Big Brother Godzilla

10 Sep 2007
Godzilla

Godzilla photo by Nanther

For reasons which will become clear soon, I was researching Godzilla recently. I was curious about the name. Godzilla seems like a great English name, but it’s a Japanese creation, and the Japanese name is ゴジラ (Gojira). So I had to wonder… did the Japanese start with the English name “Godzilla” and transliterate into Japanese, or did they start with “Gojira” and semi-transliterate into the fantastic “Godzilla?” The use of katakana for the monster’s name to me suggests the former.

According to Wikipedia, it’s the latter. The Japanese name is a blend of the Japanese words for “gorilla” (ゴリラ) and “whale” (くじら), referencing Godzilla’s enormous size and power. That “Gojira” transliterated so neatly into “Godzilla,” a name which conjures images of god-like power in lizard form, is largely coincidence. I don’t know how the Japanese feel about the name, but I can’t help but feel that the connotations of the English translation of the name are even better than the Japanese original.

Then there’s the Chinese translation of “Godzilla”: 哥斯拉. All three characters could be considered meaningless transliteration, and only the first one could be considered remotely relevant semantically. means “big brother.”

So let’s sum that not-very-objective analysis up in a nice visual aid:

Godzilla Translations

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. You are aware that “Gojira’ was the nickname of a stage manager at Toho Studios in the 40s and 50s and Ishiro Honda named the monster after the guy’s nickname as a rib, right?

    This is very easily verifiable lore.

    “Godzilla” was cooked up by the American distributors to: a.) remove some of the Japanese-ness to the title, and while “Gorilla Whale” is powerful, the notion of a giant, “God-something” certainly carries the same weight.

    that is, until you compare the Japanese versions of the films and the English dubbed versions, then “Godzilla” is a paper tiger name. All of its oomph is neutered.

    If you want to investigate scare factor deeper than name, compare the original, Japanese version of the first GOJIRA film with the bastardized, Raymond Burr-inserted Americanized version called GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS.

    Hands down, the Japanese version is straight daikaiju playing up suspense and playing off of the still-fresh Atomic-bomb fears from WWII. The American/English version is retarded and pointless. It’s simply Hanging out with reporter “Steve Martin” (Raymond Burr) as he watches everything happen from a distance. It’s played for camp.

  2. Does your graphic mean the Chinese think of Godzilla as a benign creature?

  3. Being a transliterated word, we might expect to see more than one alternative for the Chinese version. The 紫光 input method gives “格斯拉”, which does appear to be in use (particularly in the title of the movie “Godzilla: Final Wars”), but not as common as 哥斯拉.

  4. Taiwan seems to follow Japan: 哥吉拉

    And it looks like the creators of the 1998 movie felt the same way about the translation – they punched it up to the more impressive “酷斯拉,” which at least rates a Haley Joel Osment stare.

  5. I, for one, found this entertaining and enlightening.

    Does the Chinese name’s reference to 哥 imply that violation of the One Child Policy could have monstrous consequences?

  6. I have long been a “passive” reader of your blog without ever commenting, but I have to congratulate you on this one, the “linguistic scare factor” made my day, I still can’t stop giggling…

  7. Godzilla is like a big, scaly Hello Kitty — you can endow him with whatever moods or intentions you want to. Is he a benevolent “big brother” (like his Chinese name might suggest), is he an avenger of wrongs, or just a scary monster? There’s an interesting discussion of how/why Godzilla is so many things to so many people (including rappers, Osama bin Laden, and geeks in his fans) in William Tsutsui’s book GODZILLA ON MY MIND.

  8. […] Sinosplice | Big Brother Godzilla (tags: monster godzilla gojira ゴジラ 哥斯拉 via:liana) […]

  9. Since he always trashes Japan, the Chinese name makes sense.

  10. So long Godzilla’s business is confined in Tokyo/New York, I can somehow understand why Chinese consider it benign.

  11. Of course if you think of “Big brother” in the orwellian sense, and the scare factor of that in Chinese society….I think it rates much more scary.

  12. So Copenhagen, Stockholm, Chicago, Morocco, Costa Rica … all have something to do with the Big Brother. Interesting.

  13. The Wizard,

    No, I didn’t know all that. I am no “Gojiralogist.”

    Thanks for the info.

  14. Diana,

    No, it just means the Chinese name isn’t inherently scary at all.

  15. Cheery,

    As I said in the entry, “all three characters could be considered meaningless transliteration….”

    I’m just trying to have a little fun here. Cut me some slack.

  16. That means in the 1998 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, the old Japanese man from the canning ship should have been muttering “Gojira” instead of “Godzilla” when Jean Reno jams a lighter in his face. Ha! I have found the one and only inaccuracy in that movie!

  17. haha, good one.

    and to Carl, I am pretty sure that the old japanese man actually says gojira.

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