Nocturnal Revelations: The Legacy of Shin Megami Tensei’s First Localization (Part 1)
Localization of media makes the whole world more cultured. But it’s a painstaking process, to say the least: Transforming the intent from one language into something natural in another takes knowledge, skill, and time, to name a few. For video games, localization’s most common thread is translation from Japanese to English, two entirely disparate languages where the process of successful conversion resembles an art form… except, in rare cases, when it can be considered a science.
Shin Megami Tensei is an unusual series in that a not-insignificant amount of its content consists of real-world mythical characters and religious terminology—not the invented, proprietary nomenclature seen so often in other games—so in those applicable cases, it’s entirely possible to grab a textbook or encyclopedia and point to the correct translation. The series’ first English localized title, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, established many precedents and labels still used to this day, but were all of them accurate? How many demons or names missed the mark? And which are so impressive they deserve a closer look?
Even though this article focuses on the localization of a single game and not game localization in general, because it is at times critical of the work put into Nocturne, it’s worth stating my personal stance on localization: It’s not an easy job. All of my comments, criticisms, and suggestions to follow only exist with the benefit of over a decade of hindsight and countless hours of research, sometimes staggered over years. This is of course magnitudes more time than any actual localization project would ever receive in the real world. For more about game localization, here’s a small selection of articles that shed light on the process:
- True Tales from Localization Hell via USgamer.
- Book Extract: The Game Localization Handbook: Localization Production Pitfalls via Gamasutra.
- The Exciting Ups and Painful Downs of Game Localization via Legends of Localization.
As anyone in the industry could tell you, localization involves overcoming some significant hurdles, such as those given below. There are undoubtedly more, but I’ve opted to list only those most relevant to the Nocturne discussion. They include:
An unshakeable fact is that Japanese allows for more phonetic information per character than English does. As a result, the space allotted for English characters, usually identical to that allotted in the Japanese version, will be effectively truncated. For example, a word that could be expressed in four Japanese characters may need at least eight in English. Since simply programming more space in the English version is usually out of the question (because of a lack of resources or because it could interfere with the code without comprehensive bug-checking), the one ace card the localizers have up their sleeves is variable-width fonts.
As Japanese characters are fixed-width, meaning each character takes up the same amount of space, variable-width characters work around these given restraints by assigning appropriate width values to our Latin alphabet, where, predictably, beefy letters like “W” take up more room and thin letters like “I” take up less room. If you’ve typed on any Latin alphabet word processor or website entry field in the last couple decades or more, you’ve seen this in action. On average, this benefits the localizer but may not be available in all situations.
Usually not a big deal but, since Japanese has three different writing systems, sometimes you will find two or more associated words that are spelled and pronounced differently in Japanese (say, one in kanji and one in katakana) that translate identically in English. Since English hates redundancy but loves synonyms, deft use of a thesaurus is usually required to alleviate any potential problems caused by this issue.
Assumed Cultural Context
A work written primarily for a native audience will often feature customs, cuisine, or objects intuitively understood by that population that would otherwise be alien to anyone else, possibly leaving that non-native audience befuddled. Possible solutions to this problem include tacking on an explanation for the sake of foreign players (which will break the immersion; for example, why would one Japanese character need to explain to another how their New Year’s works?), amending the term in question to a similar concept in the intended region’s culture (ex: “mikan” to just “orange”), or either directly translating or transliterating the material and hoping your target audience is into that.
These cultural assumptions are why sometimes a rice ball needs to be a donut. Without context, such changes are essential to maintaining a natural flow in the target language. This is also why sometimes Japan needs to be Los Angeles. If a work contains characters whose names are dependent on wordplay, the puns will need to be localized to the target region to work–possibly necessitating that the setting change as well, despite any egregious (or hilarious) idiosyncrasies.
Deadlines & Obscure Names
Who among us isn’t at the mercy of time? Most well-oiled localization teams allot themselves enough time to translate the most crucial features of a game’s text, usually the main script and gameplay prompts, though the exact timeframes arranged may vary from project to project and company to company.
But from my own personal peeks into how Atlus USA works, Shin Megami Tensei games in particular love to irrupt the workflow with completely obscure demons or words that simply can’t be afforded the individual attention necessary because one demon name is pretty low on the totem pole compared to other, more gameplay-vital text. You would think the localizers would have the original Japanese development team or writers available on speed dial for these frustrating situations, but apparently this isn’t the case. The only hope is the possibility of extra time at the end of a project after everything else has been proofed and edited—never a guarantee.
Before the look at Nocturne begins in earnest, I need to make few special mentions. The first is that Nocturne‘s localization owes a beer to Persona 2: Eternal Punishment‘s, which was the first acceptable English localization of any Megami Tensei game. It’s rough in spots and I can’t entirely say Nocturne‘s builds off of it, but certainly a few names, skills, etc. (ones that, honestly, won’t be discussed here) first appeared translated in EP. Cheers!
Secondly, an aspect of Nocturne‘s localization that will be exempt from this discussion is its script. Sure, it’s the core of the work and it may seem like a glaring omission considering the topic, but I simply don’t feel qualified critiquing it; for one, it would be beyond my meager Japanese language chops to compare and contrast such an expanse of text.
Besides, the script is where the “art” side of localization matters most: Atlus USA may have utilized some creative linguistic twists and turns in their effort that don’t match 1:1 with the Japanese, but the final English Nocturne script is fluid and coherent, and what more do you want? I’m much more interested in the “science” of demon terminology, as errors made here have persisted to subsequent games.
And finally, a special thanks to Nocturne‘s localization team. This includes but may not be limited to Yu Namba, James Kuroki, Bill Alexander, and Aron Brent Gutierrez. Without their offerings of blood, sweat, and tears 12 years ago, not only would this article not exist, but Shin Megami Tensei may have never gotten off the ground in North America. Much respect!
So if I’m going to talk localization science, that’s where I should start. Naturally, that means demons! Depending on the demon, finding its true romanized name can be either as easy as a quick Google search or a challenge akin to finding your way out of the middle of a cornfield blindfolded. I have a certain amount of experience with the latter: One of my pastimes many years ago now was organizing and translating SMT games’ demon rosters on Giant Bomb (a game website with a wiki). At the time, many of the demons from obscure rosters, or even obscure demons from mainline rosters, remained mysterious and untranslated. I was able to track down a number of them, but there seemed to be as many others that proved elusive or whom I completely misidentified.
Such is the frustration that Shin Megami Tensei can sometimes present with the identities of its demons. Even if I am confident in making the claim that 99.9% of the series’ demons can be traced back to a published source of some kind, as I’ve come to find out, that doesn’t always mean that those sources are entirely reliable; particularly on the Japanese side of things, some mystifying demons turned out to be cribbed from manga artists’ flights of fancy. However, the point remains that the mythic figures the demons represent existed prior to and outside of their inclusion in SMT. Therefore, identifying demons is a matter of finding the correct source. Easy, right? *Thousand-yard stare*
Luckily for Atlus USA (and me), the vast majority of Nocturne‘s demons are world-famous characters like Odin, familiar angelic orders, or figures from Japanese myth that are simple to transliterate; I’ll be passing over these localization softballs. Instead, and this goes for the all three parts of the article, my comments will be reserved for the subjects for whom I actually have something noteworthy to say! As such, I’ve graded each entry by these four categories:
- Localization Highlight (LH): An outstanding example, just as it sounds.
- Good (G): Something that’s perfectly passable but either doesn’t stand out or could be improved.
- Character Limit Victim (CLV): Subjects with tragically lengthy names.
- Error (E): Straight-up localization goofs.
Some entries may fall into multiple categories. Except for groupings, the demons are listed below in the order they appear in Nocturne‘s compendium and the official strategy guide.
MITHRA: (E) Mm-hmm, this article series couldn’t have started off with a bigger headache, I don’t think. Speaking of works from my Giant Bomb past, I once devoted an entire page discussing the tangled web of names created by both localizations and inconsistencies in the Japanese versions for this cursed leontocephaline demon; check it out for the full scoop. But the short version, based on this Nocturne appearance and the Japanese spelling of his name, is that this demon is meant to be the Vedic deity Mitra, not the Zoroastrian Mithra or the Roman Mithras. I’m glad this article’s scope is limited to Nocturne, else I might burst a vein talking about subsequent Japanese releases renaming Mitra to Mithra and the shuffles in Strange Journey‘s localization.
BEIJI WENG: (CLV, E) This demon’s name in Japanese, Hokuto Seikun (ホクトセイクン), matches with the kanji 北斗星君, which are read in Chinese and subsequently funneled through pinyin as “Beidou Xingjun“; that probably wouldn’t have fit within the limits. So what’s a “Beiji Weng”? It seems to be a (possibly related) thing, but, as with most Chinese demons, it’s best not to ask, for fear of over-inflating your blood pressure.
WU KONG: (CLV, G) Wu Kong’s Japanese name, Seiten Taisei, actually refers to an alternate, exalted title of the ornery Chinese monkey hero. Rendered 斉天大聖 in Japanese and 齊天大聖 in Chinese (only the initial characters differ), it means “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.” Using pinyin, the Chinese title would be written “Qítiān Dàshèng.” That’s what this demon should be called, I guess, but it’s an overlong mouthful that in itself makes a strong case for doing what Atlus did: Dubbing him with his most famous name for the sake of Western players who probably wouldn’t otherwise recognize him. I feel it was the right call. On the other hand, surely the complete name Sun Wukong would have fit within Nocturne‘s character limits…
UZUME, KUSHINADA, MIKAZUCHI, MINAKATA: (CLV) Ame no Uzume, Kushinada-hime, Take-Mikazuchi, and Take-Minakata all had extra titles or appellations that caused their character totals to tip the scales; their names would be fully restored in future releases. Just trying to be thorough here!
BISHAMON, KOUMOKU, ZOUCHOU, JIKOKU: (CLV, LH) The Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism present an interesting localization challenge (that has nothing to do with the minor, temporary loss of each’s “-ten” suffix): When a demon originates from a religion or pantheon that spans multiple countries and languages, which name is the most appropriate? For the Heavenly Kings’ Bishamonten, these choices range from his said Japanese name, the Chinese Píshāmén Tiān, or Sanskrit Vaiśravaṇa. All would be technically correct.
Fortunately, designer Kazuma Kaneko provided an easy answer in this case: The depictions of the Kings are heavily skewed towards Japanese iconography, as the four are probably more popular in Japan than anywhere else in the world; they also frequently appear in the series specifically as protectors of Tokyo. It just wouldn’t make sense to call Bishamonten by the name Vaiśravaṇa when he looks like he belongs inside of a Kyoto temple.
Considering that most Buddhist demons in the series are called by their Japanese names in the Japanese versions (but not all, like Atavaka!), these issues appear frequently. For example, the localization of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse rendered the Buddhist demon Miroku’s name as the Sanskrit “Maitreya.” While again technically correct of course, the in-game appearance of the demon is entirely lifted from Chinese and Japanese imagery.
The Four Symbols
Of the discrete mythological groups that appear in Nocturne, the beasts of the Chinese Four Symbols may have fared the worst with regards to proper translation. Only one features an entirely correct name, while two others have been completely misidentified—errors that persist to this day.
- BAIHU: (LH) The sole correctly translated beast, Baihu the White Tiger has been living the good life since 2004.
- FENG HUANG: (E) Like Mithra, I’m glad I only need to focus on the Nocturne appearance for this demon (and name). Straight up: “Feng Huang” this demon ain’t. The actual Feng Huang HAS appeared in other SMT games, but the name we want for this feathered friend, the Vermilion Bird, is Zhuque.
- LONG: (CLV?) “Long” is technically correct, it’s just not entirely correct. The full name of this beast, the Azure Dragon, is Qinglong. Now I don’t claim to know much Chinese, but I do know “long” means “dragon,” so “qing” must mean “azure.” So a Long without a Qing is just a long, if you catch my drift.
- GUI XIAN: (E) So while the name we’re seeking for the Black Tortoise is Xuanwu, “Gui Xian” is nonetheless within the ballpark, albeit a foul ball hit into the first base side stands: One of Xuanwu’s alternate names is “Xuangui,” which is just a minor mix-up away from explaining how this demon got its localized name.
SENRI: (G) This is Schrödinger’s demon: Its localization solution is either exceedingly simple or excruciatingly difficult to confirm in English. This is entirely due to the fact that most information about it suggests a dual origin from both Japan and China. So if SMT’s version is meant to be from Japan, then “Senri” would be dandy; if from China, it should be called “Xianli.”
But if we already know the names, then what’s the big deal? The issue is a question not of where the folklore says Senri originates, but rather where the folklore itself originates. For one, sources about the Senri tend to be Japanese, not Chinese. That they attribute a Chinese origin doesn’t necessarily mean definitively that there is a parallel being in China; such is the ethereal nature of folklore. So, as a potentially Japanese creation, “Senri” remains the only logical choice to make for this demon until a magical confirmation of “Xianli” springs forth from deep beneath the Chinese anthropological soil.
FLAEMIS, AQUANS, AEROS, ERTHYS: (G) As far as I’ve been able to tell, Flaemis, Aquans, Aeros, and Erthys don’t actually “exist” in any text; they are merely the personified elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. As series originals, Atlus USA then had free rein to improvise the names. While Aquans and Aeros are obvious enough, some old Japanese books render the remaining pair as “Flamies” and “Earthies.” I think we dodged a couple of bullets there.
PURSKI: (E) Ah, “Purski.” I can see Atlus USA’s editors in 2004 just throwing their hands up at the deadline for this one. Can’t blame them, either—this demon is more than just obscure, it is practically nonexistent. So if it’s hard enough to track down on the Internet in 2016, can you imagine how it must have been twelve years ago, when encyclopedic sites we take for granted, like Wikipedia, were only in their infancy? God forbid, they probably needed to use books as primary sources!
And one particular book is likely where they pulled the name “Purski”: Kazuma Kaneko’s Pandemonium Volume 2, to be exact. Each demon entry in the Pandemonium book features a romanized name in addition to its Japanese one, sometimes with astounding inaccuracy—and so it was for “Purski.” This probably happened because his original Japanese name is プルシキ (purushiki). Contract the phonemes, and you’ll get something like “Purski.” Compounding the confusion, “プルシキ” is the demon’s name in certain older games ONLY. By the time of Devil Summoner, it would be written “プルキシ” (purukishi), switching the シ and キ around; books like Pandemonium do confirm, however, that these all refer to the same demon.
By trusting that the latest spelling was more accurate and assuming there would be truth found in its transliteration, searching eventually led me to this demon’s actual romanized name: Pulukishi. It seems so obvious in hindsight! But when there’s such a steep, rocky road to traverse even in the original Japanese source, you can’t really blame anyone for turning back before they begin to doubt themselves, the authenticity of others, and the purpose of life in the universe.
ONKOT: (E) This demon is a minor character from the Thai Ramayana whose name is spelled “Ongkot” or “Ongkhot.”
PYRO JACK (CLV): Perhaps the most famous character limit victim of them all. “Jack O’Lantern” was never going to fit and still might not fit within the more generous character limits of recent games. Where “Pyro” came from I have no clue, but at least it’s something of a creative compromise, as unfortunate and out of the hands of the localizers as it may be. But there may have been another option after all: “Stingy Jack” is an alternate name given for this bedeviled soul in related folklore, one that would surely play by any SMT game’s character limit rules.
CERBERUS: (G) Rarely you will see cries that Cerberus’ name should have been localized as “Kerberos,” the original Greek rendering of the name, instead of the Latin form used, since the Greek is also what’s reflected in the beast’s Japanese name, ケルベロス (keruberosu). However, such complaints fail to realize that the Latin version has simply become the default spelling in English for the venerable Hades hound.
GIRIMEHKALA: (E, LH) It took me years of off-and-on searching to find specific scholastic mention of the Sri Lankan name of Mara’s foul pachyderm. It’s a topic to which I devoted a blog post, but the gist is that “Girimehkala” is actually spelled “Girimekhala”—only the “k” and “h” needed switching. I was frankly amazed: How did Atlus USA get so close to the mark to a name only attested in Sri Lankan Buddhism, with scarce sources to boot? (No credit to Pandemonium–it’s misspelled there.) A minor error in no way sullies what is otherwise a highlight. While the “Girimehkala” typo persisted in the series for years, it has been corrected as of Shin Megami Tensei IV.
ACIEL: (E) This demon’s actual name was only found recently. In Nocturne he’s “Aciel,” but in other games like Strange Journey he’s called “Alciel.” Turns out the real deal is “Arsiel,” which you can read more about here.
QUEEN MAB: (G) The name “Queen Mab” is absolutely correct, totally on-point, etc. However, go digging through her diary and you’ll likely come away from it perplexed as to her actual identity. But worry not, thanks to help from SMT translation hero Dijeh, I was able to write a primer on who exactly Queen Mab is supposed to represent.
KAIWAN: (LH) Kaiwan is another great localization choice. An Old Testament heresy in the form of a deification of the planet Saturn, mention of Kaiwan can be found in Amos 5:26, where he is often called Kiyyun. Kiyyun is the name in the Japanese version (キウン, kiun), but, as proved in the seminal scholastic work the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, “Kaiwan” may indeed have been closer to the actual pronunciation and that spelling is seemingly preferred by scholars.
RAKSHASA: (E) Straightforward error here: This demon is simply a Vetala, and was corrected to such in subsequent localizations. Baffling, but NBD.
CHATTERSKULL: (CLV) “Laughing Skull” contained just a little too much mirth to fit.
PRETA: (G?/E?) I didn’t expect the lowly Preta to be one of the most difficult demons to evaluate, but here we are. I had assumed it would just be an inverse of the situation presented by Bishamonten and his pals: When is a Japanese Buddhist word properly localized with a Sanskrit name? This entry itself was meant to be the answer: Sanskrit “Preta” as a localization highlight, end of story.
But now I’m not so sure, the reason being the same logic that led me to declare the Four Heavenly Kings’ names as definitive: Shin Megami Tensei‘s Preta designs look decidedly Japanese. There are numerous depictions of Preta in the Indian subcontinent and beyond, but only in countries influenced by Chinese writing are they called, literally, “hungry ghosts“; traditional art of them as famished ghouls with distended bellies, like Kaneko’s, seems to exclusively originate from Japan (I tried but could not find any exclusively Chinese Preta artwork).
So if I’m to be consistent, I gotta say that the series’ Preta should probably be called Gaki after all. On the other hand, Preta are not individual characters like the Four Kings but are a class of beings, so calling them by their most generic name available in English sources isn’t entirely inappropriate. I’m totally comfortable calling this one a wash!
CAI-ZHI: (E) Adding a random hyphen can’t mask this error. But since it’s a mistake made for one of those ever-pesky Chinese demons, it can be forgiven. Fortunately, by Persona 4‘s localization this demon’s name was ironed out to its proper “Xiezhai.”
GURR: (E) The unfortunate “Gurr” is another long-running demon name error. This Sri Lankan bird’s real name is Gurulu, and is easiest to find in a mask form called Gurulu Raksha. I can’t imagine there being any other explanation for this error other than a complete lack of information during the localization process. But, like Pulukishi’s “Purski,” I do know where “Gurr” comes from: ” Gurulu’s name is printed as “Gurr” in Kaneko’s Pandemonium Volume 1. Surely the Atlus USA staff had a complete set of the Pandemonium books and deferred to them whenever something proved insurmountably recondite.
THE HARLOT: (CLV) Poor Mother Harlot‘s name was too long to fit in the demon name slot; however, it is spelled in full during her battle dialogue. Of course, this is no longer an issue.
DAISOUJOU: (LH) They could have literally translated the name as “High Priest,” but they didn’t. And I couldn’t be happier: “Daisoujou” is just too much fun to say! Imagine if he shrieked his name like a Pokemon every time he used one of his broken skills—he’d probably be even more beloved!
MANIKIN: (LH) The Japanese version calls these seizure-afflicted souls “Manekata” (マネカタ), which is a portmanteau of the words 真似 (mane; “imitating/copying”) and 形代 (katashiro; a material representation of a sacred object or paper doll used in Shinto purification rites) according to the Demons Bible, a supplementary book for Nocturne released in Japan. While we lose the religious connotations in translation, adapting the word “mannequin” into a new form still implies there’s something off-kilter, yet unmistakably human, about the Manikins; they are, after all, the closest Nocturne comes to hoi polloi.
I appreciate you joining me in exercising Nocturne‘s demons! Of course, this isn’t even the half of it! Next time on Nocturnal Revelations, I’ll present an exhaustive look at the exalted highs and unfortunate lows of the game’s demon races!