Translation challenges: the tradeoffs of title translation with “Godzilla”

By | May 17, 2016

When translating some form of media from it’s original language into another language, the translation of the title is extremely important – nearly as important as choosing the title for the original work. A good title manages to capture one’s interest to learn more about the work in question, or at least stands out enough so you don’t easily forget it. It also should be different enough from existing, or at least well know movies’ titles to avoid confusing people (of course there are exceptions to this for certain in-demand titles).

Because of these things, titles are often translated quite non-literally. One good example of this is the movie “Big Hero 6”, where the Japanese title is actually “ベイマックス” (Baymax). I feel this is actually a more fitting title than the original, since the impression of Baymax as a central character far outweighs the other side characters.

“Godzilla” is one movie I think most of us are very familiar with, and I had heard of this movie long before I ever began studying Japanese. In fact, it was around way before I was born (1954!).

I stumbled upon some people having a conversation the other day about how they didn’t like this movie title, and how they actually preferred the sound of the original title, “Gojira” (ゴジラ, or written in Kanji as 呉爾羅). It was said this word was originally created as a mix of the Japanese words for whale (“kujira”, クジラ or 鯨) and gorilla (“gorira”、ゴリラ). It’s also interesting to note that some other names were based off of “Godzilla”, such as the software bug-tracking system Bugzilla.

If you look up the first movie from 1954, you’ll see the original title was simply “Gojira”, though this got changed to “Godzilla” at some point.

From a translation/marketing point of view, I can understand why they changed the title to “Godzilla”. The “God” part not only stands out and is easy to remember, but has the connotation that the monster is God-like or as powerful as a God. The “zilla” part also seems much more exciting or leaves a stronger impression than the simple “jira”. I also feel the strong “d” sound created by “dzi” adds to the word’s overall impact. Finally, I feel there is a similarity to sound of the old “Gila Monster”, and the “Godzilla” name seems to help emphasize that.

I didn’t directly ask why these people didn’t like the sound of “Godzilla”, but I am guessing because it contained the word “God” which is a special word filled with various nuances. Regardless of their reasons for preferring “Gojira”, surely there would be some who would dislike something likened to “God”.

The translator had to balance the tradeoffs of having a more memorable, meaningful, and impactful title vs. the detractor of those who would be turned off by a named associated with “God”. In the end, the movie became quite famous, so I don’t think anyone would claim the translation was done badly. But in the modern age, I wonder how this would have been translated. Possibly they would have just kept with “Gojira”?


Wikipedia for Gojira (Japanese)

IMDB for Godilla

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