Saturday, August 01, 2009

It’s a Secret to Everybody, Part Five: Name Origins for Final Fantasy

(This is a reposting of just one section of my rather extensive “It’s a Secret to Everybody” post on video game etymologies. Click the link to see the whole shebang. Links to other sections are at the bottom of this post.)


And then there’s Final Fantasy. In a sense, I’m barely going to even touch on this sprawling series. Since the first game debuted in 1987, twelve sequels have been released for various home consoles, each of them offering small universes teeming with characters borrowed from various worldwide folklores and mythologies, pop culture and countless other sources. Tracking them all down on my own would be daunting — not to mention pointless, since a long-running collection of them already exists online.

In fact, that very list — which is hosted at the website Final Fantasy Compendium — represents the progression of a project started by a guy named Mark Rosa back in 1995. I remember stumbling onto it shortly after I learned what the internet was and being blown away not only by how much these games drew from real-world sources but also how the background helped to deepen the game’s content. I don’t know what ever happened to Mark Rosa — the last version of the list is preserved online for posterity’s sake — but this list is most definitely a product of the work he did years ago.

So here, then, is my short take on Final Fantasy, focusing on mistranslation and origins obscured by the Japanese-to-English translation process.

Is it lame to say I have a favorite piece of video game etymology? It probably is, but at this point in this particular list, I think I’m light years beyond typical levels of lame. Regardless, my favorite of the series is that of a recurring, generic enemy character called the Malboro — or, sometimes, Molbol, Marbol and Morbol. (From my perspective, the name could be transliterated into English just as easily as Morbor, Marbar or Maruburu as well. The literal transliteration of the Japanese name would be Moruboru.)

bad breath or carcinogenic breath, depending on the etymology

It’s a lumbering plant monster that attacks with toxic breath. It’s presumed, then, that its name might be a reference to the Marlboro brand of cigarettes, which could also be interpreted as giving people bad breath in more than one way. However, others conjecture that the name could come from a combination of the Latin mal, “bad,” and the second word part boros, allegedly meaning “breath” in either Latin or Greek. I don’t think it’s true. Unless I’m mistaken, the words for “breath” in either language don’t look much like boros. A video game folk etymology, I guess.

Similarly, others claim a connection between this thing’s name and a purported Japanese onomatopoeia boro boro, which represents the noise of an upset stomach. From what I’ve found, boro boro more commonly refers to a low rumbling noise, specifically like that of a rolling object. Not being a Japanese-speaker by any stretch, I couldn’t say whether this word could refer to a volcanic digestive system or not. And yeah, I realize I said back in the Zelda section that the Japanese onomatopoeia for the noise of a large rolling thing is goro goro. I’m not saying it’s not. For all I know, Japanese abounds with onomatopoetic synonyms.

Certain games also feature a palette swap of the Marlboro called Oscar. Given the characters green color and nasty disposition, it seems like a likely reference to the Sesame Street character Oscar the Grouch.

sabin (sabine/mash/matthew), celes (celeste/celes) and terra (tina)

In previous posts, I wrote about Final Fantasy VI and the strange way certain character names were altered from the original Japanese version to the English one. (For example, I think the latter half of character pair of Wedge and Biggs sounded better with his original, mistranslated name, Vicks, in spite of associations with VapoRub.) Not all the switches are bad. The character named Cyan in the English version is Cayenne in the original Japanese, and I have to say that I prefer the color name over the spicy name.

One switch I didn’t mention is that of a character who in the Japanese version is named Mash but who in the American version is renamed Sabin. The popular belief — likely put forth originally in Rosa’s document — is that Sabin’s name could come from medical researcher Albert Sabin, who is credited with developing an oral polio vaccine, the connection being that polio inhibits the body’s motion and that the video game character is a martial artist who excels in fighting barehanded — thus, he has no problems exhibiting muscular control. Tenuous, I’ll admit, but slightly more meaningful than if the character had been assigned an almost unheard-of masculine form of the feminine name Sabina for no reason at all. Equally as unclear to me is the origin of the character’s Japanese name. Those who weigh in on various online forums on such matters disagree over whether Mash would be better translated as Matthew or something like Matthius or Mattheus. If nothing else, this confusion demonstrates how problematic it can be to translate from Japanese into English. (A commenter has pointed out that Mash may come simply come from the fact that Sabin’s special moves are triggered by entering specific button combinations, or by mashing the control pad. I like it.)

On a similar note, there’s a previous post I put up here on two other Final Fantasy VI characters: Celes and Terra. They’re arguably the game’s two central characters, with each being the protagonist of one of the game’s halves. When considered as a pair, with Celes meaning “sky” and Terra meaning “earth,” the names make for an interesting symbolic reading. Terra’s Japanese name, Tina, blows the connection, however.

(A reader emailed me with another note about Terra’s name that I felt was worth mentioning. He asked if the name could have a double meaning — “earth” from the Latin and “monster” from the Greek root terato-, meaning “monster.” This second root would actually seem to be the present in Final Fantasy VI in the name of the earth-elemental summon Terrato. As a name, Terra is pretty much always means “earth,” but because Final Fantasy VI’s Terra can actually transform into a monster, terato- doesn’t seem completely implausible.)

your run-of-the-mill phantom train

As does any good video game, Final Fantasy VI features an evil, sentient locomotive. It’s called the Phantom Train in the English versions of the game. A later sequel, Final Fantasy VIII, features a similar character called Doomtrain in the English version and, seemingly without explanation, something that approximates either Grasharaboras or Gurasharaborasu in the Japanese version. In a previous post, I talk about how the bizarro Japanese name is a mangling of a Glasya-Labolas — the name of an obscure demon in fringe Christian lore and whose appearance is described as being decidedly un-locomotive-like. This small oddity is marks one of the strangest video game references I have encountered.

Final Fantasy VIII uses the series’ rich history of meaningful names to enhance the game’s plot. Specifically, the game repeatedly flashes back to events in the life of a character called Laguna, whose name is Spanish for “lagoon” but also allegedly references Laguna Beach — neighbor to Costa Mesa, which was once home to the California offices of Squaresoft, the company that released Final Fantasy VII. The real hero of the game, however, is a pouty orphan named Squall, who leads a band of ragtag warriors to save the world but who never gets any confirmation as to who his parents are. The careful player knows, however: It’s Laguna and his ladyfriend, Raine. The game strongly hints at this, but the names practically confirm it: Laguna, Raine, and Squall each reference water in some way. The fact that Laguna’s last name is Loire — a river in France — seems to further emphasize the importance of water names. Entirely separate from this water-themed nuclear family but equally notable for this entry is another central character, Irvine, who is named for the Southern California city of the same name.

left to right: son, dad and mom of the water family

As if that wasn’t enough meaning to pack into or extract from Laguna’s name, there’s one bit more: Like most Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII features an airship on which the heroes can jet around the world. In this case, it’s named Ragnarok, after the kinda-sorta-apocalypse from Norse mythology. The word appears a few times in various Final Fantasy games, but in Final Fantasy VIII, it’s especially significant because its syllables, when represented in Japanese, bear a resemblance to those of Laguna Loire’s name represented in Japanese: ra-gu-na-ro. (If this little theory is correct, that final “K” apparently gets squeezed out of the Japanese pronunciation.)

That classic “L”/“R” confusion rears its head often, especially in earlier installments of the series. To this day, incarnations of Final Fantasy IV still feature a female character named Rydia, for example, though it seems fairly obvious that her name should be Lydia, an old-fashioned but not uncommon Western name. However, it’s always been Rydia , even in the Japanese literature featuring English characters, so Square is either running with the error or honestly wanted to name the character this.

rydia, then the two prince edwards

In Final Fantasy IV, Rydia finds a love interest in a ninja named Edge. And you have to admit: For a manly ninja character, Edge is a damn cool name. In what I can only interpret as a subtle joke, however, the character’s name is actually a contraction of his first name, Edward, with his last name, Geraldine, which is far, far less cool. I mean, I’d go by Edge too. Edge’s real name is especially notable in that he shares it with another playable character, Edward, a bard. Both characters happen to be princes. In the Japanese version, this second Edward is named Gilbart — that is, not Gilbert — and I wonder if that second syllable is supposed to be a play on the word bard. Most likely, Gilbart ended up being Edward in the American version as a result of the fact that Gilbart has more letters than the American system was programmed to accept. Nonetheless: two princes named Edward in one game.

The latter, lute-playing Edward — whose full name is Gilbart Chris von Muir, curiously, with Chris being his middle name rather than Christopher — is clearly the inferior of the two, though he, like Zelda II’s Error, has helped generated one of the most famous video game geek catchphrases. The original script of Final Fantasy IV had another character denounce Edward as a “spoony bard” — a line that has remained in subsequent translations of the game despite its strangeness. Though quite a few regard the line as a mistranslation, it’s not technically incorrect. The word spoony, “enamored in a silly or sentimental way,” is both a legitimate English word and an accurate description of Edward. It gets made fun of anyway. The original Japanese insult, however, has been translated as “son of a bitch.”

Excluding a giant chunk yet to come, the only other Final Fantasy IV characters I felt merited etymological discussion were two that previously got their own posts: Ogopopogo and Octomammoth. Click through if you remember them or have any interest.

Regarding further “L”/“R” confusion, the cast of Final Fantasy V fares even worse than poor Rydia — and that would seem more or less typical for the game I consider the one “feminist” Final Fantasy game. One character gets translated variously as either Lenna or Reina, the latter of which means “queen.” A second is always known as Faris, though I can’t help noting that her name, if it were to suffer an “L”/“R” switch, would become something a lot like the English word phallus, which seems especially notable when you consider that Faris is a woman masquerading as a man. (And then some: The male protagonist’s name, Bartz, is Butz in the Japanese version. That puts Phallus, Butz and Queen going on an adventure together.) Partway through the game, the player finds that Faris is Lenna’s long-lost sister and her real name is Sarisa. Considering it refers to a type of Greek spear but nonetheless sounds feminine, it’s a fairly appropriate name for a strong female character, phallus jokes aside. Unfortunately, the game’s first English translation mistakenly transliterated Sarisa as Salsa, which isn’t a good name for anyone. And yet the biggest loser in the translation game would be a third female character, Krile, whose English name was apparently the best approximation of the Japanese Kururu, even though previous fan-made translations used the far-better Cara and even Carol would have probably done the trick.

And one of the spin-offs, Final Fantasy Tactics, seems to feature the same famous name translated in two different ways and assigned to two different characters. The game’s hero is a member of a family by the last name of Beoulve, which looks a great deal like a mistranslated version of the name of the epic hero Beowulf. Appropriate though the connection might be, it’s probably a near-miss, as the game features another character named Beowulf. Still, the resemblance is remarkable. And I have never heard of any better theories for where the name Beoulve comes from.

Final Fantasy, previously:
The whole “It’s a Secret to Everybody” series:


  1. "In a previous post, I talk about how the bizarro Japanese name is a mangling of a Glasya-Labolas..."

    That's not a mangling-- gurashya-raborasu (グラシャ・ラボラス) is exactly how that name would (and should) be rendered in Japanese. There's no corruption taking place here.

  2. As a follow-up, "Gilbert" and "Gilbart" are phonetically identical in Japanese. So, this insistence that it is definitely Gilbart and definitely not Gilbert that I constantly see everywhere honestly confuses me, because it probably is Gilbert.

  3. ...One last thing (I really should read through the whole article before I submit comments!)-- Bartz/Butz is a similar issue. Both would be rendered as Baatsu (バーツ)-- "Butz" is just a very, very popular mistranslation.

  4. Hmm. Well, I guess I'll respond to these in order. I suppose when I say "mangling," I'm not so much referring to some sort of incorrect translation as I am the obfuscation process that can result from taking a English word and rendering it in Japanese (or vice-versa). It's not a knock against either language, just a comment on the fact that translating between the two can make a word unrecognizable.

    I get what you're saying, but I personally am not insisting that the FFIV prince's name is one thing and not something else. However, it seems worth mentioning that in Western culture Gilbert is a name and Gilbart really isn't. So it would seem more likely to me that the character's creators intended that his name would be the former and not the latter.

    And, finally, I don't know if we can say that Butz is a mistranslation because the name was officially translated as such in the original English version of FFV. If it's a valid way to render the Japanese name using English characters, I'd feel more comfortable calling it "an unfortunate translation," because, let's face it, it sounds just like "butts."

  5. Hm, was it? I thought I remembered the "Name your character" screen being blank by default. Maybe they changed that in the GBA version? I've only played the FF Anthology version, which I think was the first official English release. Maybe I'm just talking out my ass here.

    (If we want to get REALLY pedantic, though-- and who am I kidding, of course we want to get really pedantic-- "Bartz" strikes me as a more natural translation of "Baatsu" because the extended "a" sound is usually used to approximate an "r". But that's immaterial because I'm not an expert and my opinion doesn't hold a lot of weight!)

  6. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Forgive the necro, but I just Googled my way here somehow. Interesting post and I'll be working my way through the whole thing slowly.

    I noticed that Gilbart is just a character swap from Glib Art. Good name for a bard. A coincidence, I'd guess, but a mildly interesting one.