Interview: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney translator Janet Hsu of Capcom – Polygon

Localizing a game to a specific region is never an easy task, and that goes double for a game , which takes place in the historic 19th century of Japan. Bringing a game to the West that’s so drenched in Japanese history and so reliant on dialogue is no easy feat. Keeping the references understandable for a Westerner would take double the research and even more translation work. This prequel spin-off of the Ace Attorney series — originally released in 2015 — was once upon a time a Japanese-exclusive title, thanks to undisclosed localization issues. Thanks to the talent at Capcom, such as the localization director Janet Hsu, it is finally being brought over to the West.

Janet Hsu has been on the localization team of the Ace Attorney series since Justice For All, and since then has gone on to passionately work on each sequential game. She’s also delivered her voice to the prosecutor Franziska von Karma in the English and French versions of the games. She talked to Polygon about her experience with translating the Japanese gaming experience over to Western audiences.

Janet Hsu

Capcom employee Janet Hsu (pictured)
Photo: Capcom

Polygon: What are the hurdles in localizing a game series that’s as full of Japanese culture as Ace Attorney?

Janet Hsu: The biggest hurdle for me is making sure that the puzzles and mysteries are solvable for a Western audience. That’s always my first and biggest concern at the start of each project. Unlike less interactive forms of entertainment like books and movies, you can’t finish a game that you can’t solve. A number of the puzzles in Ace Attorney rely on Japanese wordplay or some nugget of common cultural knowledge that would completely stump those not familiar with those traditions or conventions. So deciding how to localize something and then making sure the decision doesn’t impact anything major in the story or the series’ established lore, along with carrying that localization through to the end consistently, is probably the biggest hurdle.

The charm and humor of the series as conveyed in each character’s personality and lines is another key element, since what different cultures find funny is highly subjective. However, there are ways to craft jokes that don’t involve any specific cultural knowledge or even pop culture references. In The Great Ace Attorney, we primarily relied on the myriad of situations Ryunosuke finds himself in and styled the game’s humor around characteristically British dry witticisms, along with the usual absurdist and double-act comedy humor that are the hallmarks of Ace Attorney, in order to not make anything feel too anachronistic for the setting.

While the other Ace Attorney games take place in more modern times and may have easier work-arounds when it comes to translating for another culture, The Great Ace Attorney takes place partially in 19th century Japan. Has this added any new difficulties?

Back when I was working on the Japanese version of the second title, The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve, I had dreamed of localizing the duology into Victorian British English, as I wanted the game to feel like something of that era. To that end, I’d collected a number of dictionaries from the late 19th century, namely the OED from 1888 and a different Oxford dictionary from 1912. So perhaps this was more of a hurdle I created for myself. However, the Japanese is written in a sort of “faux-Meiji Era” style, so I felt it was my duty to at least bring an equally “faux-Victorian” flavor to the English localization.

But it was tough to stick completely to period words, as even words like “(to) backstab” had not come into common enough use to be included in dictionaries, while words like “(to) snitch” actually existed in British English back then in the way we use it today. American English words and slang were also out, and it was eye-opening to see how many phrases we use today are American in origin or only came into use in the last 100 years. It was also hard to decide which words had changed in meaning too much to convey what we wanted to say correctly. After all, the English we used couldn’t be so incomprehensible or obscure that it required the player to look up the word in a Victorian dictionary!

Herlock Sholmes from The Great Ace Attorney

Image: Capcom

Oddly enough, conveying British culture to an American audience was another part of the whole localization puzzle. Aside from the usual confusion around “first floor” meaning something totally different in British English versus American English, the original Japanese dialogue contains a lot of references and knowledge pertaining to the late Victorian era (as many Japanese players would’ve been unfamiliar with such details themselves), and it was interesting that even the British translators and I had to do the occasional bit of research to get our facts straight. In some ways, this title is a celebration of both British and Japanese social and literary culture at the turn of the 20th century, as represented by the inclusion of real-life author Soseki Natsume, among others.

Speaking of Soseki, one of the issues the translators and I worried about was making sure that he came across as lovable as his Japanese counterpart, since Western players do not have a pre-existing cultural attachment to the man. Even though the Soseki of The Great Ace Attorney is more colorful than his real-life counterpart, Japanese players would at least know who he is because he is required reading at school, and some older people even grew up seeing him every day on their 1,000 yen bills. So there’s a level of “built-in” fondness from the get-go that we didn’t have to work off of when we were building a unique speaking style for him in English.

What would you say was the largest obstacle in localizing the new game?

“Authentic, yet accessible” was my mantra during this project, and keeping to that was very hard at times. However, it was also a large part of how I kept the text going down the right track. Translating things too authentically sometimes can lead to the text becoming inaccessible in some cases. This applies not just to Japanese cultural elements, but also things like using more obscure Victorian Era-words or even hardcore Britishisms that, while authentic, would’ve been completely confusing to people unfamiliar with those words and phrases. So while we stuck to natural British English dialogue writing, we never did it in a way that would cause a player to get stuck or make a puzzle unsolvable due to a cultural or grammatical misunderstanding.

A picture of a purse on a chair, to be presented as evidence in a case in The Great Ace Attorney

Image: Capcom

Authenticity also drove how I decided we would bring across the main characters’ thoughts and feelings. The story and perspective of The Great Ace Attorney is heavily tied to the protagonist’s identity as a Japanese national, so I felt it was important to convey his and Susato’s immigrant experience where it appeared in the game. Drawing on my own experiences of being an immigrant, first to America and then to Japan, I thought it vital to keep their reactions to each new discovery they made in Japanese. Anyone who’s travelled to another country can likely attest that it’s natural for people to compare new concepts, objects, and experiences with something more familiar. But how do you do that without making the player look up what each word means, or having Susato explain to Ryunosuke something he should already know as a Japanese man? For example, Ryunosuke refers to some passenger flying balloons as “temari” in the Japanese version, as that’s what their colorful designs and round shape reminded him of. In this case, we decided to keep “temari” but provided a definition by following the word up with “handball,” which is a common practice in translated texts. In other situations, we worked to make sure the Japanese object or concept could be understood through the surrounding character banter or just the context alone.

Another huge obstacle has been the amount of programming/scripting involved with this particular title. The Great Ace Attorney really aimed to bring each character to life through animations and dynamic camera work. This led to animation changes in the middle of nearly every line of dialogue in some places. The game’s visuals are also a departure from the mainline Ace Attorney games in that there are connecting animations between each animation. Because we couldn’t change or rearrange the characters’ animations, we would first translate the game as naturally as possible and then adjust the translation as necessary, so that each animation could play out as they were meant to without causing any unintended bugs because a line was too short, for example. In addition, the Japanese version was very carefully crafted to create a sense of speech through a custom scripting language that can dictate a whole range of elements such as the display speed of each line, when and for how long pauses in the text and sound effects should last, and even the speed at which animations should play for comedic effect. So re-creating that “being read aloud” feel and making sure the comedic timing was just right in the English version as well was a monumental task.

And lastly, due to the ongoing pandemic, it was a small miracle we were able to record an English dub at all. But everything fell into place somehow, and I have nothing but thanks and appreciation for everyone – especially our amazingly talented actors who worked so hard to make it happen.

Characters in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles

Image: Capcom

Would you say that the increased awareness in the West of Japanese pop culture has made the localization process easier?

It’s a bit of a “yes and no” situation, since Ace Attorney appeals to a rather broad range of players. While I believe most players today are more aware of Japanese pop culture than those from a decade ago, it still breaks the flow of the game if something causes a player to stop playing to go look it up. And conceptually, no one should be expected to do research in order to play this series, so some of the more obscure things would still need to be adapted or explained in-game, including puzzles that rely on Japanese cultural conventions to solve. So in the end, the actual work of having to think through each line of dialogue or puzzle element and decide if and how much it needs to be localized remains relatively unchanged.

I will say though, one thing a greater familiarity with Japanese culture did help with is that it allowed us to add another layer of depth to the localization through the use of honorifics like “-san” without needing to explain what it means. In The Great Ace Attorney, we decided to have Ryunosuke and Susato speak in Japanese to each other in the privacy of their office, but converse in English when they’re out and about in public. I felt strongly about this decision from the beginning. Drawing again from my own experiences in America and Japan, there’s a sort of unspoken cultural norm whereby speaking in a different language in a mixed group can sometimes seem awkward at best, and confrontational at worst – especially with people you don’t know. Given the time period, I felt that Ryunosuke and Susato would almost certainly experience something similar. So as fluent English speakers, I felt they would make an effort to speak predominantly in English once they’d arrived in London, but allow themselves to speak in Japanese in private. The Japanese version of the game doesn’t make this distinction, since it would be somewhat awkward to do the same thing and take considerably more characters (and precious on-screen real estate) to write “Mister” in katakana than “-san”, but in the English version, we’ve gone with “-san” and “Mr.” and “Miss,” etc. as a way to distinguish when Ryunosuke and Susato are speaking to each other in Japanese versus English.

One of the crime scenes in The Great Ace Attorney, depicting a chalk outline of a body on the floor

Image: Capcom

What was your reaction when the original decision was made to keep The Great Ace Attorney a Japanese-exclusive title?

Personally, I was saddened because like every Ace Attorney game, I wanted to share this amazing title with fans around the world. However, I held on to the hope that someday it might be localized. Needless to say, I was so thrilled for everyone the night The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles was announced that I couldn’t sleep a wink – I was too busy trying to keep up with all the excited fan reactions!

Have older localization choices for the series, such as changing the setting from Japan to Los Angeles, presented issues in other titles?

Not particularly. I don’t think that changing the setting has really created any issues that wouldn’t have been present in the course of localizing an Ace Attorney game. What I mean by that is, even if we had kept the setting as Japan, the dialogue would still have required some localization changes since the humor would still need to be conveyed, and the graphics would still have needed modifications for people to be able to solve the cases.

In the second game, Justice for All, I made the decision to keep certain elements Japanese which meant fewer localization changes were required for the tricks behind the mysteries. For example, the karuta cards in Spirit of Justice obviously had to be localized in order to solve the mystery, but the trick itself is still the same – a dying message spelled out in cards with a twist. Furthermore, the structure of the mysteries themselves works on a series of premises, none of which could be changed without causing a complete re-write from the ground up. So in terms of the story itself, I don’t think the localized setting has had that much of an impact. In fact, it helped make the localization less awkward in some situations while preserving the story. For example, it would’ve been odd to explain what rakugo is to a cast of Japanese characters, but since the characters were American, it became a far more natural way to deliver that bit of cultural information to the player. And that karuta trick certainly wouldn’t have worked if I couldn’t change certain things…

Van Zieks in The Great Ace Attorney

Image: Capcom

I think the two issues the location change does create, however, are the need to maintain an internally consistent world with each subsequent title, and a greater need for players to suspend their disbelief. The latter issue is more of a personal one, as each player decides for themselves if they want to accept the in-game world as presented. I do find it interesting that some people insist that the English localization is somehow less “real” simply because it’s Japanifornia, when the very fact that the world of Ace Attorney includes real spirit mediums makes it an alternate universe to ours.

By the way, the change in location didn’t impact The Great Ace Attorney at all, since this game is set so far back in time that there’s a few generations in there that fans can fill with headcanons.

Ace Attorney is famous for the pun-filled names of the characters, both in the Japanese and English versions. Do you all ever find yourselves stumped when finding punny names in translation?

Oh, all the time. We go through rounds and rounds of names together in search of the one that best reflects the original Japanese in tone and feel. But sometimes when we had to get going on the translation, we’d use a temporary name to start and then keep working to come up with something better as we wrote. Still, we usually lock down the names we want to go with beforehand to avoid having to do a lot of re-writes.

Ryunosuke Naruhodo addresses the courtroom in The Great Ace Attorney

Image: Capcom

What is your favorite character name in the series? Are there any you came up with yourself?

I’ve come up with quite a few myself over the years. For The Great Ace Attorney, the translators and I worked on all the names together. Bif and his little twin brother, Tchikin Strogenov, will always bring a smile to my face.

Do you feel that the way you’ve all gone about localizing the Ace Attorney series has helped the series attract a broader audience beyond those interested with Japanese games, anime, and things of the sort?

I do, for sure. I feel that not requiring a player to know a great deal about the nitty gritty of Japanese culture helps a broader spectrum of people get into the series. As an example, some people have certain visual aesthetic preferences (anime-style is not everyone’s cup of tea, after all). But sometimes, people can set those preferences aside if something else about the game catches their interest, such as a relatable story or character. In that sense, I feel the heavier localization might have allowed some of those players to focus on just the mystery and detective work aspects of the games as they slowly got sucked into the world of Ace Attorney. From there, they might be inspired to dive deeper into Japanese culture in general.

The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles will be released on the , , and PC on July 27, 2021.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misidentified the first game in the Phoenix Wright series that Janet Hsu localized.