Translation, Localization, and Pokemon


I have two daughters who are into anime. One of them is especially interested in the process of bringing animated products from Japan to the US. She can talk at length about voice actors, translation companies, and more. While talking to her (mostly about Pokemon on this occasion) she began talking about the process of translation. She noted that really, translation companies that do this, do it in two primary steps. These are

  • Translation (in the classic sense of translating meaning from one language to another)
  • Localization (in the sense of translating cultural aspects)

I am no expert on translation. My language skills (in most any language is pretty meager). The most I have done is translate a missions journal article from Afrikaans to English. To do it, I (1) utilized Google Translate, then (2) went to online dictionaries for problem spots, then (3) looked up phrases on the Internet where the normal translation seemed dubious, then (4) used the work of a bilingual theologian who had translated the conceptual outline of the article into English previously for feedback, and finally (5) made logical guesses in a couple of places where none of these other steps helped. The end result was okay but still somewhat rough.

REAL translators like to speak of the importance of dynamic equivalence. I can hardly argue with that. Meaning is the most importance. I recall proponents of the ESV (English Standard Version) touting its more “literal” process of translation. That is hardly something to be proud of. The goal is to translate meaning, not words, and as Ricoeur notes, meaning is in sentences, not words, anyway.  <If you want to read a parody of a wooden literal translation of a work with no localization done, please read “The Pooh Perplex” by Frederick Crews. Actually read the second to the last chapter falsely attributed to a Karl Anschauung.  Again, it is a parody, but the humor points to problems that happen on a smaller-scale in real life situations.>

But with the translation of Japanese animation, the good translation services do localization. This is an attempt to subtitle or to dub so that the end result sounds or reads as if it could have been locally produced in the language and culture of the viewer.

Localization is tough and some do a good job of it, some do a poor job, and some really don’t try. Many foreign movies, such as Chinese movies that we see here in the Philippines, are subtitled using a voice-to-text translation program. Some of these are laughably bad. Anime can have the same trouble… but many do spend the extra money to create a well-localized product.  But even then, there are failures.

Here are a few examples of good and bad localization:

1.  In Pokemon, in the early years, the translators decided that they needed to have American sounding names for the key players. The main character was given the English-friendly name “Ash.” Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. However, The name of the character in Japanese is three syllables long (“Satoshi”). Trading a three syllable name with a one syllable name causes problems in synching the voice actors to the mouth movements of the animated characters. This is not impossible to overcome, but if you have watched anime where there was no real attempt to align or synch up the English voice actor with the mouth movements, you probably noticed a considerable loss of verisimilitude (losing seeming “realness” or creating obstacles to suspension of disbelief). Scripts had to be written carefully to minimize the syllable problem.

2.  A better example or localization is in the naming of some

Image result for flareon
Flareon, Volteon, Vaporeon

of the actual pokemon. One of them was a lizardlike creature that is fire-type. They chose for English language groups the name “Charzard.” It is not TOO ‘on the nose.’ It sounds like a creature name… and it can most likely be trademarked (unlike ‘lizard-like fire-type pokemon’). A weird example are the evolutions of Eevee. The Japanese names of three of the evolutions transliterate as “Booster” (fire-type), Thunders (electric-type), and Showers (water-type). These don’t need to be translated at all. However, really they do. These names to the Japanese audience are weirdly cool and foreign. To an English language audience, the names are very mundane. So they were localized by giving names that sound cool, a bit foreign, and still link to the type of pokemon. The names chosen are Flareon (fire-type), Jolteon (electric-type), and Vaporeon (water-type).

3.  Localizing foods can be tricky. In one episode of Pokemon, Brock was eating an “onigiri.” The translators decided that American kids are unlikely to know what onigiri is. Since they are starch-based treats with a tasty filling, the “localized” result was “jelly-filled donuts.” The problem is that the animation did not look like donuts at all. They looked like onigiri. Frankly, they did not need to do that at all. They probably could have just said “rice ball.” Even though some American kids may not totally connect with it, they would understand what was being discussed without a loss of verisimilitude (there is that weird word again). Pokemon is not the worst example. One character in Ace Attorney really liked eating ramen. The translators decided to change it to “hamburgers.” This did not make any sense at all, clashing with the visuals; and if “ramen” was thought to be too exotic, they could have just said “noodles.”

Localization is not just about making a message comfortable to the local viewer or reader. In fact, in translating the Bible, it is sometimes good for the reader to know that the passage was written for someone else in a different context. Far too many try to read, for example, Jeremiah 29:11 as if God was making that promise to them rather than to the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the original audience in the Middle East over two and a half millenia ago. Sometimes it is good for the foreigness to shine through. But it shouldn’t happen where it leads to confusion.

Take the English word “Sorry.” In the US, if I say “Sorry,” I commonly would be meaning “Hey, it makes me at least wee bit sad that your situation is not that great, although I had absolutely nothing to do with how you got into that situation.” If I go to another country and say “Sorry,” there is a pretty good chance that it will be understood in that local context as “Please forgive me for the harm I have done to you.” Localization is really needed. So if I go to India, how should I say things if a friend is not doing well? Perhaps I would say, “I am sad that you aren’t doing so well.” Or maybe not. Maybe I need to talk to someone locally and find out the most appropriate response would be. That’s localization.

So what is the result of all of this. Not much. Good translation is challenging, and should drive us to humility more than argument. Even Nintendo gets it wrong sometimes.

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