Pokémon Go and the art of translation

I say “Pokémon”; you say “pokey-man”

In 1999, I began spending hours in the world of anime zookeeping, known to most as Pokémon. At the time, my parents patiently tried to understand what I was doing, but it didn’t help that I was speaking an entirely new language: Pikachu, Pokédex, helix fossil. They tried to engage, but calling it “pokey-man” (as they still do today) was a clear sign their hearts weren’t in the game.

With the release of Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s recent revitalization of the franchise, you may feel as lost in all the new terms as my parents were. What you might not know is that the entire Pokémon franchise is a testament to the importance—and potential for joy—of translation.

While the mechanics change, the basic idea behind all the Pokémon games stays the same: you need to collect as many types of Pokémon as possible. Each species may look like a familiar animal, but it will usually have a “special power.” Pikachu is an electric rat (more about this soon), and Squirtle is a turtle capable of squirting water from its mouth.

With 150 Pokémon species in the first generation and 721 as of the most recent one, every instance of the series has had to imagine, design—and name—a new hundred or so of the critters.

That naming process is incredibly important. Most Pokémon’s names tell you little stories about the Pokémon through wordplay and creative spelling. It’s up to the translators, in other words, to make sure that story survives when Pokémon travels to a new country.

Bulbasaur in translation

As the name implies, this Pokémon is a dinosaur with a bulb on its back. The name is pretty transparent and straightforward, but compare it to the Japanese original: fushigidane. The name is actually wordplay. Fushigi means “strange,” and dane can mean either “isn’t it?” (だね) or “seed” (種); the name can mean either “strange seed” or “Strange, isn’t it?” The French translator, meanwhile, held closer to the Japanese original: Bulbizarre is a combination of bulbe “bulb” and bizarre “strange.”

“Pikachu” comes from the Japanese words pikapika (“sparkly”) and chu (onomatopoeia for the sound a mouse makes). In other words, Pikachu’s name literally means “sparkle-squeak” in Japanese. The decision to leave it in the original rather than coming up with an English equivalent speaks to another challenge translators have to confront: when to leave well enough alone. The fact that a name like Pikachu is on the same list as Bulbasaur shows just how open-ended translation can be.

Creative license

Indeed, the need to be creative in translation means that, in some cases, the translators injected jokes into the translated names that the originals don’t have. It’s the case for the Legendary Birds, a trio of extremely rare birdlike Pokémon consisting of the icy Articuno, the electric Zapdos, and the fiery Moltres. Their names in Japanese are the Japanese pronunciations of the English words Freezer, Thunder, and Fire. Rather than simply reimport common English words, the English translators combined a word associated with each Pokémon’s type and added a word ending that underlines that there’s three of these birds (if you don’t see it, look at the last syllables in each bird’s name, and perhaps review your Spanish numerals).

The sheer scale and variety of Pokémon means that any attempt to translate it will be a challenge, a great reminder that translators are often as much artists as they are dictionaries. Even if they can’t translate the game into terms my parents can understand, they play an essential role in making sure the game’s magic comes through in any language.

PS: You’ve no doubt wondered what the plural of “Pokémon” is. The accepted plural is “Pokémon,” identical to the singular. This is because Japanese makes no distinction between singular and plural nouns, a trait it shares with Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and even English when you consider words like “sheep,” “deer,” and “fish.” 

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