The Problem with L, R, and Other Letters in Japanese Translation

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It’s pretty well-known that Japanese speakers have trouble with Ls and Rs – in fact, it’s been part of the Japanese stereotype for close to a century now. There’s even a common phrase on the Internet that mocks the Japanese L/R problem: “Engrish”.

In this article we’ll briefly look at why Ls and Rs are so troublesome and explore actual examples of these problems in video games. We’ll also look at lesser-known letter pairs that are almost as problematic as L and R. By the end, we’ll be able to decipher bizarre Japanese misspellings that look like pure nonsense at first glance!

Problem #1: L and R

This might seem obvious, but not every language uses the same sounds. For example, the Khoisan languages use a variety of clicks, but we don’t have anything equivalent in English. So the question becomes: how do you write non-English sounds in a way that English speakers can easily say and learn?

That’s basically where the Japanese L and R problem comes from – the Japanese language doesn’t have a clear L or R sound, but something that’s closer to a blend of an L, R, and a D sound:

 
If you listen to the recording a few times, you can probably trick your brain into hearing “ra ri ru re ro”, “la li lu le lo”, and maybe even a bit of “da di du de do” – all from the same sound.

Actually, you know how we have the stereotype of Japanese people struggling with Ls and Rs? Their stereotype of English speakers is that we can’t say their L/R sound right either.

To make matters worse, many Japanese speakers can’t even hear the difference between the English L and R. So when it comes time to write something in English, whether a word should use an L or R often devolves into a guessing game. The result: unusual misspellings that native English speakers laugh at.

L and R Problems in Games

This issue with Ls and Rs predates video games, so the problem can be seen in everything from the earliest Japanese video games to today’s big-budget, hi-tech releases.

Problem #2: U and A

Japanese doesn’t have an “uh” sound, so the “ah” sound usually takes its place – basically, English words like “bus” and “gun” end up closer to “bas” and “gan”.

This U/A thing gets messy quickly and causes Japanese speakers to compensate for the “uh” problem when it’s not necessary. The result: the letters U and A get mixed up almost as often as L and R.

Problem #3: “Er” Sounds

Japanese doesn’t have sounds like “ar”, “er”, or “or”. To get around this, the “r” often gets dropped and the vowel gets held longer: the English word “car” becomes and “mirror” becomes mirā, for example.

Simple enough, but when you factor in the L/R and vowel problems above, you end up with words like ロード (rōdo), which can mean “road”, “load”, “lode”, or “lord” depending on the situation. To make matters worse, Japanese speakers sometimes overcompensate for this “Vowel-R” problem by reintroducing an R and using the wrong vowel.

Problem #4: Simple Vowel Swaps

Although they’re not as iconic as the problems above, smaller vowel mistakes are super-common too.

Problem #5: V and B

Traditionally, there isn’t a clear “V” sound in Japanese, so the “B” sound is usually used as a replacement. Because of this, V/B mistakes are common among native Japanese speakers.

Problem #6: M and N

It’s a bit complicated so I’ll skip the details for now, but basically there are rare times when the letter “M” can replace the letter “N” in a Japanese word. As a result, words you might be familiar with – like “Famicom” and “senpai” – can sometimes appear with alternate spellings:


This M/N thing does cause problems sometimes, however:

Problem #7: “Th” Sounds

Japanese also lacks the “th” sounds found in the words “thin” and “this”. The letters “s” or “z” are often used as an approximation, but this causes occasional confusion during translation.

Problem #8: Japan’s Own Spelling System

This probably deserves a huge article of its own, but the quick summary is that most of the world uses a different Japanese-to-English spelling system than what’s taught in Japan. We use a system that tries to preserve pronunciation, but the Japanese system is more focused on preserving certain patterns.

In short, Japanese natives usually spell words differently from the rest of the world. This results in so many spelling differences that I’d be crazy to cover them all here. Instead, here are a few simple examples:

But Wait, There’s More

Honestly, there are many more “gotchas” when it comes to Japanese-to-English spelling. “W” sounds, “H” sounds swapping with “F” sounds, mythological names that have surprise spellings, problems with the English “i” (as in “hit”) sound… the list goes on and on.

The good news is that if you’re a native English speaker, most of the above problems are rarely an issue – you already know that “danger” isn’t spelled “dangar” and that nobody ever has to “harry” to “flash the toilet”. But I’m hoping that this detailed look at spelling issues helps show just how difficult spelling is for native Japanese speakers, and how problematic it is for translators.

Don’t worry, we’re prone to messing up Japanese writing all the time too: one little mistake can turn 大使 (ambassador) into 大便 (feces), for example…

Pop Quiz!

Using the information above, see if you can make sense of the following translation mistakes. Bonus points if you can identify the actual problems with each mistake!

Share your answers in the comments and compare notes with everyone else!

Summary

As we can see, writing Japanese words in English is a tricky process – even more so for non-native English speakers. And keep in mind that this whole article was simply about spelling – there are lots more translation problems that can happen, from awkward phrasing to shattered grammar to total mistranslations.

We’ll look at some of these non-spelling topics in future articles, but for now, if you ever see weird spelling mistakes in a Japanese game, look for the patterns listed above. They might just help you make sense of the nonsense!


I’d like to keep building my archive of L/R, A/U, etc. mistakes in games, so if you ever encounter any good examples yourself, let me know! And if you’re a student or a professional translator, definitely share your own Japanese-to-English spelling experiences in the comments!


If you enjoyed this quick look at how Japanese games get weird translations, you'll like this article about Japan's obsession with the English word "let's"!

94 Comments
  1. Answers 🙂

    1) Divelopment Stuff-> Development Staff
    2) Alart/Arart -> Alert
    3) Battle Vulcan
    4) Blue Harb -> Blue Herb; also Reminton -> Remington
    5) Cray Fighter -> Clay Fighter
    6) Map says Mulberry, dialog says Marberry
    7) There’s so much wrong with this, so just the title: Cosmo Seilar -> Cosmo Sailor
    8) Axecaliva (that’s a new one!) -> Excalibur
    9) (among others…) Thankn Gear -> Sunken Gear, Planetaliume -> Planetarium,
    10) Rushifell Lucifer

    Reply
    1. Small addition to #4 (which is all correct), Desert Eagle is spelled correctly in the screenshot, though “50 A.E” should be “.50AE”, “.50″ being a measurement (‘caliber’ is inch pattern, so .50 is actually 0.50”, half an inch, translating to 12.7mm in metric), and AE is an abbreviation for Action Express, a brand by firm Action Arms, which never punctuated between the letters A and E.

      Insignificant detail in the grand scheme of things (most players wouldn’t think a lot about it), but .50AE is what you would see marked on commercial ammunition packaging, headstamps on cartridges, and caliber markings on barrels/frames (probably magazines), as well as official and historic nomenclature.

      The article was interesting to read, I never knew L/R ‘went both ways’, so to say.
      Some people lament ‘Engrish’, but I actually find it charming, and it’s impressive to see the rare Japanese voice actors actually pronounce an English sentence correctly (the intonation often being off, but otherwise fully understandable). I imagine they feel the same way about us speaking Japanese.

      Reply
  2. The audio file won’t play for me.

    An odd example of the V/B confusion is “Ishval” from the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise. In the 2003 anime, it’s always romanised as “Ishbal”… but the other day, I was rewatching episode 15, The Ishbal Massacre, and noticed that it was spelled with the recent-ish “vu” katakana. Oops.

    By the way, internet uploads having the English dub over Japanese screentext looks unprofessional enough, but when an official streaming service does it…?

    Also, are “Ishbal Massacre” and “Ishvalan War of Extermination” two different translations of the same phrase, or are they different in the original Japanese too?

    Reply
    1. By the way, that question at the end was targeted towards no-one in particular, not Mato specifically.

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    2. The audio file should hopefully work now – the site got super hammered as soon as I posted it so files everywhere were timing out 🙁

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  3. Part of #8 is most Japanese IME accept “wapuro”-style transliteration (“wapuro” as in “word processor”). The focus is entering Japanese exactly, not accuracy of pronunciation.

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    1. According to Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Japanese#Modern_systems ) , Kunrei-shiki transliteration is taught in Japanese 4th grade. “Ta, chi, tsu, te, to” in Hepburn is “ta, ti, tu, te, to” in Kunrei-shiki. (Hence Natsume -> Natume, and Pikachu -> Pikatyuu.) IMEs accept both styles.

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      1. Haha, I actually had an entire example + pic + info about this originally, but I had dropped it due to the article being so long. I guess I should’ve left it in after all!

        Maybe I’ll merge it with the Pikatyuu example though, that should help I think.

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        1. Typing of the Dead! I love that game. One of the only Mature-rated educational video games, very responsive to input, and the writing is a hoot! It also has a solid tutorial and drills mode.

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      2. Y’know I’ve come to embrace typing in kunrei-shiki, or at least when it’s faster to type that way. It definitely helps orient your mind to how Japanese phonology works.

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      3. And in fact, that Pokemon typing game supports THREE separate IME-supported styles
        http://www.pokemon.co.jp/ex/typing/outline/#typist

        In addition to the two you mentioned, you can also enter small kana by writing an X followed by a romanized version of the kana in question – in this example, Pikatixyuu.

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  4. The thing with the “sh” sound being written as “s” is kind of interesting since that happened right in the title of Katamari Damacy.

    The thing with the “v” sound reminds me of the Game Over song from Daytona USA. The vocalist spells it out, but when they get to the letter V… well, it doesn’t really sound like the letter V. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVTVk_ETCg

    And here are the answers I came up with for the pop quiz:

    1: Divelopment Stuff = Development Staff

    2: Alart = Alert, Arart = Alert
    (double word score, nice)

    3: Buttle Balcan = Battle Vulcan

    4: Reminton = Remington, Harb = Herb
    (the “ng” sound wasn’t covered in the article, is it another common trouble spot?)

    5: Cray Fighter = Clay Fighter, Zonbies = Zombies
    (the difference between “are” and “ate” makes it seem more like a localization choice than a letter swap mistake)

    6: Marberry = Mulberry

    7: Cosmo Seilar = Cosmo Sailor, Score Adbance = Score Advance, Hight Score = High Score, Beem = Beam
    (since it’s a name, I’m not sure if “Cosmick Soft” is a misspelling of Cosmic or a stylistic choice)

    8: Axecaliva = Excalibur

    9: Harber = Harbor, Thankn Gear = Sunken Gear, Planetaliume = Planetarium, Libraly = Library, Erectric Room = Electric Room, Elevetor = Elevator

    10: Rushifell = Lucifer
    (I think I might like Rushifell better…)

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    1. If I remember correctly, the “Damacy” spelling of Tamashii wasn’t an error, it was intentional.

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  5. Another example is that in the bad ending of Kirby’s Dream Land 2, one of the enemies is named “Load Kibble” – which is presumably supposed to be “Lord Kibble”.

    The oddest thing about it is that not only is the spelling wrong, but the name itself is wrong too – this enemy is known as “Sir Kibble” in the other Kirby games.

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    1. Likewise, the frog enemy is named “Sir Slippy” in KDL2, guess flying for Star Fox wasn’t good enough for him…

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  6. Number 8 is supposed to be Axe Cleaver, and number 10 is Lucifer.

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    1. No, number 8 is “Excalibur”. Remember the a/e swap, the b/v swap, and the problems with -er.

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  7. Another case of tu/tsu is Miku Hatsune/Hatune. These days, after years of international popularity, it’s almost always the former, but ten years ago it wobbled between the two spellings on something like an 80/20 split.

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  8. The L/R swap is still fairly common in smaller localized games, especially ones that tend to do their translations in-house.

    Here’s an example I’ve found in the mobile game Moe Can Change, in the intro of their currently active event.
    https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/199544735935758337/435572643912220673/unknown.png
    Goofs like this make me suspect that different translators did different parts, but no one did a TLC to make sure everything was consistent.

    Another example – BanG Dream just released in English, and the translation there is really good, though it still has the occasional slip.
    https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/262653329665032192/435623451399684097/2018-04-16_22.09.38.png

    Reply
  9. Golden Sun’s translation (Which is frequently really off from the original text, with paragraphs of new text that give the game its infamous word count. It’s almost all grammatically correct so English only people never suspect the translation is bad.) includes a lot of examples. Most famously the “Breath” is translated as “blessing” (despite the game otherwise censoring religious references in the first game), which make work with “Dark Blessing” but doesn’t with “Fire Blessing”. Less famously are a lot of the place names: The Roman themed Trevi (as in Rome’s Trevi fountain) became トレビ which became “Tolbi”, Ymir (of Norse Myth) became イミル then “Imil” and Angkor went アンコル to Ankohl ect..

    Reply
    1. This is disheartening to hear.

      That reminds me of a similar mistake in Breath of Fire IV. Nina’s first move is named something wind related in Japanese, but in English was written Sever, a misspelling of Zephyr, which isn’t even a direct translation.

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    2. huh, I never thought that the place names were mistranslated even though Weyard is clearly based off Earth/Pangaea.
      I loved Golden Sun despite the complaints of it being “too wordy” and would like to know what the original version was like.

      The “breath/blessing” error was pretty well-known, and fixed for GS2

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    3. The best of course was Dullahan’s signature attack, Fulminous Edge (a sword made of lightning) becoming “Formina Sage.” The third game corrected that one.

      Reply
  10. For what it’s worth, the Sucker/Soccer enemy is written in Japanese exactly the same way Soccer the game is written, and without context, it would be the most logical thing to translate it to.

    Y Burns and Carl Boss are the ones that get me though, it seems like the translator didn’t get that a lot of the monster names are just English words in the first place. But then you have Farris’s dialog that has enough English understanding behind it to be in pirate speak.

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    1. Either multiple people worked on it, or the translator was an English speaker who had no time to think over whether “Y Burn” made the slightest amount of sense.

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      1. My understanding is that it was an early draft done by Ted Woolsey back in the SNES era, and a lot of this stuff was meant to be gone over and corrected later. Then the contemporary English release of the game never happened and the early-draft translation got tossed into the archives where it was dug up later and tossed onto the western PSX release of the game by someone that probably just took a quick look at it and saw that all the text was in English, so it was probably good enough and ready for release.

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    2. I really feel “soccer” was the result of a machine translation.
      It’s hard to imagine a human with an idea of the game’s content thinking “soccer” would make sense in a Final Fantasy game (especially of that age) without needing context.

      “Y Burns” sounds like something you’d have to have very little understanding of English to think correct.

      Reply
  11. I got a good one in an anime. Recently, i was rewatching some old DBZ, and during the early part of the Buu arc, there were people in the crowds holding up signs saying “Go Beedel” to cheer on the character Videl. First of all, i’m pretty sure this was only in the anime and not in the manga. Second, i’ve seen numerous sources confirming that Videl is indeed supposed to be the correct english spelling due to being an anagram of Devil. Third, I actually noticed this during DBZ Kai, and while i’m not surprised the anime staff in the early 90s would make a mistake like that, i’m wondering why it wasn’t corrected for the Kai release, like so many other errors were.

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  12. I’m not going to lie. When I put Japanese through a machine translator, and I get back syllable gibberish, my first instinct is to say it out loud with a heavy slur. I usually find the English word with enough accuracy. I love getting to read the exact reasons why this works though. Hell, I didn’t even know ‘th’ and ‘m/n’ were a problem until today.

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  13. Ah, I remember how this baffled me in VOLFOSS’s english text bits (shaRman, poNNy).

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  14. Amazing, you bought up both Metal Gear and “la li lu le lo” separately, all while never connecting the two. Your explanation of Japanese L/R sounds is probably the reason the thing with the Patriots may have more meaning to Japanese speakers.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGAZTwHakbg

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    1. There was the Player/Prayer shrine in Mother 3 in the same spirit.

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  15. Are you certain about the Tharja thing being a mistranslation? Nintendo’s recent FE efforts are known to take all sorts of wild liberties with character names, usually in an effort to make a bunch of them sounds more like generic western names.
    This has actually caused problems lately as there’s now a bunch of overlap between western names of new characters and the Japanese names used in some of the older titles.

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    1. I wouldn’t say it’s a mistranslation exactly, but more of just a spelling and consistency issue. I don’t know much about this particular piece of merchandise, but in my experience it’s very common to see spelling consistency issues exactly like this on game/anime/etc merchandise in Japan. Usually it’s because the English spelling is meant more as a decoration on the packaging than anything else.

      EDIT: Darn, I have a folder somewhere of this exact issue with merchandise packaging but I can’t seem to find it. Here’s a simple example from the official Mother 2 Paula figure though:

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    2. The “official” names have their own fanatic following who think anything NoA comes up with is good no matter what, to the point of going far beyond wikia editing wars and outright “retranslating” old complete translation patches for the Japan only games just to insert those names in and “fix the bad translation”, even if they are gleaned from the mobile version and if the official translators can’t make up their mind between the different cameos on a consistent name… or to be more precise don’t properly maintain a style guide to fanboy lengths Xseed goes with for the Trails series.

      The Fire Emblem and Tales Of series have this fascinating fan phenomena, and the newer games throwing off consistency and renaming minor characters and moves differently every single time, and the reaction to “catch up” and evangelize the new “canon” never fails to amuse. Cress / Cless, whatever everything in Tales of Hearts (either R, or cameos before it, or AFTER it) should be, and so on…

      It’s worth mentioning for Nintendo’s recent FE efforts, the name changes are the least of their problems. Just for an idea of how seriously they were taking it, a major location was renamed the “Boo Camp”, despite bearing no relation to Mario, courage test theme parks, or ghosts. If that’s NoA’s new canon terminology, I want out of it.

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      1. I haven’t actually played that particular FE game myself, but as far as I can tell Boo Camp is supposed to be a pun on ‘boot camp’! It’s an experience grinding map, set up as a test of courage on a supposedly haunted mountain. Seems reasonable enough to me, even if it’s not as intimidating as the Japanese name.

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      2. Tales has gotten especially infamous for this. Many artes which have had one consistent naming scheme got changed in recent years and some moves excluding one of the original kanji to make it sound cooler.

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      3. One official name I can’t get over is Forrest. From the in-game files that have to be in english cause coding, He’s named Foleo. Someone obviously mistranslated it as Foreo and decided to change that to Forrest. The fan reaction was to say it references his fathers magic attack that has a tree motif. When his name was more a reference to books which makes sense since he’s a mage and that’s their weapon. His cousin is also named after his fathers weapon in a way.

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  16. Also, regarding that Virtual Bowling mistake, give them credit for at least putting an “S” at the end:

    https://youtu.be/fV6bGtGDK2c?t=69

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  17. on n/m issues, those are basically a very prominent example of nasal assimilation (more can be read here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assimilation_(phonology) )but basically, a nasal sound will adjust to whatever sound comes after it, e.g. cant vs. camp. “canp” will almost always be pronounced “camp” by just about anyone really. people make a huge deal over the spelling “sempai” when in reality that’s exactly how it’s pronounced. actually the ん kana itself is fascinating because it basically represents a general nasal stop instead of any specific sound.

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    1. Yeah, languages will greatly vary based on how much (if any) assimilation their writing system will indicate. If a language borrows words from many sources, it can vary within a language. Hence, “impossible to unpack”.

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  18. These problems all seem particularly distinct in the Japanese spelling of “War of the Worlds”, Oo Obu Za Warudosu

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    1. It’s not “Oo”, it’s “Uo-” (ウオー), also “Wa-rudozu” (ワールドズ). The last one is another example that Mato didn’t directly touch on; sometimes in English, “s” sounds like “z”, but since Japanese writes it out phonetically sometimes you’ll see a “z” where the word would be spelled with an “s” in English. (And occasionally you’ll see the other way around as a hypercorrection, using an “s” where it ought to be a “z”, but that’s less common.)

      Reply
  19. Now I kinda want to see a game with a weapon called ‘Axecalibur’, because that’s a great pun.

    As for Tharja, Fire Emblem Awakening actually has some other pretty interesting name changes between the Japanese and English versions, some because of unclear kana but others because they weren’t even English to begin with! A lot of the Japanese names were obviously inspired by mainland European languages, especially French, but most of it was lost in the localization. For example, the name of the continent, the French word ‘iris’, became Ylisse, while Soiree became Sully, and the French names Henri and Denis became Henry and Donnel. Other European names like Licht and Riviera were changed too, to Ricken and Libra. And then there’s Vaike, whose Japanese name was romanized as Wyck, but pronounced closer to the related Dutch name (van) Wijk. That said, quite a few of the localized names are probably easier for English speakers to pronounce, such as Eudes becoming Owain. Some were actually really well thought out – a character named Nn became Nah to preserve a joke in her introduction, for example. It’s just a bit disappointing to lose that more specific cultural reference in the Western release.

    That said, the Fire Emblem series in general can be kinda hit-or-miss with its English localizations of names, which isn’t helped by the franchise’s long history, lack of or inconsistent official translations for older games, and tendency to draw on less familiar European languages and mythologies. It’s hard enough re-translating English terms that’ve been transcribed in Japanese, I can’t blame anyone for not being able to figure out something like Irish!

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    1. FE really does have a lot of fascinating stuff going on. I love to delve into all sorts of it’s localization versus original works much like this site. Though, more games other than Awakening as FE13 has been explored quite a bit! A lot of fun things pop up, though rarely did they ever do jokes such as Nn that needed to be localized in any fashion!

      On the tangent of obscure naming conventions, it’s thanks to Fire Emblem (GBA) that I had to get started on reading things related to King Arthur to understand where so many of the names came from! xD

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  20. Okay, I scrolled directly to the bottom so I wouldn’t see anyone else’s answers. Let’s do this!

    1) Development staff
    2) Alart/arart
    3) Battle Vulcan
    4) Blue Herb (also Reminton should be Remington, right?)
    5) Cray Fighter. Also Zombies Are My Neighbors, which is a game I really want to see.
    6) Mulberry
    7) Cosmo(s?) Sailor
    8) Excalibur
    9) Harbor, Sunken Gear, Planetarium, Library, Electric Room, Spaceship, Log Cabin, Elevator
    10) Lucifer

    I hope I win!

    Reply
  21. On the n/m topic, I remember some years ago on this very site dealing with some confusion surrounding the legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi, also known as Gumpei Yokoi. No wonder video games have a problem with this — the guy who started them is the problem himself! 😉

    As far as Rushifell is concerned, I always thought that was an intentional choice; clearly they weren’t going to get away with a straight translation, so something had to give. “Rushifell” maintains the same general character as the original while being sufficiently obscure to get by the censors.

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  22. The /r/ sound in standard Japanese actually is an “r” sound, specifically an alveolar tap. But it has allophones which include a trill, an “l” sound, and even an English like “r” sound! Also, I swear in some cases there are speakers that consistently pronounce /si/ as something more like “si” than “shi” to the point that when vowels are devoiced, it’s hard to distinguish between “shite” and “sute”.

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    1. That would explain why the whole “ar/er, or -> aa, oo” thing typically isn’t with loans from Spanish or Italian, which have the same /r/ sound as Japanese.

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  23. Very good article! I was kind of vaguely aware of some of these things, but I’ve never seen it broken down so thoroughly before.

    Allow me to share one of my favorite examples that wasn’t covered here. Anyone here ever play Wild ARMs? In the first game, a reference is made to a type of artificial person known as a “Holmcross”. Any guesses as to what they were trying to get at?

    If you guessed “homunculus”, give yourself an onigiri that the dub will change into a cookie.

    Also in that game, main character Jack Vambrace became Jack Van Burace, possibly because the translation team didn’t know what a vambrace was. (It’s a piece of armor for your forearm.) Much like the Varia Suit example above, both of these mistranslations were so memorable to fans that they were both retained for the remake.

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  24. Excellent article… It is a must-read for all retrogaming fans. Replaying games will never be the same again… they will be even more fun and interesting, as I try to decipher mysterious names and titles.

    Ninja Gaiden (NES) has some immediate names that jump out – Kelbeross and Nails of Lukifell come to mind immediately 🙂

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  25. I’m sure many people reading this thought about it, but the B/V problem made me immediately think of Vicks and Wedge from Final Fantasy VI’s USA SNES release. Since Vicks was supposed to be Biggs, in reference to those two from Star Wars.

    I wondered why they named him after a brand of ointment…

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  26. Great article!

    Regarding Fire Emblem, another example would be how the more prominent character “Marth” (マルス in Japanese) was localized as “Mars” in the OVA. (I’m more used to seeing マーズ more directly for “Mars” though, but one can see why they may have made that mistake).

    I also recall before Fire Emblem: Awakening’s official localization, people were confused as to why “Rukina” (ルキナ) became “Lucina,” much like Sallya to Tharja.

    This article should hopefully help enlighten people unfamiliar with the language and such. : )

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    1. マルス is the name of the Roman god!

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      1. Ah that certainly adds to it then! I was thinking in reference to a different character (the Pokemon D/P/Pt one xD)

        Just goes to show how that mistake can easily have been made!

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  27. The Japanese and German ways to pronounciate the different letters and words is very close up to nearly the same (basically, remember that u is mostly silent and you won’t have much troubles as a native German speaker to pronounciate Japanese words). So for me, it’s actually super easy to understand these mistakes perfectly.
    When you keep in mind that Japsn has no arabic letters and uses hiragana and katakana for every foreign word (usually katakana), a writing system where no consonant except for n stands without a vowel, and that these words are written in Katakana to represent their pronounciation instead, things get veeery clear.
    I have thus a problem if people claim that, for example, the japanese word for “bacon” is “bēkon” – the japanese and german “e” is spoken like the english “a” and “k” like “c” in “bacon”, meaning “bēkon” is not a japanese word – it’s the way “bacon” is written in katakana – it’s still the same word.
    All those mistakes are based on their phonetic writing of english words. Making it easy for me, as a natural german speaker, to simply read the words out loud and immediatly understanding them. Yes, even Sunken Gear and Lucifer.
    It’s the reason why I have an issue with the common usage of “waifu” and “husbando” from english speaking anime fans. It’s “wife” and “husband”, nothing more! It’s only topped by “Meri Kurisumasu”, that makes so many feel super smart of knowing how to wish “Merry Christmas” in japanese, despite Japan never having Christmas originally, and thus they simply took over “Merry Christmas” for themselves…

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    1. Also doesn’t help that I usually read “waifu” as “way-foo”, and not “wife”…
      >_>

      Reply
  28. I think I read somewhere that even in native speakers of languages that have distinctly separate R/L sounds, brain scans showed the same part of the brain was used for R/L (separate from other letters/phonics), explaining why it causes trouble for speakers of languages that only use one or the other.

    Same thing for B/V, explaining why this is also an issue for Spanish speakers.

    Reply
  29. Lucifer to Rushifeel feels as much like a Nintendo censorship choice as it could be a translation mistake.

    Zonbies Are My Neighbors? WutFace (that second mistake I would guess is a typo more than a typical Japanese spelling mistake)

    I wonder at what point Mario’s Time Machine could be ranked #2. I’m assuming sales or popularity. But Time Machine always seemed to be much lesser known than its predecessor. Maybe because people knew what to expect.

    The publisher of “Cray Fighter” was also misspelled. “Inter play” should be one word and not two.

    However, Mato. Your caption to the Tomagatchi screen contains its own mistake. Remember to finish your quote. 😉

    Reply
  30. Fabio or something

    Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga has something interesting related to L/R issues. There’s a character named ジョジョラ in Japanese. I’ve played both the English and German translations of the game, and the English version translates this name as “Jojora”, while the German (and vastly inferior) localization goes for “Jojola” instead.

    Reply
  31. Here are my answers to the Pop Quiz:
    1) Divelopment Stuff-> Development Staff
    2) Alart/arart -> Alert
    3) Buttle Balcan-> Battle Vulcan
    4) Blue Harb -> Blue Herb; also Reminton -> Remington
    5) Cray Fighter -> Clay Fighter
    Inter play -> Interplay
    Zonbies are my neighbors-> Zombies ate my neighbors
    6) Marberry-> Mulberry
    7) Cosmo Seilar -> Cosmo Sailor
    Score Adbance -> Score Advance
    Hight Score -> High Score
    Beem -> Beam
    Cosmick Soft -> Cosmic Soft

    The intro should say:
    You must go to the star of M.88 to escape, but it goes without saying that
    it cannot be easy. It is time to start now! You cannot help these following features!
    Good luck!

    8) Axecaliva -> Excalibur
    9) Harber -> Harbor
    Thankn Gear -> Sunken Gear
    Planetaliume -> Planetarium
    Here are my answers to the Pop Quiz:
    1) Divelopment Stuff-> Development Staff
    2) Alart/arart -> Alert
    3) Buttle Balcan-> Battle Vulcan
    4) Blue Harb -> Blue Herb; also Reminton -> Remington
    5) Cray Fighter -> Clay Fighter
    Inter play -> Interplay
    Zonbies are my neighbors-> Zombies ate my neighbors
    6) Marberry-> Mulberry
    7) Cosmo Seilar -> Cosmo Sailor
    Score Adbance -> Score Advance
    Hight Score -> High Score
    Beem -> Beam
    Cosmick Soft -> Cosmic Soft

    The intro should say:
    You must go to the star of M.88 to escape, but it goes without saying that
    it cannot be easy. It is time to start now! You cannot help the following features!
    Good luck!

    8) Axecaliva -> Excalibur
    9) Harber -> Harbor
    Thankn Gear -> Sunken Gear
    Planetaliume -> Planetarium
    Libraly -> Library
    Erectric Room -> Electric Room
    Space ship -> Spaceship(many people are not familiar with spaceship becoming two separate words.)
    Log Cabin is fine
    Elevetor-> Elevator
    Libraly -> Library
    Erectric Room -> Electric Room
    Space ship -> Spaceship(many people are not familiar with spaceship becoming two separate words.)
    Log Cabin is fine
    Elevetor-> Elevator
    10)Rushifell -> Lucifer(Rushifell happened because Nintendo of America was being too stereotypical and overprotective in terms of localizing video games before the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.)

    Reply
    1. Ignore my previous post! This post has the next to perfect answers for that pop quiz.

      The actual answers to the pop quiz are:
      1) Divelopment Stuff-> Development Staff
      2) Alart/arart -> Alert
      3) Buttle Balcan-> Battle Vulcan
      4) Blue Harb -> Blue Herb; also Reminton -> Remington
      5) Cray Fighter -> Clay Fighter
      Inter play -> Interplay
      Zonbies are my neighbors-> Zombies ate my neighbors
      6) Marberry-> Mulberry
      7) Cosmo Seilar -> Cosmo Sailor
      Score Adbance -> Score Advance
      Hight Score -> High Score
      Beem -> Beam
      Cosmick Soft -> Cosmic Soft

      The intro should say:
      You must go to the star of M.88 to escape, but it goes without saying that
      it cannot be easy. It is time to start now! You cannot help these following features!
      Good luck!

      8) Axecaliva -> Excalibur
      9) Harber -> Harbor
      Thankn Gear -> Sunken Gear
      Planetaliume -> Planetarium
      Libraly -> Library
      Erectric Room -> Electric Room
      Space ship -> Spaceship(many people are not familiar with spaceship becoming two separate words.)
      Elevetor-> Elevator
      10)Rushifell -> Lucifer(Rushifell happened because Nintendo of America was being too stereotypical and overprotective in terms of localizing video games before the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.)

      Reply
  32. Hey Clyde, do you think that #3, er-sounds, has anything to do with Japan choosing to base katakana spellings using a non-rhotic accent? This may have resulted from words being pronounced without rhoticity, and so having a long vowel sound. カー, for example, sounds closer to how car is pronounced in Boston or London, but カル is closer to how it sounds in middle America. As a result, the sound is correct for those accents, but it makes the spelling difficult, while if the standard had been to add ル where an r is, the spelling might be easier (or lead to further l/r problems). The long vowel sound is actually a significant problem for me when I hear English loanwords in Japanese, since I am a rhotic speaker myself.

    Reply
    1. I’ve got a bog-standard neutral Midwest American accent, and カー still feels closer than カル. The Japanese r is a way harder sound than a trailing English r, even in the most rhotic accent I’ve ever heard. It might have made spelling easier but it would have been even worse on pronunciation.

      Reply
    2. I definitely think that *when* a word is assimilated into Japanese (I assume the word “car” got adopted very early on) and *where* it’s primarily assimilated from plays a big part in how it gets romanized, but I’m not knowledgeable enough in imported word etymology to really say much about specific examples. My gut says that it’s probably just a coincidence in your example – other Vowel-R sounds (bird, bard, board, etc.) get the exact same “drop the R and elongate the vowel” treatment besides the “car” example so “car” simply seems to be a part of that same pattern.

      Reply
      1. Just a note, non-rhoticity isn’t limited to final r sounds, it applies to any postvocalic r, like in parking, word, or world (or those words that you mentioned). What’s interesting, though, is that there are examples of ル being kept with words that come from German, Dutch, and French, like ゼミナール, ビール and コンクール, so I’m actually thinking there might be something more to this worth looking into, but maybe it is just a coincidence after all.

        Reply
        1. I agree, that does sound like an interesting thing to look into someday. I fear I wouldn’t do it much justice, but now I wonder if maybe someone’s already done the research somewhere.

          Reply
        2. I can’t read the Japanese characters you’ve used, but it’s strange an R sound would be intact from German since it’s non-rhotic except in Switzerland.

          Reply
  33. What a fun post!

    In some parts of the US fandom, ‘sempai’ is used as kind of a wink wink, especially when you’re meme-ing tsundere sharks. Like ‘keikaku means plan’. So I think your ‘Sempai Legends’ was on purpose.

    Reply
    1. Interesting! The game itself it really struck me as a European game for some reason.

      Reply
  34. No one’s mentioned it yet, so I think I figured out the bonus question: “Wiznaibus” = “With Knives.” I think I’ve actually read that before, though it didn’t come back to me until I figured it out by reviewing the common issues, haha.

    Thanks for the write-up. I find these sorts of issues really fascinating. Amazing how a simple transliteration job can sometimes result in nigh-indecipherable gibberish.

    Reply
    1. My guess for “Weiznaibus” was “Wiz Knives” as in “Wizard Knives”; however “With Knives” makes more sense. I’ve not played Final Fantasy Tactics so I’m unsure as to the correct context.

      Reply
      1. Honestly that’s not a bad guess, it sounds like it could be a real move. I have played Final Fantasy Tactics a couple times, but context didn’t help me much. I spent a while thinking it was “with my” something, figuring it was overcompensating for an n/m problem.

        Seeing as it’s a move by the Dancer class, I guess it’s supposed to suggest “Dances With Knives”? I still probably would have gone “Knife Dance” as a localization, sounds less awkward to my American ears.

        Reply
        1. Knife dance probably would’ve been it, it makes more sense when you view the rest of the dance names as it’s more inline with the job as a whole.

          Reply
          1. In case anyone’s curious, the English PSP version of FF Tactics changed that attack to “Mincing Minuette”. Having played that version, and unintentionally confusing myself by looking for a dancing word in “wiznaibus” it took me longer to figure out what the word was supposed to be than it should have.

            Reply
    2. Wow, you’re fast! I added the bonus question to the post last night, and you answered it within just a few minutes, haha

      Now here is your black belt in Japanese spelling

      (okay it’s not really a belt or even black)

      Reply
      1. Luck of the draw! I must have just stumbled across it right after you added the bonus question, which explains why no one else had it yet, haha.

        I’ll wear my bert phone case wiz pride!

        Reply
      2. I actually remember figuring this out as a kid before I had any experience with Japanese at all. I think I played/thought about that game too much. It’s kind of obvious if you say it out loud, imo.

        FFT also had another similar recurring problem where the word “Breath” like “Fire Breath” was always translated as “Bracelet”. I’m guessing it was originally Bure-su in katakana or something.

        Reply
  35. Hey there,
    this is an interesting overview on various different cases.
    But there is one thing that you didn’t seem to elaborate much on. Because some of your examples, such as “Simada”, “Senjyo”, “Pikatyuu” or “Jyojyo” aren’t necessarily mistakes after all. These are actually a different type of romanization of the Japanese language, i.e. Kunrei-shiki. You’re assuming Hepburn to be the “correct” way of transcribing Japanese, but it’s nothing more than a standard transcription practice that is most common in Western countries. The Japanese on the other hand tend to use Kunrei-Shiki more often, which is why you have some such “odd-looking” transciptions, expecially in older games. You can look at most of the credits of 8 or 16bit games and they’re very likely to feature examples of Kunrei-shiki.
    And then there are also some Japanese, that like to play with written characters, spellings etc. For example when a Japanese name would be transcribed as Ôno in Hepburn, I’ve seen an example, where such a Japanese person would insist on “Ohno”.
    So yeah, Japanese writing and romanization is absolutely crazy…

    Reply
    1. Oh, no, please don’t misunderstand – I made extra-sure to avoid calling anything in that section a “mistake”. I explained in that section that there *are* multiple ways of spelling the same word and that Japan uses a different system. In some examples I also indicate that while these different spellings might seem like mistakes to native English speakers they’re actually not.

      Reply
      1. Oh, my mistake. Seems like I haven’t read carefully enough the first time.

        Reply
  36. One thing I’ve wondered for a while…the Pokemon Porygon, is it’s name just like ‘Polygon’ in Japanese? It seems like it could be an easy L/R switch, but considering Pokemon names usually consist of combining multiple English words they seem like they have decent localization done…but I dunno…

    Reply
    1. While it IS written ポリゴン in Japanese, which is the exact same way the word “polygon” is written, the official romanization of the name is indeed Porygon.

      Reply
      1. I think it might also have something to do with the words origami or tori (bird)…

        Reply
  37. Fuck Liefeld, Give Me Chew

    I wonder if the Parodius example is not a translation, but just a bit of weird, self-deprecating humor? It would fit the style of the series.

    Reply
    1. It’s possible but it’s not the only example of an L/R mistake in the game, so I’m leaning toward it being unintentional, especially given Konami’s track record with other similar problems at the time.

      Reply
  38. This “or” issue is why the notorious character known as “Pokey” in EarthBound…

    Not sure what you are trying to say here. Are you saying the issue is responsible for the character known as “Pokey” (as supposed to Porkey I’m guessing)? I always did wonder where the name Pokey came from!

    Reply
    1. Nevermind, I just saw the next panel and realized I spoke to soon haha. Can’t believe I never realized the name was supposed to be porkey.

      Reply
  39. Here’s how I usually explain it: put your hand in front of your mouth, and say the words ‘pin’ and ‘spin’. If you’re a native English speaker, the burst of air that comes out when you say ‘pin’ is noticably stronger than when you say ‘spin’. The same thing happens with t and k, like in ‘top’/’stop’ or ‘kill’/’skill’.

    That happens because English adds an extra strong burst of air to those consonants, what linguists call ‘aspiration’, and it’s something nearly all Germanic languges do. Every native speaker of English does it, but it’s something nobody notices, something which people might even deny.

    But the interesting thing is that some languages use aspiration as a way to distinguish words — most Indian languages, for example. So in Indian English, ‘sick’ and ‘Sikh’ rhyme, but they’re not homophones, they’re distinguished by aspiration. But that’s hard for other English speakers to figure out, because not only is it a subtle difference, but they’ve been trained to ignore the difference.

    The L/R distinction is the same kind of thing. They’re phonetically different sounds, but Japanese fuses them together into a single sound and Japanese speakers are just mentally trained to ignore the difference as they grow up learning the languge, just as English ignores what a Hindi speaker thinks of obviously distinct sounds. (And that’s backed up by evidence — there’ve been studies showing that Japanese infants can reliably distinguish between R and L, but that ability vanishes as they get older.)

    Reply
  40. This reminds me of unofficial translations of Kirby: Triple Deluxe that called the character Taranza “Daranza”, even though the intended translation is obvious as he’s clearly an arachnid.

    Reply
  41. Well, besides being a possible translation issue, I suppose Porky becoming Pokey was because they wanted to be sensitive towards fat people I’m guessing. At least it somewhat fits with his brother Picky’s name if nothing else. And of course who couldn’t forget the pun that is Porky’s Pokies from Mother 3?

    Reply
  42. Did a quick search on the Bleast Armer image: It is from the “MS Girl” (Mobile Suit Girl) series design by Mika Akitaka, this one being the girl version of MSZ-006C1 from Mobile Suit Girl Collection Winter U.C. 0087.

    Reply
  43. There’s one other example of the ‘er’ mixup that I know of off the top of my head. On at least one occasion in the original MegaMan Battle Network game, Protoman.EXE refers to his operator, Chaud, as ‘Load Chaud’ instead of his proper title of ‘Lord Chaud’. Here’s a screencap from google: https://lparchive.org/Mega-Man-Battle-Network/Update%2008/59-NotAgain098.png

    Reply

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