Language in RPGs

So I posted a silly thing yesterday featuring some colloquial Spanish language phrases, possibly offensive/problematic but also, you know, in actual use here and there. Honestly most of the colloquial Spanish I know is highly localized to Arizona and is very much a border culture thing — stuff not included in that Buzzfeed link.

But a comment by Dave Younce reminded me of something that’s tickled my brain for as long as I’ve been gaming: Why do we drop in little bits and bobs of foreign languages when we play and write RPGs?

Cartel is a good example: if you don’t already know them from crime drama shows, the game text drops words like cabrón and pendejo here and there. Makes you feel like Mark Diaz Truman’s text is being written (or read to you) by a street tough, yeah? But like…in a game one assumes is happening entirely in a foreign language within the fiction, aren’t we all speaking that language?

I think pretty much all games are like this. Night Witches drops a few Russian colloquialisms in Russian even though all the action is already happening in Russian. Same with terms and names in The Blossoms are Falling.

That always struck me as weird. Might just be me.

Upside is that it can drive home otherness; downside is that it facilitates otherness. But literal translations make no sense either! It would be jarring to say “hey billy goat!” in your Cartel game just because that’s the literal translation of cabrón. 

Something I did very self-consciously in Circle of Hands was to localize the names of people and places. Maybe it sounds growly and macho to call some place Grunstadt, but your characters are calling it “green city.” So we call it Green City (assuming the place names in the setting are not themselves buried under their own linguistic history). The characters are Lars, son of the blacksmith and Rebecca with the unlucky sheep. 

Dunno. I think literal translation can lend its own interesting color to a game. And probably sometimes slipping in the foreign colloquialism is good too, especially if it doesn’t translate into a convenient equivalent. 

If I’m feeling super sensitive (it happens, don’t laugh), I even worry that dropping dumb little foreign colloquialisms into my game can be appropriative. Is it cool or uncool to call your Cartel gang buddy vato? Then again, the amount of uncool stuff that happens at private tables around the world would probably melt our brains if we ever knew.

0 thoughts on “Language in RPGs”

  1. The urge is often reminiscent of how Claremont peppered his comics with phonetic dialect or decorators of the same period mirrored the walls. It creates an illusion of space and complexity without a whole lot of work. ObGlorantha, English terminology has always been considered a vulgar placeholder for the truly unworldly words we’ll discover some day: former “angels” evolve into “luxites” and so on.

  2. Good reading of a complex issue. When I write stuff with Asian characters or when people ask me for authentic-sounding Chinese names, I often try to choose names that I’m confident English speakers can pronounce. If someone’s named Zhu Xuxiu, people are going to butcher it every time. Not so with Mao Cheng.

  3. Circle of Hands is a good example. It totally splits the difference between English speakers who feel metal by saying words in German, and Germanic characters calling their community “Greentown.” I decided to embrace the dissonance and enjoy both as maximally as possible at the same time.

    My favorite for this though, is Japanese. Fujiwara and Miyamoto aren’t any different from Underhill and Bridgebrook (these aren’t the translations, but that’s the kind of thing I mean). Imagine this when samurai in the movies snap each other’s names out like epithets. “Ha! Uh!” (slice slice, mook dies; hero points at enemy) “You can’t escape, Underhill!” Underhill charges, screaming “Brrrrrridgebrrrrrrrook!”

  4. When I run Western League I switch all the League’s toponyms between English and Italian depending on the native language of the players. They are all like lakeend and blackvalley and riverside and so on.

    I’m not sure how/why sprinklink bits of culture in the game increases othering. Sure it can become a pastiche, but if you’re obviously and declarately making a pastiche and everybody understand it’s not the real thing, I’m not sure it’s an issue.

  5. This is unsurprisingly something that pops up in my anime-watching, because translations are a big deal. Whether a translation leaves some things untranslated or not. And I think it’s important to strike a medium.

    Because on the one hand? All translation is imperfect. Languages do not correspond to one another on a word-to-word basis. Every word is wrapped in layers of historical and cultural context. Well, a bunch of the words, anyway.

    On the other hand, many words are close enough to be legit translated. (For a comedic take on this, ) So you really have to split the difference, and decide which words can’t or shouldn’t be translated. Because some stuff, it just doesn’t translate well.

    The big example in anime is honorifics (-san, -kun, -chan, -domo). English has no unawkward way to convey honorifics, so most subtitle translations just list them straight or ignore them. Dubs, though? They leave them out, and as a consequence you lose a level of meaning because an honorific says something about your relationship to the person. (Whether that level is essential or not? Up for debate.) But at the same time, you also have stuff like tonkatsu or dango or onsen, and while you could theoretically try and translate it, that’s stuff which is hard to equate with things that Americans know of.

  6. Thinking on it more: I don’t think the purpose is necessarily linked to “otherness”, but rather to invite you into a different culture. When you research a term like that, it brings you into that mindset and cultural context.

    Consider a fictional example: the slang in Shadowrun. I know it might feel a bit goofy to see stuff like “chummer” or whatever, but at least when I’m playing the Harebrained Studios games, it really helps to draw me into that setting, because those terms have very localized meanings.

  7. I wonder sometimes if people feel differently about this stuff if they are multi-lingual. (I have learned several languages in my life, but I’m bad at practicing the non-English ones.)

  8. It’s very true…

    Actually, in total seriousness, I think that’s a good example of the difficult line that translators have to walk between “reinforcing the existing culture” and “being reasonably understandable”. Unfamiliar linguistic/cultural elements can pose a massive obstacle to people trying to engage, and you have to know their limits.

  9. I’ve often thought it would be cool to use nothing but literal names in a campaign. I mean, the characters would grok the meanings of their own tongue, right?

    But then again: color. Injecting other languages is a great way to convey color and how a setting feels.

  10. JRR Tolkien wrote a letter of about twenty pages to the translators of his books to say to them how to treat the place names and family names. He said why he choose names like Butterbur Bagend and so on.

  11. Eva Schiffer​ yes, I think being polyglot does play tricks with your head in these situations. After achieving fluency in English I started learning a (tiny) bit of German and, now equipped with the three probably most abused languages in fantasy RPG, and seeing a bit of how they relate to each other, actually prompted some interesting world design. I was living in Switzerland at the time, which was increasingly going through a period of sending horribly xenophobic electoral propaganda in the post (foreigners depicted as black crows flying over the borders to eat Swiss produce, I’m not even kidding, and I think that party went on to win the elections) so that gave it some interesting perspective on nationalism and uplanders theory. The game that came out though ditches all that and explores the concept of heimat, which is probably the best German word I learnt (after götterdämmerung and leberkäse).

  12. Just FYI, the native Italian Paolo Greco borrowed my French copy of Ryuutama last night to review spells as we were playing in English at a tavern in Tokyo, ordering in Japanese. He is the Inception of language, without the shitty ending.

    What J. Walton said about “choosing names that are easier for foreigners to say”. That’s ultimately why I went with Phoenix Sect for a game translation project rather than Hou-ouh-shuu (mind you, NOT Hou-oh-shu, that means something totally different) (and that ultimately meant I had to go with English for the other two sects, even though I liked the phonetic pull of Bokusen and Myouren; though they literally came out to Ebon Mountain and Bright Lotus, so that was cool too).

    What Ron Edwards said too; there’s a weird kind of romanticism about foreign names especially Chinese and Japanese ones. And yeah, that fight is between Wisteriafield (Fujiwara) and Palaceborn (Miyamoto).

    And also what Matthew Sanchez said about What Names Mean in a culture. The greatest anime ever, 12 Kingdoms, is set in a kind of fantasy analogue ancient China, and they try to play true to form with how names work, how old kingdoms and bureaucracy worked; there was a filler episode between two arcs which was basically “Explain a bit about history and the kingdom”, which was basically a mind-numbingly bewildering cruise through totally alien organizations, groups, namings etc. It was really cool from a cultural perspective (like how everything has three names: original, polite/public, official, and perhaps even posthumous), but at the same time like looking at life on another planet.

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