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:
|Pocket Monsters Red||Pokémon Red|
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!