I got my first Nintendo when I was 8. Little did I know that when I squashed my first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. that everything in this game had been created halfway across the world; and it had been made in another language first and then translated into English. In fact, that Goomba that I had just squashed wasn’t really a Goomba. In Japanese, the Goomba is a Kuribo which could translate into Chestnut Boy. But the translators of the video game thought I would have more fun squashing Goombas than Chestnut Boys. And they were probably right on that one. So how did they make these naming decisions for their foreign markets?
I’m no expert on translation, but I’ve done some work here and there. From my little experience in the field, it seems one of the most important things is to stay true to the original meaning of the source language while trying to make the translation sound as natural as possible in the target language. This brings up the question, how much liberty can a translator take with the original meaning to make their translation sound more natural in the target language?
Well, video games are a different type of translation so staying true to the original meaning isn’t so important. However, to respect the creators of the game, a translator should make their best efforts to honor the original intentions. After all, the creator decided on the name Kuribo or Chestnut Boy for a reason. So which English-translated Mario characters stay true to their originally given Japanese names and which don’t? Also, which characters sound natural in English and which don’t?
(Character which stays true to the original Japanese and sounds natural in English)
If you don’t know, Bob-Omb is Bomuhei in Japanese. He’s a short tempered bomb that lights his fuse when he sees Mario. Mario can use Bob-Omb’s explosive abilities if he can get Bob-Omb in the right place before he explodes. The Japanese Bomuhei is a combination of the word “bomb” and the suffix hei which is used for men’s names like in the name Shuhei. In English, the character’s name is created by combing the word “bomb” and the name “Bob”. The original intention of combining the word “bomb” with a name is kept intact and the English sounds natural. And by natural, I mean interesting. Bob-Omb wouldn’t be as fun if he was called something like “Bomby” or “Mr. Bomb”. This translation gets an A++.
(Character which stays true to the original Japanese but doesn’t sound natural in English)
Toad is Kinopio in Japanese. The word Kinopio combines the word kinoko which means mushroom and pio which just sounds cute. Using the pa-pi-pu-pe-po line in Japanese, you can make an adorable character out of anything. For example, let’s make a cute character for staplers. First take the Japanese word for stapler which is hotchikisu. Then chop it in half and add ppo to the end and you have Hotchippo. Put big eyes on Hotchippo and slap him on a few shirts and key chains and you got yourself a business.
Toad is named so in English because of the toadstool mushroom. But when I hear the name I always think of the animal toad. With this image in my head, this naming completely lacks the cuteness of the Japanese Kinopio. In fact, on the disgusting scale for animals, a toad is near the top of most people’s lists giving it kind of a reverse effect. We all know Toad is from the Mushroom Kingdom so there really is no need to further his “mushroomness” with a mushroom name that really isn’t that mushroom sounding anyway.
(Character which doesn’t stay true to the original Japanese but sounds natural in English)
Koopa Troopa in Japanese is Nokonoko which means nonchalantly. In the time of the first Mario, most of the enemies were pretty nonchalant in their work. Their job was to attack Mario but if Mario made an evasive move such as simply jumping over them, they wouldn’t even think to turn around. They took their one shot and if they failed, they gave up. That was the 8-bit world. This may be how the Koopa Troopa or Nokonoko was intended to be portrayed as.
However, the English name implies a soldier. He is a fierce Trooper of Koopa who has been trained (poorly) to kill Italian plumbers. The flying Koopa Troopas are called Koopa Paratroopas which makes the whole group seem like some sort of army. There is nothing nonchalant coming from the English translated names.
Koopa Troopa is still one of the main enemies and he’s even got his own Mario Kart character (this is probably because Goomba doesn’t have arms). I don’t think a nonchalant character could’ve pulled this off. The decision to go the path of warrior for this character was the right decision.
(Character which doesn’t stay true to the original Japanese and doesn’t sound natural in English)
In English his full name is King Bowser Koopa and in Japanese it is Daimao Kuppa which could translate to Great Demon King Koopa. So the English doesn’t totally ignore the Japanese, but it does seem to give Koopa a first name. This wouldn’t be that confusing if people called him just one name in English. However, since he is called both Bowser and Koopa in English, I can see how people can get mixed up. At first I actually thought they were two different characters.
They might’ve called him just Koopa in Japan because the Japanese are okay with calling people by just last names. There are people who work together for years and don’t know each other’s first names in this country. However, we foreigners like to go by first names so this may be why Koopa became Bowser Koopa. It also could be that I’m thinking way too much about this completely trivial matter and there actually wasn’t much thought put into the naming.
Anyway, I think people with only one name have kind of an iconic status like “Madonna” or “Yanni” (Yanni rocks!). Bowser Koopa could be someone I know (Nothing against the name. It would be awesome if I knew someone with this name). But Koopa alone is a rockstar.
The translation business has been around for thousands of years. However, when Nintendo sent Mario to the rest of the world, they were faced with a new kind of translation; the translation of interactive entertainment. While they might have made a few small mistakes here and there, they gave birth to interesting characters that took on new personas overseas and paved the way for how interactive entertainment is translated today.