that was originally named in Japanese, then the Japanese name ends up using the English name in katakana. Or if a literal translation of a Japanese name doesn’t work in English, we might give it a completely different English name.

  • I know some missions and quests have completely different names in English and Japanese.
    For example, the Japanese name for The Voracious Resurgence loosely translates to “embryo of the eclipse world.”

  • Koji

    It’s one of those things we’re able to handle flexibly because we have an internal localization team. Companies without a localization team have to outsource their translations, and sometimes the localization is worked on without sufficient confirmation from the developers or the translators.

    Fortunately, our developers and localization team are in the same company, so we can immediately ask the developers when we need something clarified. It also makes for an environment where we can make suggestions freely, such as stylistic choices for translating certain words.

  • Being able to consult the scenario writers directly must be a huge advantage.

  • Koji

    Japanese is a language where you can omit the subject and object of a sentence and still have a coherent conversation using only verbs. For example, in English we would ask, “Wanna eat?” and reply with, “I’ll eat,”; in Japanese, the same conversation can be held by asking “Eat?” and responding “Eat,” which wouldn’t really make sense in English. So when the subject of a sentence is ambiguous like that, I can just ask the writer, who’s only a few cubicles away.

  • How do you go about translating Japanese puns?

  • Koji

    I suppose I’d look past the words and focus on the fact that there’s wordplay, then use the words in the translation to make a pun in English. Instead of literally translating “futon ga futtonda” (my futon was blown away), if the line is intended to make the player laugh, then I’d incorporate some English-based humor.

    The important point is making the audience laugh with this line; if the translation is too faithful to the original words in Japanese and the audience doesn’t find it funny, then the translation has failed.

  • Another thing is how Mithran characters lines end with "nya" (Japanese onomatopoeia for a cat’s meow) in the Japanese version. How do you express that in English?

  • Koji

    That’s a tough one since we usually don’t add specific phrases to the end of a sentence for characterization in English. You’d have to add characterization in a different way, like giving them a unique speech pattern, for example.

  • As a matter of fact, Mithran characters in the English version stretched out their R’s when a word ended with the letter R.

  • Koji

    That was probably Richard's idea. Since Mithra are based on cats, it was probably meant to be like a cat’s purr. That particular rule was already in place when I joined the company.

    Other times, we change the "s" in a word to "th" or change the pronunciation slightly. Another thing we can tweak is a character’s choice of words; we can add characterization by using intellectual words or foul language.

    In that respect, I envy the Japanese language because there are so many easy ways to characterize it. For example, you can make a character sound like an old man just by writing a regular sentence and adding “ja” at the end.

  • That’s a trope with old people in TV shows, anime, and video games, even though you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in real-life that ends their sentences with “ja.” (laughs)

  • Koji

    And when you add “nya” to the ending, then you know it’s a Mithra. (laughs)

    Also, in order to change a speaking character from feminine to masculine, in Japanese, you would only need to remove “dawa”; whereas in English, you may need to completely rewrite the line. In those cases, I feel that Japanese is nice and easy.

  • Moogles also have a distinctive “kupo” at the end of their sentences; how do you handle that in English?

  • Koji

    The rules for moogles were established before I joined the company, and we add “kupo” at the end in English too. I’m not sure who decided that. (laughs)

* Part 3 will be available on January 25, 2023.

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