31 July 2011

Game translation techniques: RPG inventories

As mentioned a couple of weeks ago one of the big challenges in RPG projects is translating the almost endless list of swords, bows, hammers and knives that populate the inventory of the players. Hopefully, below the chaotic surface there's a rather linear structure.

As we saw, these items don't really exist independently in the game code. Coding each weapon independently would simply take too much time to code and debug. Instead, RPG games use common algorithms ruled by numerical values. What we call a great-sword is simply a weapon with high attack power but low speed. Switch those two values and you will get the daggers. Simple!

The same mechanism, in simplified form, is visible to players as a game mechanic. When you change the equipment of your characters, their global values raise or lower accordingly, allowing you to compare the different configurations.

On top of that we have the narrative layer, where a sword was forged in molten lava and another one swallowed the soul of its last wielder or anything else your programmer/author made up with Tolkien's leftovers.

What does it all mean for translators?

  • As the inventory will be filled with literally hundreds of items, it's important for their name to be coherent and quickly summarize their qualities (heavy/fast, weak/powerful...)
  • At the same time, a thin coating of narrative should shape Slow Weapon lv. 1, 2 and 3 into something a bit more evocative, like the Three Hammers of Destruction, Devastation and Doom.

Game terminology

Most common RPG weapons (with Italian translation)

longsword spada lunga
claymore claymore
zweihander zweihander
two-handed sword spadone a due mani
longsword spada da mano e mezza
bastard sword spada bastarda
rapier rapier
falchion falchion
saber sciabola
sword spada
broadsword schiavona
scimitar scimitarra
sabre sciabola
knife coltello
dagger pugnale
short sword spadino
mace mazza / randello
scepter scettro
war hammer martello da guerra
battle axe ascia da guerra
double-bladed axe ascia bipenne
stick bastone
club clava
sickle falce
bardiche berdica
wand bastone / bacchetta
sceptre scettro
club mazza
spear lancia
staff asta
axe ascia
trident tridente
morning star mazza ferrata
short bow arco corto
crossbow balestra
long bow arco lungo
bow arco
composite bow arco composito
buckler rotella
shield scudo
round shield scudo rotondo
large shield scudo grande

Note for Italian: RPG games borrow heavily from Fantasy literature, which in turn is based on north European folklore. For this reason, swords that would have a traditional Italian name (like the Falchion/Falcione) are commonly left as is in order not to break the atmosphere.


Most RPG games put an "element" value to their weapons in order to add a bit of rock-paper-scissor strategy to battles. If you decide to fight the Ice Dragon, not only need a quick weapon like a sword (or it will beat you to the punch), but you need a weapon with Fire element to hurt it more (or at all),

fire fuoco
ice ghiaccio
lightning fulmine
earth terra
holy sacro/santo
darkness oscurità/tenebre


Sometimes, the original names just don't work in translation. Maybe it's a bit of Japlish that sounded cool in the original but doesn't make much sense when translated, or maybe it's a latinism or a loan word that clashes with your language. In those cases, some common clichés can go a long way

  • Local varieties -Many weapon types have lesser known historical/local names that can be used as variations
  • Historical / mythological -Unique names, perfect for advanced swords or items. As always when using real-world references, please ensure that they aren't contentious!
  • Military hierarchies -Good for normal weapons of increasing strength
  • Elemental hyperboles -Good for elemental weapons of increasing strength
  • Violent terms- Not the most sophisticated choice around, but effective for hammers and such
  • Fantasy terms - A viable neutral solution when else fails
  • Attack names + adjective - Another good solution when all options are taken.
**Local varieties** **Historical /* *mythological* *** **Elemental hyperboles** **Military* *hierarchies* ***
Cinquedea Grus Wind Sword Cadet sword
Misericorde Joyeuse Storm Sword Commander sword
Shamshir Tizona Typhoon Sword General sword
**Violent names** **Pseudo-Latin violent names** **Fantasy stuff** ** Attack names + adjective **
Destruction Hammer Destructor Dwarf Sword Deadly Thrust
Devastation Hammer Devastator Pixie Sword Deadly Smash
Wipeout Hammer Annihilor Elf Sword Deadly Slash
(cover credits)