When translation goes wrong - Nintendo sparks protests with latest Pokemon translation

June 2, 2016
When translation goes wrong - Nintendo sparks protests with latest Pokemon translation

Protestors in Hong Kong are demonstrating the importance of consulting with a localization company when it comes to translation. They have taken to the streets over Nintendo’s latest Pokemon translation. 

The background

Nintendo’s translation comes at a time when many of those in Hong Kong are concerned that the use of Cantonese is diminishing, with Mandarin slowly taking hold as the more commonly used language. 

Hong Kong has traditionally been a linguistically diverse location. Both Chinese and English are the official languages, with Cantonese spoken by the vast majority of residents. Until 1974, English was the sole official language, but on the streets it was Cantonese and other Yue Chinese languages that were used most commonly. Speakers of Hakka Chinese or the Teochew dialect of Southern Min were also present.

Hong Kong’s history of accepting migrants has had a significant impact on the languages spoken there. The number of immigrants from Guangdong Province meant that Cantonese has been the de facto official language for decades, but of late there is concern amongst locals that Mandarin is being used more widely, to the detriment of Cantonese. 

Nintendo’s translation fail

Japanese company Nintendo is well used to translating its products. The company’s games are loved around the globe. For consumers in Hong Kong, Nintendo has always offered two translations for its Pokemon games and cartoons since the original 1995 release: Cantonese and Mandarin. However, the latest translation of Pokemon character Pikachu has sparked protests as a result of Nintendo’s controversial decision to only translate the character’s name into Mandarin. 

In Mandarin speaking regions, Pickachu has previously been translated as Pi-ka-qiu, according to a video report by the Wall Street Journal, while in Cantonese speaking regions it has been translated as Bei-kaa-chiu. However, the latest Pokemon video game uses the Mandarin Pi-ka-qiu as the character’s sole official Chinese name. 

While the pronunciation is very similar, the decision has sparked a wider debate regarding the role of language and translations in relation to cultural diversity and individuality. 

Translation protests in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, protests regarding the translation have taken place outside the Japanese consulate, with protestors calling for the Cantonese Bei-kaa-chiu to be reinstated, rather than using the Mandarin characters, which in Cantonese are pronounced as Pei-ka-yau. 

The debacle shows the importance of using localization services when translating into another language. Cultural sensitivities can be a very emotive subject and even large, international companies like Nintendo are not immune from taking a mis-step when it comes to translation, as the current protests in Hong Kong have shown. 

Those protesting against Nintendo’s latest translation decision have stated that the renaming is disrespectful to Hong Kong’s language and culture. They have accused Nintendo of seeking to please its largest overseas market – China – at the expense of its loyal fans in Hong Kong. 

Nintendo’s decision has hit a nerve due to the sensitivities around Mandarin’s gradual replacement of Cantonese in Hong Kong. The activist group Civic Passion, which is known for its support of indigenous Hong Kong values, culture and language, led the demonstration. 

Nintendo has stated that the decision was introduced for standardisation purposes, but declined to comment further. 

Final thoughts

Have you had first-hand experience of this kind of corporate insensitivity when it comes to translation and localization services? Why should companies be particularly sensitive to matters of language and culture when they market their products overseas? Share your thoughts on Nintendo’s translation fail and the wider context by leaving a comment in the box. We look forward to hearing your views on this matter. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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