Video game localization is one part of game development that often remains enshrouded in mystery. Why was place name X changed in the German version of a game? Why did that character’s name become something entirely different? It isn’t always immediately clear to gamers why localization teams make the decisions they do…
Sometimes it has to do with a direct word translation sounding too much like a pre-existing product in another region of the world. Sometimes one possible version of translated text makes no sense in Spanish or Japanese and needs to be adapted to fit within cultural context.
It is even possible a part of a storyline may bear too much resemblance to an actual historical event within, say Asia, and large sections of the text need to be entirely rewritten so the game isn’t banned within the region.
Localized Pokémon Names
Since Pokémon GO has been making such a big splash worldwide, we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss game localization using real world examples. While Pokémon names may not contain particularly historical or culturally-heavy implications, that doesn’t mean their localization is straightforward.
Pokémon characters are a good example of how localization can be accomplished in many different ways. Some Pokémon names are alliterations, whereas others resonate more with the character’s appearance. This means that Pokémon names are a good example of how video game localization teams sometimes use creativity to develop unique names in other languages.
In English, Grimer is a Pokémon name that doesn’t seem to have a particular meaning, although the name may bring to mind a grimy or dirty creature.
However, in French, translators took the opportunity for the name to directly reflect the Pokémon’s slimy appearance. Grimer’s name becomes Tadmorv in French, literally meaning “pile of snot.”
It isn’t always necessary for translators to retain the original meaning of a Pokémon from one language to another, with Pokémon characters receiving different names across English, French, German, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.
Some names were localized to sound like what the creature is or the noise it would make (an onomatopoeia). One example of this is the English Pokémon Golduck becoming “Akwakwak” in French.
Conveying Meaning through Translation
Other translations describe the Pokémon’s key characteristics. For example, Charizard becomes “Dracaufeu” in French, with “feu” meaning “fire” and “dracau” conjuring an image of a dragon-like creature.
Quite a number of Pokémon translations retain a very literal image of Pokémon. In the below infographic, you can see a number of these examples in Chinese, including Fearow (literally, “big mouth sparrow”) and Bulbasaur (literally, “wonderful frog seed”).
Pikachu & Localization Controversy
Pikachu is one of few Pokémon whose name remains recognizable across all languages. The romanized (Pinyin) version of Pikachu in Chinese is Píkǎqiū. However, earlier this year, there were protests in Hong Kong over a proposed name change to Pikachu.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pokémon, Pokémon Sun and Moon are set to be released in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China in both traditional and simplified Chinese.
While Pokémon names differed throughout these regions, Nintendo made a move to “unify” the region through localization by creating one translated version. The issue with this is that Mandarin and Cantonese are separate languages, and by “unifying” Chinese versions of Pokémon names, players felt Nintendo was not respecting their history with the Pokémon brand.
There were protests in Hong Kong following the release of a list showing that most Pokémon names would retain the Mandarin versions of the names rather than the Cantonese. Among these names, the originally named “Bei-kaa-chyu” (比卡超) for Pikachu, became “Pei-kaa-jau” (皮卡丘).
This was unacceptable for Pokémon fans in Hong Kong, where people protested with signs “No Pei-kaa-jau, give me back Bei-kaa-chyu.”
Pokémon Localization Infographic
We hope you enjoy the infographic below showing some of the localized names we find interesting between different language versions of Pokémon. If you have suggestions for future infographics and blog posts you would like to see, feel free to send us a Tweet @LAIGlobalGame.