I knew someone would ask about this. I’ve talked about my feelings on social titles in the Persona games post-3 before on here, but I don’t think I’ve ever covered it for a formal ask, so I’m happy to talk about it again. :D!
I used to go back and forth on this issue because I’m really sympathetic to it as a translator. I do genuinely think that there are a handful of situations where it can be creatively okay to retain those titles in professional translations; whether it can be argued to be the right decision usually boils down to the creative integrity of the work (ie: will it benefit the English translation creatively in some way if titles are retained to some extent?) and the target audience of your translation. Usually, I feel like one of these variables is rarely strong enough on its own to justify going through with it. Like I wrote, creatively, I feel that media that retains titles often do so as a creative crutch, rather than going the extra mile to try and make Japanese thought processes more accessible in terms natively intuitive in English. And then in terms of the audience, I think it’s a bad move to make just to please super nitpicky otaku types because it’s can frankly feel unnecessarily exclusionary to those without that previous education and insight who would otherwise be able to appreciate what’s on offer. I’m sympathetic to the worries of content sanitization after what a lot of Japanese media went through in localization efforts throughout the 80s and 90s, but there’s also such a thing as being too true to the original Japanese semantics, if that makes sense.
Persona 3 and 4 and the derivative games straddle a surprisingly weird middle ground where you can actually make pretty sound arguments both in favor and against retaining the titles. If you’re in favor, it’s often because of the presence of things like Social Links that emphasize player intimacy with this cast of characters that grow up and change over the course of their games. Their view of the world and the people around them evolve as their values are challenged and are made to understand the implications of what they say and do, which in turn has obvious ripple effects on their personal relationships. If you’re against, it’s probably because you feel that all of those points I just described can be adequately conveyed without relying on social titles and the like. It can still feel like a game set in contemporary Japan without needing to rely on linguistic conventions that don’t exist in English.
These days, I fall in the latter camp. While there are a lot of plot elements in both games that are designed to make those games feel like they’re uniquely Japanese products, especially in 4 with its references to the mythological relationship between Izanagi and Izanami, I’m not convinced that the greater themes, the overarching concepts about the human condition and whatnot that those games discuss are portrayed in such a culturally unique way that they merit retaining the titles for the sake of supposed immersion. This isn’t a knock against how those ideas are executed in those games, either, obviously; rather, just an opinion on how those creative choices resonate with me personally. I don’t think if you took titles away from 3 that you would lose anything substantial; the narrative arc would still be emulating The Fool’s Journey, the depth of characters’ relationships with one another wouldn’t be reduced (ie: it’s still going to be clear Shinji and Akihiko are best friends, etc.), and maxing out Social Links with your favorite characters isn’t going to feel less personal and insightful. And for 4, I don’t think sacrificing titles would suddenly mean that the torment of emotionally pleasing yourself vs. others dissipates, that the necessity of introspection as a part of growing up is less apparent, and again, seeing your favorite characters undergo that process more intensely and personally during their Social Links is less impactful.
I never latched onto 3 and 4 because they were these exotic games set in a somewhat “real” Japan populated with “real” Japanese teenagers. Maybe some people did, but I feel like that was never the case for me personally. Given the right development talent, I think 3′s discussions of how we prioritize our limited time to be alive for maximum fulfillment and 4′s depictions of our ability to become “better selves” no matter what stage in life we’re at are things that are tackled in most every cultural context and therefore don’t need specific Japanese trappings to succeed and feel transcendental. The fact that these games have attracted as wide an international audience as they have on seemingly their raw narrative merits attests to that reality that it’s the deeper stuff about those games people find resonates with them and not the retained use of things like social titles specifically. They’re games set in Japan that are populated with Japanese characters, but it’s not otherwise specifically about Japan per se and I think that’s the clincher that makes me fall on the anti-title side of things anymore.
All of this isn’t to say that I don’t respect the decision Atlus USA took with those localizations. I totally know they take this stuff seriously purely by virtue of how hardly every game they tackle adopts those same conventions, especially ones from their own parent company, and the arguments in favor of them aren’t necessarily weak ones. They’re totally valid and for some translators might be convincing enough to go down that path, as they evidently were. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like retaining those titles inadvertently conveys a potential lack of confidence in those games’ ability to portray those themes in culturally relateable ways and in their audience’s ability to comprehend them on their own terms without forcing the “Japaneseness” more than necessary. It’s clearly not that big of a deal given the sales figures for those games, but as a translator who understands you often only have one shot professionally to lay down that foundation of how a given work will be “understood” in a new language, I still can’t help but wonder if the reception would have benefited even more from the titles being dropped, even if only a little. We’ll never know for sure now.
For the record, I retain the titles in my subtitled trailers out of respect for Atlus USA’s decision and so as to create as consistent an experience between that official material and my own; trailers and the like aren’t the right place for that discussion and I don’t feel so strongly about it with 3 and 4 that I feel like picking a fight over it. Basically, I agree to disagree on that front, even if I largely enjoy those localizations otherwise.
I wish I knew Chinese or Korean players who had played those versions of the games because: 1. I believe those were handled by Sony personally and different teams obviously have different translation philosophies and 2. I’m somewhat confident that the titles were just more thoroughly localized into appropriate equivalents as necessary. But that’s another topic for another day~