"How do you say that?": Names and Pronunciation in RPGs

Since many RPGs originate in Japan, they typically have to endure localization, long or short, easy or hard, with a main concern being the adaptation of the names of various characters, places, events, and so forth, to English if the game has a non-Japanese setting. A benefit of one of the main Japanese character sets, katakana, used mostly with foreign words, is that names are spelled how they’re pronounced, which can in some instances make these names easier to adapt to English, should a localization team choose to directly translate these games.

For instance, in Final Fantasy VII, the protagonist’s name in katakana is Kuraudo Sutoraifu, rightfully Anglicized as Cloud Strife (I could put actual katakana characters in this editorial, but because some browsers might not render them properly, I will refrain from doing so). Other name changes, however, tend to cause more controversy, especially when the katakana has accompanying romaji (normal Roman lettering), as was the case with Aeris, even though the game’s Japanese propaganda clearly spelled her name as Aerith Gainsborough, with either name in this writer’s opinion being acceptable based on the katakana version, Earisu.

A more recent example of glaring name changes occurs in Star Ocean: First Departure, whose Japanese site has clear English names for the characters, alongside their respective katakana. Even so, the English version significantly changes many of these names, with Ratix becoming Roddick, Joshua becoming Ioshua, Ronixis becoming Ronyx, Tinek becoming T’nique, and so forth. Some of these changes, like Ratix to Roddick and Joshua to Ioshua (although the latter is an old Latin spelling of the name), are unusual for certain, although others are actually closer to the original katakana, like Ronyx (originally Ronikisu) and T’nique (originally Tiniiku).

Whether these changes are for better or worse is largely a matter of opinion, although if an RPG doesn’t have voice acting or if certain dialogues with these names lack voicework, many Anglophone gamers will have no idea on how to pronounce them properly. For instance, I originally had no idea Cait Sith was actually pronounced “Kett Shee” and for many years called him “Kate Sith.” Other names somewhat eluded and/or still elude me today, such as Cyan in Final Fantasy VI (See-yan? Sigh-yan? Sigh-en? I settle on the last one, after the color), and “Elw” in the Wild ARMs games (likely pronounced “el-loo,” according to the original katakana Eruu). Pronunciation guides certainly wouldn’t kill if a game has no voicework.

Sometimes, if a localization team is ignorant about mythology or incompetent, they might miss the mark when translating certain names, such as “Zeikfried” and “Fenril” (as in the Fenril Knights) in the original Wild ARMs and its remake, Alter Code F. The former is actually supposed to be Siegfried (pronounced “zeek-freed,” for those knowledgeable of German) after the Norse warrior, and the latter Fenrir, after the Norse wolf (with the butchered form “Fenril” sometimes appearing in other RPGs). Mistranslations may occasionally show up in skill/spell names, as well, such as “Dragon Bless” and “Reverse Moon” in Chaos Wars (supposed to be Dragon Breath and Rebirth Moon), with these mistranslations stemming from the fact that the katakana of “breath” and “bless” and “reverse” and “rebirth” are the same. Even so, translation teams need to exercise more competence in these areas.

In the end, though some may consider names and pronunciation to be trivial parts of RPGs, they may affect certain players’ experiences, especially if they don’t know how to say the names properly, or if the names are lousy. Could you imagine, for instance, if you were captured by a gang who called themselves the Desbats (although the pronunciation could be French, i.e. "Des-bah"), a dragon unleashed fiery “bless” upon you, or if you swam in a stream called “Linkle Liver?” As mentioned, some of these names largely stem from localization choices for better or worse, but if we don’t know how to say them, some clue on pronouncing them, aside from reading the original katakana (and not all of us know Japanese), wouldn’t kill at all; then again, maybe it would.

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