Did you ever play a game that was obviously translated?

edited December 2010 in Story Games
I'm part of the small but thriving Swedish indie RPG scene. And I have been thinking about translating games a lot. Recently the question has been raised by others.

On The Jank cast #70 - International gaming where the hosts ask about games from other parts of the world, and there was a double episode on Fear the Boot a while back where the hosts also inquired into gaming in other parts of the world. I think there is an interest in the English speaking community to see games from across the world, but there is a language barrier. "Everyone" speaks English, so games in that language have the potential to reach the whole gaming community. But games in French, German, Swedish or any other language, from other parts of the world are limited to their home markets.

At the same time a few people make an effort to spread games outside their home markets. Like Zombie Cinema and Norwegian Style , or the extraordinary Italian translations that we read about here on SG every once in a while. Or even the rumored fan translation of the Swedish RPG Mutant into English.

On the Swedish RPG community Rollspel.nu there is a discussion in progress about translating games (Translated by Google). Different views on the matter are raised, some focusing on the effort and expense of translating games well. Pro translators don't come cheap, and if you translate yourself you'll get poor results, even if you are "good at writing English".

Now to my question:

Did you ever play a game that was obviously translated (by an amateur)?

If you have that game that was written/translated by a foreigner, but one couldn't tell by looking at the text, I'm not interested in hearing about that. But if you have read/played a game that was obviously translated by an amateur, or written by someone not having the language as his/her first language, tell me about it!

Was it an obstacle for understanding the game?
Was it an obstacle for enjoying the game?
Did it lower your experienced "value for the money" factor?


On a side note, I did the translation of While the world ends myself, and some SG:ers volunteered and did a round of proof reading for free. At that level the effort was acceptable on my part. But I haven't heard from anyone who bought it regarding their experience.

Is that level "good enough" when it comes to small indie games?


  • Well, I never played it, but I bought Cadwallon and drooled over the pictures some. I read a bunch of it, but this is like a 300-page roleplaying tome that was apparently translated from French in a week, or maybe two. And boy, does it show! The English is very poor all throughout the book. If you look at the wargame version, Confrontation, the translation job is much better, but the rulebook is much shorter and that game obviously makes a lot more money than the rpg.

    It's a game I'd like to try playing at some point, but the poor translation creates a bit of a barrier. I can read it, don't get me wrong, it's just not that pleasant, and I'm not going to be able to get anybody else to read the rules either, so I'd have to teach it in order to play.
  • I haven't got my mitts on it yet, but I just won OPERATION: FALLEN REICH in a competition.

    Evidently it's a Swedish Cthulhu-inspired RPG that sports fab production values and graphic design, but is written in pigedon engleesh (sic). The guy who offered it up as the prize just wanted to get rid of it, with one contributing reason being the middling English it's written in.

    I'm actually looking forward to reading and playing it. It's the full version plus the Life Board, woot! I'll post back with answers to your three questions when I get it.
  • Ahh, O:FR, I have not played it, but I have seen it in action. The life board is awesome. The game itself is in the trad school of gaming.
  • One of my favourite gaming books is Eero Tuovinen's "Solar System" (link).

    I'm including it here because it is very obviously written by a foreigner, not a native English speaker: on one hand, the prose is well-constructed and speaks at a high level of intelligence; on the other, much of the phrasing is non-idiomatic, with slightly eccentric tendencies that border on awkward. I've never met a native speaker who would simultaneously write and express himself at such a high level while also occasionally putting together sentences in such an odd fashion.

    You've all read Eero's posts here on the forum: he is always eloquent, clear, and expresses himself with great intelligence. So, if anything, his particular "voice" adds to the quality and charm of the text, rather than detracting from it. It is even possible that he has put extra effort into making sure he is being understood (knowing that he is not writing in his native language), and in that sense the prose might be better than what a native speaker would produce. So, while the text is occasionally quirky (not in the sense of incorrect grammar, but more in a sense of... "Hmmm! I'd never thought of saying that that way!"), it certainly doesn't suffer from this fact. Eero's prose reads as the work of a highly skilled author, with only occasional, eccentric subtleties suggesting the author might not be a native speaker, rather like someone speaking fluently but with a very light accent.

    Every other translated game book I've ever seen was translated so poorly I can't even begin to take it seriously (aside from high-level professional work, which should not be detectable as a translation).
  • Thanks Paul, I was just thinking of saying that about translations and inter-cultural cultural communication in general: what I really like about game texts and other texts in general from distant corners is when they feel fresh and approach the language and communication from exotic perspectives that would never occur to the natives who largely from out of the orthodoxy of their own language schooling. I'm very annoying to editors and such as a writer because I believe in no normative language whatsoever as a writer and reader, and am quite willing to admire texts that are obviously "wrong" just because they sound nice and match their topic well.

    (I expect that this is not by any means an universal language experience, rather it's likely to be more because I'm a writer and thus have a rather more intimate relationship with language than the average reader. I like poetry, too, and so on. It's definitely true that I've gotten just about as many complaints about Solar System being dense and difficult to follow as I've gotten kudos for its personable voice...)

    I am usually very fond of games translated into Finnish. This is always a challenge, as languages have very different vocabularies and roleplaying games tend to use a rather challenging terminological space, so distinguishing between the "goblins" and "hobgoblins" and "bugbears" and all seven sorts of monsters-under-my-bed is an interesting linguistic challenge to begin with when your culture doesn't have the same exact historical accidents generating the fantasy vocabulary. I do mock these efforts gently now and then, but there's rarely a "wrong" choice in this regard, and I do enjoy the Finnish-language Cyberpunk 2020 and red box D&D quite a bit for their successes and idiosyncronies, to pick a couple of examples with particularly colourful language.

    Insofar as I'm concerned I'd welcome more inventive translation work when the rpg culture expands over language-barriers. Translate French games into English and leave all the technical terms into French for me, just so I'll remember where the writer is coming from, by all means. Or give the Swedish monsters and places in the fantasy game their original names, not everything has to recycle the concepts and color of old Anglo-celtic folklore. Use weird grammar and play with the language, that's what makes it a pleasure to read. I admit that this is not obviously compatible with also being comprehensible for the liminally literate set in the audience, but that's artistic risk-taking for you, and certainly not a good idea for every project.
  • Out of curiosity, does anyone have any comments along these lines about the translation of Maid RPG? I am (just barely) a professional translator, but not the kind that can handle medical documents or patent filings, and Japanese is a lot further from English than Finnish or Swedish. Given how much time I put into Maid RPG (and how much stress it caused me in the rush to be ready for Gen Con) I can't hope to be objective about it (plus my current job exposes me to so many bad translations that I may be getting desensitized, at least as a reader), and of course I want to do the best I can for future translation projects.
  • edited December 2010
    Also, I wonder if there is a difference for the required level of language for communication between cultures where neither have the language of the communication as their first language.

    E.g. When I did my first post I almost mentioned Solar System as a game written by a foreigner, but that still had perfect English. Now Paul reported that it was oddly worded in places, I'll assume that Paul is a native speaker for the argument. But I could not tell.

    Could it be that my acceptance for bad English is much higher than a native speaker's simply because I can't see the errors? I am somewhat of a grammar Nazi when it comes to Swedish, yet I have never considered any of my English language games as being Good or Bad in the language, merely judging how easy or hard they are to read/learn.

    If that is the case, and the situation is universal, then there would still be a value in badly translated games, as everyone who is not a native speaker of English could enjoy the games.

    I am interested in hearing from pretty much anyone what their thoughts are on this matter.
  • I liked the translation of Maid, I felt that it captured the original text well - insofar as I can know without reading the original, of course. I'm easy to please in many ways, of course.

    And I agree with Wilhelm in that foreigners have completely different language levels and different proficiency profiles altogether than natives. I wouldn't necessarily characterize this difference by saying that foreigners have a lesser level of skill, though. Rather, thinking of my own relationship with English and that of many people I know, I'd say that it's not uncommon at all for a foreigner to achieve a level of mastery in a language that is strangely perpendicular to the native's - I wouldn't say that I'm better in English than the average native bear, for example, but my vocabulary and sheer literacy is clearly above the average expected of Americans - I don't do completely normative language well, but I'd be willing to bet that I have more exposure to weird historical, poetic and geographically distant lexicons than a person who merely uses English in their everyday life. This seems to be so common among Finns who use English in their everyday hobbies (gamers being one demographic I know well) that I'm almost willing to claim that it's a feature: while most of us have absolutely atrocious spoken accents, the average Finnish gamer seems to possess a level of fluency in reading English (passive literacy, not necessarily extending to active use) that characterizing it as inferior to the native as a matter of course would be short-sighted; not everybody is astounding in this regard, but anybody who can parse the Gygaxian Dungeon Master's Guide is already well on their way to a weird lateral form of English literacy where "thees" and "thous" are considered quite intelligible ;)

    The above is not necessarily surprising when you consider the demographic bias inherent in selecting for European roleplaying hobbyists. The high level of literacy required to parse roleplaying books practically guarantees that any non-English-speaking roleplayer (or GM type at least) will by necessity have a lifestyle that supports and encourages the sort of skill-set required in parsing these books. Therefore I wouldn't be surprised if the tendency towards high levels of education and cultural hobbies that's present in the American roleplayer demographic is even more pronounced among non-English-speaking roleplayers. And these are exactly the sort of people who might be expected to enjoy complex, unique language use. You're more likely to get calls for simple, intelligible language from native speakers, as those have much more perspective on the relative difficulty of the grammar and vocabulary a writer might use. And of course the native has been schooled to practice simple and easily intelligible language for everyday communication purposes, where the foreigner is mostly using English as a vehicle of aesthetic expression and other high-faluting cultural purposes. For us foreigners writing in English is for enjoyment in the first place, so it's no wonder if we don't adapt an everyday dialect; it's the same phenomenon you get with later Latin, as the language served more and more as a tool of art instead of everyday life, and soon nobody even could write it in any register but a literary one, as they'd never used the language in an everyday context.

    This is all, of course, a pathetic defense of Solar System: it's not that Wilhelm's used to an inferior form of English, but that he doesn't have a plain speaking bias to a language he only uses in literary form, and therefore he's not bothered by my florid writing-style in the same way a native would be :D
  • I know that I'm pretty picky about English wording. I even get annoyed at authors for making purely subjective choices differently from how I would have, and right now my day job is basically nothing but being picky about wording. OTOH when I read something in Japanese that's unclear it's hard for me to tell whether it's actually unclear or I'm running up against a limitation of my Japanese language skills.
  • I'm an unusual case: I'm not a native English speaker, but I picked it up quickly enough and early enough in my life that no one can tell. I teach English (both written and spoken, but mostly written) occasionally, though not professionally (I have no background in English education).

    I agree with everything you wrote above, Eero. My own understanding of English is much better than, say, my girlfriend's, simply because I had to puzzle out some of its idiosyncrasies while learning the language, whereas she just goes on instinct and doesn't always know when she's making a "mistake".

    And, just because you used the word "defense" in your post, let me be clear that I think the booklet is fantastic, and I consider it one of the best-written gaming books I own. It's just written in a voice that doesn't sound like a "natural" native speaker, for all the reasons you outline in your post. To me, that is a feature of the book, not any kind of flaw. I like authors how write with personality. (Joseph Conrad is another good example in this vein, as a non-native English speaker, by the way.)

    If anyone's really curious, I can look through and point out a few sentence from the booklet to show what I mean. Any excuse to reread the Solar System one more time is fine by me!
  • I used to collect translation mistakes/weirdness in my little black book of horrors... wish I could get my hands back on it (I'm still fond of "bastard sword" translated as "épée de batard" i.e "Sword of a bastard", that one is just too good to forget, especially when one remembers the English words comes from the French).

    Games obviously translated ? Werewolf the Apocalypse is still rather famous in some circles for its French version... Just browsing the fourth cover would give you "When will you rage ?" translated as "Quand ferez vous rage ?" which... well uses French words and actually looks like French. Typical example of what very short window frame with multiple translators and no centralized editing can produce, I guess - if my very short experience in the market is to be believed.
    To be honest, if a game suffers, I find it's more often because of poor editing rather than poor translation. I can't remember which game, but there was one in which the core book had just replaced yards with meters, while splats had made the full conversion to the metric system, making it a real mess at times, especially with some rule lawyers.
    Only way I have seen poor translation hurt a game is when it the game's main selling point lies in its mood. On that note I don't know what to make of the English version of In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas... there was a conscious effort from English team to change what was a hugely tongue-in-cheek and fun game into something much more serious. I've seen people judge it as poor translation, as it deviated too much from the original material, while others praised it for adapting it well to its target audience...

    I found Maid RPG read pretty well, though I'm no native English speaker and never had a glance at the original Japanese text, so I don't know if my opinion is of any worth.

    On a related note, I must say I was thoroughly impressed by the English translation of Rêve de Dragon. The thing was clearly a labor of love, and despite the flaws one might find, it does an incredible job of conveying the mood of the game. It still reads pretty much as something translated from French, but it appears to be a conscious choice by the translator to set the tone. I think the title choice is the only thing I really didn't like.
  • What Eero says about Europeans with huge and idiosyncratic English vocabularies made me think of Nabokov.
  • I'm not a native speaker, and here in Brazil and I read some games that were translated by amateurs and played others where the language was a barrier.

    In the translated games, even when the work was truly bad (ex.: Cyberpunk 2020 "light tatoo" translated as "tatuagem leve", a reference to its weight) the advantages of allowing the contact with new games to players who doesn't know another language were bigger than the problems. And in most cases the "core" of the game remained intact.

    I had far more problems with games translated "on the fly" during game sessions by players who didn't have the skill for it. Weird phrasing, wrong / dubious translations, slow play and other similar problems were huge obstacles to enjoy the game. Strange literal translations made me stop thinking about the game and try to find what could be written in the original.
  • Itiro has a good point about translating games on the fly, my experiences are similar; nowadays I and the people I play with tend to make a point of playing cleanly in Finnish, stopping for a couple of minutes in the midsts of play if necessary to develop the vocabulary, but I used to experience, and many people of course still do, the joys of pidgin gaming: it's quite a step from understanding a rpg text to talking about it at a table without switching between languages all the time, so perhaps most gamers will rather naturally slip into a weird - and in many ways ugly - patois that's only barely intelligible for outsiders. This obviously enough happens most strongly with games that have elaborate, beautiful and deeply-thought linguistic landscapes of their own, as those are the most difficult to translate satisfactorily on the flight. For example, my understanding is that practically all play of Whitewolf's Vampire games in Finland (all that I've witnessed, anyway) relies extensively on the English terminology, as nobody's really done the work of translating the several dozens of key terms - especially as such translation in many cases would depend on a knowledge of English linguistic history and classical languages that's pretty unlikely among teenagers.

    D&D is, of course, another example of a dedicated specialty gaming world that has ample room for plenty of specialty terminology. Luckily much of it is pretty humdrum, so I've found myself that it's perfectly possible to play from English source-texts and translate simple engineering language like "magic missile" or "fireball" on the flight. Still, the more technically inclined styles of play, such as 3rd and 4th edition, encourage mixed terminology for simple clarity: it's not always obvious that you mean "opportunity attack" as a technical term if you just translate the term and use it without prior planning, so it's often simpler to just use the English term to avoid ambiguity.
  • We used to do the whole mixed-language gaming, too. But sometimes we would use different (real) languages as a stand-in for fictional languages. ("If I'm speaking French, it means my character has just switched into the Elf tongue...")
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