“Spanish, Spanish, Spanish saving throw, Spanish”: Role-Playing in different languages

Recently I had a tweet exchange with Shaun and Michael about which language we role-played in, and Shaun wrote an excellent post about languages in RPG games here in the blog last week. However our exchange made me think about languages on the other side of the equation, or the screen so to speak, the language we speak as we play.

I am well aware that role-playing is an international affair. While I knew this to be a fact, writing in the blog has confirmed it as I have met people from all over the world. I also know that games have been created, written and played in many countries, but (to the best of my knowledge) they first appeared in the United States of America and have spread to the world.

The first RPG games I read where all in English and it was years before I actually saw games in my native Spanish. I became aware they existed, but did not see one for years. I live in Puerto Rico and our socio-political situation means we are very close to the US so it is not surprising that RPG games would become available in English here. When I finally found RPGs in Spanish it was actually cheaper for me to buy them in English. That did not stop me and I have a few Spanish RPG books in my collection, the gem being a Traveller boxed set and the main rule book and some supplements for Aqularre, an excellent RPG from Spain.

Despite this, the majority (99%) of my RPG collection is in English. Shaun asked (and I paraphrase here so forgive me in advance for any mistake) whether we played in Spanish and only used English for certain terms, thus the title of the post: “Spanish, Spanish, saving throw, Spanish, Spanish”. Michael chimed in and confirmed that was the case when he games. Of course in his case its, “German, German, attack of opportunity, German German”. Like I told Shaun, that was not the case for me…

When I game I speak a strange pidgin of English, Spanish and gaming terms. But that’s not exclusive to games; Spanglish is common to certain groups in the island. To put this in some context, in Puerto Rico both Spanish and English are official languages and we are taught English form grade school, but Spanish is our principal language. I became proficient in English from a young age so when I got to read game books they were no challenge for me (well some archaic verbiage usage by Gygax did throw me for a loop), I cannot say the same for all my players, there where different language skills in the group, so I would normally game in Spanish with a smattering of English, including game terms.

As time passed and we got to High School I began to game in English more and more. Games were a way for many of my friends to develop language skills so we began to game in English frequently. It eventually got to a point that we currently switch from one language to another without realizing. If you asked me to tell you which language I used the most over the last couple of sessions I’d be hard pressed to put a percentage on each.

When I think about it I realize I often narrate in Spanish and speak as NPCs in English. Of course knowing more than one language can be put to good use around the table. In my currently on hiatus Pathfinder RPG Swashbuckling campaign I will speak Spanish, with a terrible fake accent attempting to imitate a Spaniard, when and NPC is speaking a certain language, and English for another language, a trade tongue analogous to the Common of D&D fame. In fact players have taken up the cues and do this, often poking good natured fun when someone around the table fails to use the correct real world language for the fantasy language. I know a smattering of Italian and French so I often use some words to represent other languages.

That’s just one example when real world languages can impact your game. I have also used the Google Translate app on my iPhone to translate phases so my players know what they are hearing in another language. I don’t make them figure out what they hear, I tell them, I just use the app so they know what it sounds like. It adds verisimilitude for me, but that’s a very personal taste, I realize not everybody needs those details in their game.

So, I ask you dear reader, which language do you game on? If English is not your first language and you play games written in English, do you speak your native tongue and only used game terms in English, do you speak English, a combination like me? If you speak more than one language does it impact the game in similar ways to what I described or in other ways? I look forward to hear for you all. Thanks for reading!

PS – I tweet (irregularly) as @Sunglar, feel free to follow me, I’ll be sure to follow you back.

11 thoughts on ““Spanish, Spanish, Spanish saving throw, Spanish”: Role-Playing in different languages”

  1. I know that sometimes when it comes to translating works people need to be really careful. I remember when a friend who ran Allegiance: A War of Factions CCG got their rulebook translated into french by someone, and they must have just run it through google translate or something like that because "Your Influence Pool" became "Piscine D'influence" which translates back into Swimming Pool of Influence.

    Ahh, language gaffs.
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    1. Oh I once sent a document in English to be translated to Spanish by “professionals” (back in 1996) and they translated Fire Engine (as in the one the fire fighters ride in) to “disparen motores”, literally fire (as in a gun) engines.

      Here in Puerto Rico people sell pirated movies in flea markets and they come with these weird close caption translations. I don’t buy pirated DVDs but have seen some and the captions are really funny since often they have NOTHING to do with the dialogue.

  2. Language has been a major element of my roleplaying 'career'. Being French, most of my roleplaying has been in French, which can sometimes be a hassle, what with my fellow gamers being mostly unwilling to try and understand the English most of my books are written in, to the point where I had to translate every Path, Sphere and Order page for my group when I tried DMing Mage : the Awakening.

    OTOH, most of the games I've played/DMed have tended to look the other way when the question of language was involved. Old tomes needed translations, but that was matter for a quest. None of the players I know have actually tried interpreting speaking a foreign language in game. So no matter what languages each of us know, it's all French to me.

    1. Despite what I said about English being so prevalent I have met people here in Puerto Rico who take the attitude, if it’s not in Spanish I am not reading it! Not often but it happens.

  3. I personally use "German, German, German, grapple, German", because I have been raised (concerning games) with English books, too. I do not even translate terms that can be easily said in German. Everything that has a certain term in the rules sticks to English. But some fellow gamers have German books or generally like a more immersive language, and English at the table breaks immersion. Those always tell me off for my English words. Me being more the tactical guy, I don't mind.
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    1. Same here. But I don't think that English breaks immersion for anyone in my group. But the reason is probably that we have been playing together for many years now and we are just used to this special version of Denglish that we don't mind.

  4. I had a completely different experience as a roleplayer in Puerto Rico, we always played our games in English. To be fair, I went to a high school that gave classes in English, which is not the case with most schools in PR. But even when I was in the UPR, the games we played were run in English.

    1. I beg to differ. It's a blog run by a German (me) who happens to post in the English language. So there have been Germans here in the first place. ;)

  5. I know some select words in Russian (my uncle speaks it and my mom took some classes, and no they are not spies) so I once had a Russian NPC who would use rude words as nicknames for the PCs. Fun!

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