Answerman How Do Franchises Keep English Translations Straight?
by Justin Sevakis,
I've been watching the Pokémon anime recently, and it's made me wonder about the translations of Pokémon names, which are different between Japanese and English, and how they keep the same name though the different media Pokémon can be consumed through (games, anime, and manga). And, branching out from Pokémon, how are translations standardised between diferent media formats for other shows/books/games? Does the first company to get rights to the series get to decide on translations, or do subsequent rights buyers just look at previous translations as guides (or not at all)? Do the parent companies have an input into translation standardisations?
When it comes to big, multi-billion dollar (or billion dollar) franchises like Pokémon, absolutely no chances are taken that there will be much inconsistency in how characters' names and likenesses are recreated across different properties. The company acting as its central licensing office's job is to ensure that there is one set style for how things are to be translated, and will enforce that style with all of their partners.
The master rights holder for those big franchises will create a "style guide" -- a huge document that lays out every character, their names (and their proper spelling, capitalization and punctuation), and what they look like. They call out key points in the designs of each character, proper coloring, and key elements of their personality and back story. This isn't written like it would be for a consumer guide book; rather, this is a no-nonsense guide for professionals so that they can create new materials with these characters consistently.
In addition to characters and their names, the style guides also contain all the official variations of the property logos and trademarks, and give guidance on how they are to be used. (For example, use this version on a light colored background, but use that version over a black background.) Guidance on how characters may be depicted on merchandise (ex. Pikachu must never be depicted on merchandise unsmiling; Naruto's hair spikes may never be even partially cropped out) is also included. Restrictions on language, types of merchandise, broadcast networks, and every other possible rule are often mapped out here.
These style guides can run hundreds of pages long, and they get updated regularly as the franchise progresses and new characters and elements are introduced. They can make for quite a tome, but for people working on various aspects of the show, they're an invaluable tool.
Only the most high-profile, big money franchises get a full style guide. Most smaller shows just get a handful of informal guidelines that are worked out between the producers, and enforced by the various licensors for the property. Some producers are far more strict than others.
Even that slight oversight is a huge difference from the old days. Back in the 90s you basically had no oversight at all over most anime, which is why you ended up with incidents like the original Heroic Legend of Arslan OVAs: the translator blindly had to guess at what the character names were supposed to be like in English, and how he wrote it got interpreted entirely differently by the dub staff. Then when later installments came out, the licensor insisted on completely different spellings, which were interpreted by a different dub staff in an entirely different way. It was a total mess.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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