Like previous explorations in this column, this author presupposes that the gamers in the subgroup of non-English speakers have little more in common with each other than they do with English-speaking gamers. Their only specific link is that they face certain difficulties when pursuing their hobby in an industry that is dominated by a group that can be inhospitable, though not necessarily deliberately. Problems of translation and a lack of fluency in English limit the breadth and quality of available translated gaming materials. This is the focus of this discussion, which is informed by an interview with French gaming enthusiast and entrepreneur, Leonidas Vesperini. For space reasons, the original interview is not printed here, but some of its most relevant ideas are.
At its most basic, non-English speaking gamers face a relative lack of translations. In some countries, games can survive and flourish only if they are translated into the native language. France is a good example. As Leo told me, sales figures can be as much as 80% better if a game is translated into French. The problem is that some companies don’t have the resources or interest to translate their games. This is especially true in countries with unique languages but small populations.
In a country where people tend to speak English fluently, such as the Netherlands or most of the Scandinavian countries, many gamers buy the original version rather than purchasing a poorer quality text in their own language. They then use English products in their games, translating where necessary. Often, native-language versions are created by those who are bilingual but not trained specifically in the skill of translation. These products are difficult to understand, riddled with errors, and frequently sound awkward to native as well as multi-lingual speakers. Gamers appreciate quality translations, especially of very technical games, but good translations are not as prevalent as many would like.
The prevalence of games unique to specific countries varies widely. Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, have games written specifically by natives of those countries. Sometimes these games are popular and do well, but often they do not, crowded out by more popular international titles. This is especially true in countries where English is spoken by nearly everyone. One significant exception to this is the success of the game Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) in Germany. In Germany, this game competes with and often eclipses the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons. Germans are among the most avid European gamers, so it is not surprising that they have their own unique native roleplaying game. As of the writing of this update, Das Schwarze Auge is in beta development for its 5th edition, and appears to be going as strong as ever,
One thing that is noteworthy is that outside games have flourished in Germany as well. Shadowrun, originally published by FASA, is now mostly published by FanPro, a German company. Shadowrun has a sizable number of novels published exclusively for the German audience. White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade amd Vampire: the Requiem, as well as Call of Cthulhu and D&D, also have followings in Germany. In Poland, where frequency of English fluency is somewhat less than in Germany, translated games, especially Warhammer, are most popular.
Japan is notable, among Asian countries, for its translation of a significant number of RPG products, including titles from multiple editions of D&D, Call of Cthulu, GURPS, RuneQuest, Shadowrun, Warhammer, and World of Darkness. Several Japanese RPGs, including Sword World, Maid, and Double Cross have been translated into English. At least 6 major Japanese-language RPG magazines are published in varying frequencies.
Many of the gamers that prefer English versions like to keep their games in one language as much as possible, but some do not mind mixing in English terms. It may be impossible to avoid this, given that many of the technical terms in roleplaying games are difficult to translate. Some say that they even use English as a means to denote the speaking of a foreign language in their games. Thus, if the game is D&D, and the characters are speaking Elven, they use English as a way to indicate the language’s exotic nature. It adds a nuanced quality to the game. Others attempt to speak English when playing in English-speaking settings—a Cthulhu game set in 1930s New England, for example—to get a more authentic feel. Switching languages can also be used when language barrier is a significant issue in the setting. This gives bilingual players an advantage over players that speak only one language. The bilingual gamers can further explore what these language barriers are like and how they impact the game.
In a country where English is spoken, but not universally, games that are translated sell in drastically greater numbers. This is true of France and Brazil, as well as many Eastern European countries. In these countries, people often play older versions of the games because newer versions are not available for a variety of reasons—discontinued translation lines, lack of resources, and so on. If the population is great enough, in France for example, it might be worth translating a large number of games into the native language. If however, the population is smaller, this expense is probably not financially justified.
Fluency is intrinsically linked to translation; as discussed above, the popularity of English versus translated games depends greatly on volume and level of English fluency in a given country. In countries with less English fluency, younger gamers can become involved in the hobby only if they have older bilingual gamers to teach them, or if there are local language translations available. Many of these gamers learn English to use original texts. Many books are available in both print and electronic copy, but the vast majority of small press or even medium run books are only available in English. The biggest titles may have translations, but many companies will only print their marquis titles in translation. Thus, gamers must either learn English or get a translation.
In many places, these are two reasonable options, but in some, these may be serious detriments that prevent gaming development.
Along with this issue of availability comes the problem of discrimination. This issue ties our discussion to the notion of non-Anglo gamers as a discriminated minority in this hobby. On this issue, the non-English speaking gamers seem to be significantly more civilized than their Anglophone counterparts. Frequently, when members of a majority live their daily lives without thought of those who are different, they become suspicious or frightened by newcomers with unusual needs or interests. This is no different in language than it is with gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability. The multilingual gamers are used to dealing with people with other needs and abilities, so they are more acclimated to tolerance. For instance, in Finland most gaming conventions are conducted in Finnish, but the players usually have no problem playing in English if they have non-Finnish speaking visitors. They welcome this, given that their English is usually quite good. Anglo gamers, though, are not always as welcoming as their more multilingual and multiculturally aware counterparts.
Options for non-English speaking gamers are on the rise. Many roleplaying games are now being translated but require the player to read through complex rules that can be difficult for gamers fluent in English, let alone those with developing vocabularies. Immersion in English, or living in a country where being bilingual is almost universal, diminishes these problems, but they can be a big hassle if the gamer happens to live in a country where the study of English is not ubiquitous.
More visual games have an advantage in that the terms they use are often quite common in the genre and the gamers can rely on the images, tone of voice, and sound effects for cues. Though the gaming industry expands slowly, more and more products will be produced for gamers who don’t speak English, or who prefer to play in their native language. Many RPG companies, however, don’t consider translation, especially by trained people, to be worth their expense. While they aren’t intentionally sending a message of intolerance, they are essentially saying that the interests of these gamers are not worth it to them. In many cases, the population of gamers who would read the books is sizeable, but the companies still don’t translate their games. In other markets, the population of gamers may not be as financially lucrative, but a certain amount of advertising saturation could turn these markets into very lucrative playing fields.
Ultimately, this issue still remains one of individual choice, initiative, and cultural variability. The drive to translate, interest in gaming, and willingness to learn another language vary from one country to the next. Sometimes, these variations are as localized as small national regions, socioeconomic classes, or even certain gaming groups and clubs. It would be a sign of great faith and change in the industry if major English-dominated game companies began to take the interests of non-English gamers more to heart, but this is probably not going to happen in a dramatic way in the near future.