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I know there isn't a particularly distinct difference between L and R in native Japanese, but very often proper nouns and other non-translated Japanese names/words work their way into English translations. An odd thing I've noticed is that often when media is re-retranslated, Ls and Rs get flipped in proper nouns.

I've noticed this a lot in Final Fantasy games in particular (Rally-ho turned into Lali-ho), and generally the later translations had better English. However I haven't really noticed more Ls turning into Rs or vice versa; I haven't seen any particular pattern to the changes at all, so I'm wondering what (if any) logic is behind it.

Is there a "proper" way of determining whether a sound should be transliterated as an L or an R or are L and R picked simply based on which "sounds better" to whoever is doing the transliterating?

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In the case of FF it is also noteworthy that the/some names are also likely to have been created in 'English' and transliterated back to Japanese. This becomes apparent if you know a LOT of names in FF are based on ideas and mythology not from Japan (like FF8's Irvine apparently being based on the name of a town in America, and the numerous summons coming from various mythological sources). I imagine the original creator helps with the transliteration process, but that's guesswork. –  Frishert Jan 17 '13 at 16:29
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See ffcompendium.com/h/names.shtml for more information, and although this is not an official Square-Enix source, I think Occam's razor is valid a lot here. You can check the FF Ultimania books if you need a more legit source. –  Frishert Jan 17 '13 at 16:30
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The Dictionary of Intermediate Japanese Grammar (I think it's the intermediate one) has a very comprehensive appendix on the rules of katakana conversion. –  ssb Jan 17 '13 at 23:51

2 Answers 2

Are L and R picked simply based on which "sounds better" to whoever is doing the transliterating?

Sometimes it's this, and other times it's about figuring out which is correct.

It extends to more than just "L" and "R", by the way. For instance:

  • ロック・リー (rokku rii) (from Naruto) : Rock Lee
  • ジュリー (jurii) : Julie ... or jury
  • ジェリー (jerii) : Jelly ... or, Jerry ... or, Gerry...

The only way to decide is through context and educated guesses about what the author had in mind (or asking them). Working it out can be particularly difficult for names or newly coined terms, and even more so (for English speakers) if additionally the language it seems to be pulled from is some other language like German or Spanish.

A novel I'm currently reading has the character name ルルウ (ruruu). The other character names are エラリイ (erarii), アガサ (agasa), ポウ (pou), and so on.

Therefore, it is possible to deduce (although in this case the novel tells you) that these are references to famous detective fiction authors (Gaston Leroux, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe), and so those would be the appropriate translations. Sometimes, this level of research is required to produce a good translation (unless you can ask the author), and translators who miss cues like these, or fail to research them, will result in "flipped L/Rs" and various other things.

In other cases, the original author may not have a specific transcription or reference in mind, and then it would seem to be up to the personal preference of the translator.

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I'll talk about the case for made-up words(造語).

The tendency is that translators often romanize any ラ行(r-line) sound into R as a temporary measure simply because ラ行 sounds are shown as Ra Ri Ru Re Ro. That is because whether a ラ行 sound has to be written in L or R when romanized is something only the creator of the word would know.

Take your R(L)ali-ho example, whether "ラ" in ラリホー is intended to be written in L or R is something only the creators of Dragon Quest would know. You have to ask the creators directly or play the translated version of the game to know the proper spelling when it comes to words like ラリホー which does not give you a clear clue as to what language the creators want it to sound like.

In some cases, as Hyperworm mentioned, the creator does not even have a specific transcription in mind, in which case, the only thing that matters is the personal preference.

*edit:For some reason, I thought ラリホー was a spell from Final Fantasy by mistake. I don't know why I thought that and fixed.

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"By the way, ラリホー seems to have come from 'ラリる(Rari-ru)', which is a slang that means 'to be on drugs'." [citation needed] –  snailboat Jan 17 '13 at 19:15
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Thank you. I've done some serious research on that and now I'm not really sure, so deleted. I thought that's what all the people around me said about it but seems like only few people say that on the Internet. –  Sindry Jan 17 '13 at 22:19

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