Q&A: Is Lance from Pokémon Supposed to be Sadistic?

Stephen V. sent in this question about the original Pokémon games:

Hey there. I read quite a bunch of your articles. Especially the Pokemon ones. Which leads me to the translation topic of Wataru, leader of Kantoh’s Four Heavenly Kings.

In English, he introduces himself, talk about how tough dragons are and says that “your league challenge ends with “. In Japanese, he says close to the same thing. Though his explanation on dragons is a bit tough to translate. Here’s where I get really thrown off. Instead of saying what I told you he says something about getting ready to fight and having the choice of either going back home or enduring his dragons’ strangling tails. That sounds very sadistic to me. Can you help out with this? That part was hard to translate too.

I’m again ashamed to admit I’ve never beaten a Pokémon game, but with the power of hackery I was able to jump to this point in the game and check out the text. Here’s a quick look at this line in action:

And here’s the full text, side-by-side with an unpolished, raw translation:

Japanese Version (basic translation)English Version
Ah! So YOU’RE (Player’s Name)!Ah! I heard about you (Player’s Name)!
I’m the leader of the Four Heavenly Kings! Wataru, the Dragon Master!I lead the ELITE FOUR! You can call me LANCE the dragon trainer!
I assume you know that dragons are holy creatures of legend!You know that dragons are mythical POKéMON!
They’re hard to catch, but if you can raise them right their strength will be unrivaled!They’re hard to catch and raise, but their powers are superior!
They have sturdy bodies and aren’t affected by superficial attacks!They’re virtually indestructable!
…… Now, then! Shall we start?!Well, are you ready to lose?
Or would you rather turn tail and run home?! (Player’s Name)!Your LEAGUE challenge ends with me, (Player’s Name)!

There’s no mention of a “strangling tail” in the Japanese text here, but I can instantly see why someone might get that impression. The issue has to do with the Japanese idiom “しっぽをまく” (shippo o maku) which might at first glance seem to be about tails (shippo) wrapping around (maku) stuff, but it’s actually a set phrase akin to “turn tail and ____” in English.

So although the phrase IS about tails, it’s not talking about dragon tails in this scene; the guy’s pretty much just saying, “So, you gonna fight me? Or are you chicken?” It’s a pretty understandable mistake to make, particularly if you’re in the early to intermediate level of Japanese fluency.

There’s not much more to say about the line than that, although some of the other lines here raise some other questions. Like, did the idea of “mythical” Pokémon exist this early on? Off the top of my head I can’t really remember all the categories and sub-categories of Pokémon and how they were translated.

Anyway, idioms like this tail one are actually an amazing treasure trove of insight and funny misinterpretations! I’d love to compile a list of mishandled idioms in game translation someday, so if anyone reading this has any examples, let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

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  1. It looks like you posted the Japanese screenshot twice.

    I didn’t think that this dialouge would have been very different between versions, but anything could go in the 1990s. It’s good to get it cleared up.

  2. “Is tail meat any good?” Uh…. ox tail has been a staple of many cuisines around the world for centuries. You don’t need to be a crazy person to have enjoyed it, at all :/

      1. Yeah, ox tail is pretty good. Can be a bit tough to eat, though, since the bone and cartilage structure is so strange — you really have to dig around to get at the actual meat. Alligator tail is pretty good too.

          1. I can sympathise. There are a bunch of places that, having moved, I find myself wishing I’d tried. The converse, of course, is that there’s a bunch of stuff I never could have done if I hadn’t moved. So I guess it’s okay in the end. 😀

        1. I haven’t tried it, but living in China I love trying all the “weird” food. I’ve has pig blood, pig brain, pig feet, chicken feet, duck tongue, beef tongue, pig tongue, and duck head, The pig feet are my favorite so far 🙂

      2. Ox tail is typically used in soups as it’s high in gelatin and fat and is really tough and needs to cook longer than usual. I don’t care much for it, to be honest, I just find it funny that you think only crazy people would eat tail meat, lol.

        1. Oh, I don’t remember for sure what I meant when I wrote it, but I might’ve meant the crazy people who read the secret text on this site, not the crazy people who eat tails. But I won’t use that as an excuse, it was a silly thing to say either way 😛

        2. It’s commonly used in soups, sure, but there’s a lot more you can do with it than just that. If you dredge and brown oxtails and then braise them they’re delightful, for example.

    1. It was referenced in X/Y, too, as one of the cuisines your character can eat at one of those battle restaurants in Lumiose City.

  3. ” Like, did the idea of “mythical” Pokémon exist this early on? ”
    I’m no poke-expert, but if I recall, Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres were all considered mythical pokemon.

    I suspect in this case it’s entirely unrelated to “mythical pokemon”, and the translator was just working around Nintendo not letting him say holy, and Japan really liking dragons.
    In all honesty, either version of that line is kinda strange in the context of the series. I’ll just but it down to Wataru/Lance being a serious dragon fanboy and consequently exaggerating the awesomeness of his dragon-type pokemon.

    1. Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres are legendary Pokemon, not mythical. The only mythical Pokemon in the first set of games is Mew, with the aforementioned trio and Mewtwo being the four legendary Pokemon.

      Whether those classifications were in use back then is less likely, though.

      1. There’s more than one “Mythical Pokémon” – I think it’s those event-exclusive legionaries. (or at least Celebi, Jarachi, Manaphy and Victini.)

  4. Well, whatever he says, his Dragonite will send you packing if you’re not prepared. I can’t wait to see when Twitch gets to him. ; )

    1. I remember fighting him in Crystal way back when. Dragonair, Dragonite, Dragonite, Dragonite — ye gods! I remember being just about wiped when I beat the last Dragonite, and I’m thinking “lord, here comes the Kingdra, and I lose.” And he sends out CHARIZARD! Quick swap to my Feraligatr and it was GG Lance. 😀

  5. The two special subcategories of Pokemon is Legendary Pokemon/伝説のポケモン (rare, powerful one-off Pokemon usually found near the end of the game, typically can’t breed) and Mythical Pokemon/幻のポケモン, special Pokemon only available through certain real-world events.

    I’m not entirely sure when these terms became official subclassification… “legendary” is thrown around a bunch to refer to certain Pokemon in material related to the first games, but I don’t think it was purely used about the four Pokemon from that game that would later officially be classified as such. Likewise with Mythical… while the term 幻 was used a lot to refer to Mew in early promotions, it didn’t really seem to be treated as an actual subclassifiation yet (Mew was the only Mythical Pokemon in the first game). Its official translation “Mythical Pokemon” didn’t come into play until MUCH later, though, so its usage in this scene is nothing but a coincidence.

    1. Ah, cool, thanks. I was curious if it had been an official designation this early on, that helps answer my question. I just know I brought up this topic in another Pokemon article but man if it still isn’t confusing keeping track of multiple versions of games across multiple generations in multiple languages 😯

    2. In Red-Blue-Yellow, Snorlax would fit the definition of “Legendary” as well (though there are two of thim, rather than just one).

      So “Mythical” means event-only? Good to know. Damn I hate event-onlies… we never get any events in France.

  6. I’d love to see that comparison about idioms, if only so that I could learn some more idioms.
    Here’s an example for it. In ff7, Someone says in the English version that Rufus never bleeds or cries. Of course this is just a misinterpretation of 血も涙もない, meaning ruthless.

  7. I still think this part is better in French here.
    He asked you if you heard “the tolling of shame and defeat”.

    It’s name is Peter there. Lance does sounds cooler though…

    1. That sounds like: “It is name is Peter there.”

      I do not want to seem rude, but…

      Is this typo the result of electronic translation software? I do not know much about French, but it appears that possessive determiners conjugate for the possessed object’s grammatical gender instead of the possessor’s grammatical gender like in English, so « Son nom » can mean “His name”, “Her name”, or “Its name”, and when « Son nom » is fed into Google Translate or SYSTRAN, both of them default to “Its name” without context.

      However, that does not explain why an apostrophe is in the typo. “It’s” and “Its” mean different things in English even though their pronunciations are identical. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”, while “its” is the possessive determiner for showing that something belongs to an inanimate object with no gender (for example: “Its screen” could mean “the monitor’s screen”).

      What you meant to say was: “His name is Peter there.”

      Also, when a verb is preceded by a helper verb, it does not conjugate, so “Lance does sounds” sounds like “Lance’s department is sounds”. “Lance does sound” is correct.

      I am just trying to help out so you don’t repeat this mistake in the future.

  8. So despite that Lance went from Dragon Trainer to Dragon MASTER when transitioning to Generation 2, Wataru was already considered a Dragon Master in Japan right from the get go. Interesting to know, methinks.

    1. Actually, the phrase used is “-tsukai” which is more literally “-user”, so “Dragon User” might better for the purpose of this article after all. It’s not uncommon to translate this as “master” (among many other possibilities) in some contexts, but I didn’t realize that a “dragon master” thing already existed, oops.

      It’s possible that it WAS just the translation that changed between generations and that it was “tsukai” all along, but it’s also possible that he genuinely leveled up between versions. I don’t know enough about Pokemon to say off the top of my head – heck, I’m not even sure what games are in Generation 2 😛

      1. I just always found it an interesting change when going from Red/Blue to Gold/Silver. In Generation 1, he was Lance “the dragon trainer”, leader of the Elite Four. In Generation 2

        spoilers! …well, technically, anyway. what little can be spoiled of Generation 2’s “plot” or whatever

        he’s moved up from leader to CHAMPION of the Elite Four, and I believe calls himself (or is called by someone else) “Lance the Dragon Master”. So I could very well believe he was merely a “trainer” of dragons at the point in time of Gen 1, then 3 years or however many later becoming a “master” by getting stronger and ascending a rank to become the Champion of the Kanto/Johto regions.

        end spoilers or whatever, heh.

        So hearing he may have always been a “Dragon Master” even in Gen 1 would be like “aww, that spoils my headcanon”…or something, anyway. XD
        Either way though, this article was definitely right up my alley. I’ve been a fan of Pokémon right from Red/Blue, so hearing anything you have to say about the games automatically gets my attention, heh.
        I do hope you’ll totally cover this generation of Pokémon one day. I have always wondered if the story of Mewtwo’s origins, as told in the various journals in Cinnabar Mansion, are anywhere nearly the same in the Japan… I mean sure, I could research it online or whatever, but even if I did, I’d still totally be interested in one day hearing your translation/interpretation/whatever of it, so!

      2. He calls himself ドラゴンつかい in both games, so that’s indeed just the translators not being overly consistent.

  9. Thank you very much for clarifying this problem. That line bugged me so much. At first, when I tried translating it, it kinda took me by surprise. I knew Wataru to be intimidating, but not sadistic. I had a gut feeling I got the translation mixed up, which happens often. And I was right. Thanks again for helping me out.

    And an additional thanks for translating the whole speech. I will admit the speech about dragons was tough to do as well. ^^

  10. I find it amusing how the point about dragons being unaffected by superficial attacks was simplified to just them being “indestructible”. I wouldn’t mind seeing what the Japanese term used here was, but I’m guessing the “superficial attacks” refers to the types that Dragon is resistant to: Grass, Fire, Water, and Electric. Essentially, that’s the three starter types plus Pikachu (who is technically a starter in Yellow, albeit that wasn’t released until later).


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