We take language so much for granted, whether it’s written down, spoken out loud or conveyed via signs. Yet, when we communicate with others, we sometimes notice how words can be misinterpreted. We can see how a message can come across differently from how it was intended. That is when we realize how important words actually are. Choosing one word over another can make a huge difference. It’s already hard enough to get your point across in your native language, but it reaches a completely new level of difficulty when you use a foreign tongue.

I think language is especially important in rulebooks. Many of us in the hobby are used to the idea that some words have a specific meaning in a game that is sometimes not quite the same in everyday use. These words form the terminology of the game. For example, destroying an opponent doesn’t imply that you rip up the relevant card or set fire to the plastic mini, like you might expect when you consider the word’s meaning in common use. Instead, the term “destroy” in a game could mean that you remove a card and put it back in the box.

There are plenty of rulebooks that are really good at using terms consistently throughout. Specific words will have exactly the same meaning in every context of the game. They will be clearly defined and it’s that clarity that makes those games much easier to learn as opposed to games where words have slightly different meanings depending on their context.

Translating Meaning

So if a rulebook is well-written in its native language, it’s crucial it is translated just as well. Words have to keep their meaning. How specific words are defined needs to remain just as consistent in the foreign language as they were in the source text. The problem is, that’s sometimes tricky.

If you have ever learned a foreign language, you will know that some English words translate into two, three or even more different words, depending on context. Obvious examples are words that have different meanings in their native language. For example, the English word “trunk” can either describe the main woody stem of a tree, the elongated nose of an elephant or a large box with a hinged lid. In German, they translate as “Stamm”, “Rüssel” and “Truhe” respectively.

However, even a word that has virtually the same meaning even in different contexts can sometimes have different translations in another language. For example, the English word “root” mostly means the same thing whether you’re talking about the root of a plant or the root cause. Yet, in German, the former quite easily translates as “Wurzel”, while the latter would probably be translated as “tiefere Ursache”, meaning that the noun “root” becomes the German adjective “tief”.

Bad Translations

If you’re not careful as a translator, you easily turn something that is really clear in the source text into something rather confusing in the translated work. When a single term needs to be converted into two or three in the destination language it creates problems. There are knock-on effects, not only because the rulebook is probably going to be longer, but also because having multiple words instead of one makes the rules harder to understand. I have come across rulebooks translated between English and German where the original is really simple and straightforward to understand, while the translation feels a bit clumsy.

So as a professional translator, you need to make sure you carefully think about what words you choose. Often it’s easy, but sometimes it can be very hard and on some occasions, it’s impossible to keep things simple. Generally speaking, the fewer defined words or terms a rulebook contains, the easier it is to translate.

Another challenge for translators is when a rulebook uses colloquialisms or words that directly link to the gameplay. There are situations where a source word is a perfect fit in the context of a mechanism or maybe the setting, but translating it isn’t so easy. The word “green” refers to the colour as well as the idea of being environmentally friendly. In other languages, that’s not necessarily the case. So if a game requires a single word to describe both, because maybe there are green spaces on the game board, it can be impossible to translate it into certain other languages.

the opened Namiji rulebook
the opened Namiji rulebook

Translating Takes Time

There are also many other things to consider when converting a rulebook into a new language. Practical things such as how certain languages usually make for longer words, which affects the layout of a rulebook or how colloquialisms translate are something professional translators will have to deal with and find solutions for.

All of this takes time. It’s easy to think that sticking your rulebook into an online translation tool will do the job, but of course, that’s not the case. These tools do get better, but at the end of the day, while they create something that certainly conveys the meaning of the original, it still reads oddly to a native speaker of the destination language. You are always better off employing a professional translator, if you want your game to be professional.

That is not to say that fan rules translations don’t have their place. Many are excellent, of course. It really shows when the work was done by someone who speaks both languages natively. The passion for the game shines through. It is clear that these people want the game to be accessible in their own language. Yet, if you’re a publisher, you should not rely on fans translating your game for you. The hard work deserves to be paid, like everything else that makes up your game.

Make My Game Travel

Of course, I have to use this opportunity to direct you to my own services, under the Make My Game Travel banner. I can help translate your game between English and German – but please follow the link below to find out more.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Mystic Tranquility by MusicLFiles
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/11031-mystic-tranquility
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

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