Pokémon in Translation: Where Do Their Names Come From?

Have you ever seen someone standing in the middle of the street (or anywhere really…) holding their phone and trying to “catch” something? If you have, or if that someone was you, don’t worry: you have simply experienced just a little bit of the Pokémon Go madness!

Pokémon have been engaging millions of fans for over 20 years; from video games to animated cartoon series, they have become a true phenomenon all over the world. But have you ever wondered what the name “Pokémon” means? And how each Pokémon is known to fans in different languages?

In this article, we will look at how some Pokémon were localised from the original Japanese for various target audiences and how the names of these little “monsters” are anything but fortuitous.

 

What is a Pokémon and what does Pokémon mean?

In and of itself, the word Pokémon does not mean anything… or does it? If we look at the origin of this name, we find out that it comes from the Japanese ポケットモンスター (Poketto Monsuta), i.e. “pocket monster(s)”, of which Pokémon is a contraction.

Clearly the word is not meaningless at all, since Pokémon are indeed little animals with special powers that are collected by a so-called “Pokémon Trainer”. The concept of Trainers catching and training Pokémon to fight on the battle field against Pokémon owned by other Trainers is at the basis of the whole franchise.

To this day, there are hundreds of Pokémon, which have been developed over the years to form new “generations” and populate a huge Pokémon universe. The names with which these little creatures are known in different markets, far from being arbitrary, are the result of careful linguistic research. Skilled translators localised their names with the aim of conveying some of the characteristics of the Pokémon themselves – such as their appearance, or special power.

Below are some examples that prove the pivotal role game localisation played to ensure the success of Pokémon-mania all over the world.

 

Bulbasaur

This Pokémon is a “grass” one and looks like a cross between a frog and a reptile; it walks on four legs and has a green bulb on its back. Bulbasaur’s Japanese name is Fushigidane, which is a contraction of the words for “miracle/mystery” and “seed”.

Image credit: http://www.pokemon.com/uk/pokedex/bulbasaur

But what about the English name? As mentioned above, it was extremely important for the success of the game that the translation of Pokémon’s names would be meaningful and evocative just as much as the Japanese originals. The English name Bulbasaur is, for example, a contraction of “bulb” because of the garlic-like bulb on the Pokémon’s back, and “dinosaur” because of the creature’s overall appearance.

The French translation of this Pokémon is instead somewhat closer to the original Japanese name, while being at the same time equally expressive. The name Bulbizarre is indeed the contraction of “bulbe” (bulb) and “bizarre” (odd, peculiar).

 

Drowzee

Image credit: http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/drowzee

Drowzee is a “psychic” Pokémon that can put people to sleep and eat their dreams (scary, right?). It resembles a tapir and is yellow and brown in colour. The name Drowzee comes from the adjective “drowsy” and refers not only to the Pokémon’s heavy-eyed appearance, but also to its power. In Japanese, this Pokémon is known as Sleep (yes, the English word!), a name which is once again symbolic and reminiscent of its characteristics.

In French, the name used for this pocket monster is Soporifik, which is a corruption of the adjective “soporifique” meaning soporific, or sleep-inducing. And in German, its name is Traumato, formed from the words “Traum” (dream) and “traumatisch” (traumatic, shocking).

 

Beedrill

The result of the evolution of the Weedle, Beedrill is a Pokémon that looks very much like a wasp and has three stingers (one on its tail and two on its forelegs) that release a venomous poison.

Image credit: http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokedex/beedrill

 

Its English name is a combination of “bee” referring to its overall appearance, and “drill” to its big stingers.

The French version of Beedrill’s name is as genius as you can get. Dardargnan is the contraction of three different concepts: “dard” (stingers) because of the physical features of this Pokémon, “dare-dare” (colloquial for “very fast”) because of its speed, and – most genius of all – “d’Artagnan” (one of the famous musketeers), because of its swordsman skills.

 

These are only a few examples of the clever translation choices that have made the Pokémon franchise famous and engaging all over the world. Without talented translators the two video games launched in 1995 by Nintendo might not have developed into the big international sensation that Pokémon is today.

Game localisation constitutes a big chunk of the present-day translation industry, and for it to be carried out as successfully as possible, translators must be not only skilled, but also imaginative and creative, as well as up-to-date with the prevailing trends in video games.

Here at Creative Translation we work with over 3,000 skilled linguists based all over the world. If you need help localising your product, give us a call on +44 (0)207 294 7710 or send us an email to info@creativetranslation.com and we will be happy to help!

 

Photo Credit: apilarinos via iStock