10 June 2012

(Not so) Funny accents, the case of Jamaican in Italian videogame translations

Since the early days, one of the most common ways to give personality to a videogame character is through a funny accent.

After all, if gameplay dictates a series of paper-thin characters, from easy challenger number 1 to final boss number 30, what easier way to differentiate them than sticking a nationality and some odd speech patterns?

Even today, most game translation courses put a strong emphasis on this and most evaluation tests feature the almost mandatory pirate song (harrr!)

So, let's see how this affects translation.

"Anybody here speaks English?"

English has 375 million natives speakers, is the official language in 54 countries across all five continents and, of course, enjoys the status of international lingua franca.

If your story is set in the real world, this means you can make your characters speak English -either as their first or second language- without a hint of suspension of disbelief.

If your story is set in a fantasy world, things are a bit more complex because accents would act as a jarring link to reality.

However, most of the accents used in entertainment are washed out shells of themselves, passed from media to media until they became cliches, masks. And if your fantasy world is already awash in pseudo-British accents, "Why should pseudo-Jamaican be any different?", said World of Warcraft.

Indeed, it's a very generic depiction of the accent of the Caribbean and, paradoxically, that's its strength.

Most people will know Jamaican only through movies and will not be offended by how simplistic this sounds.

On the other hand, Jamaicans are unlikely to find it racist exactly because it's so washed out that it's hard to even say it really targets them at all.

"Anybody here speaks my language?"

So, what about localization? Italian is spoken by 65 million people and is official in 6 countries, all of which are inside the Italian peninsula or neighboring it.

This means signing an unwritten pact with the audience. We all know that these people wouldn't normally speak our language in the reality, but we still need to translate them to follow what they say.

So, you the audience must try not to focus too much in this, while we will try and minimize friction as much as possible during the adaptation.

In most cases, the solution is to remove the accent altogether, using standard language to neutralize the geographical incongruity.

Localization comes home

The same usually applies to stories set in fictional words. However, the new localization of World of Warcraft went in a completely different direction.

These are the same lines we heard above in pseudo-Jamaican, and they have been (somewhat) converted in naeoplitan dialect, one of the many regional languages spoken before the unification of Italy and still used in informal contexts by roughly 10% of the population.

Just to give a very rough feeling, size wise, it's like seeing it dubbed in thick Texan (if you're reading this from the US) or in mock Valencian (if you are reading from Spain, que sois un montón ).

It's literally very close to home, and creates a whole set of new problems.

On one hand, most players not living in the area will still have friends or relatives from there, and thus are unlikely to accept a characterization as superficial as the original.

On the other, the more the characterization gets detailed, the more it conflicts with the fantasy setting. And this lead to a much more mixed reception.

So, what do you think about it?

Blizzard has chosen a path with dangers and pitfalls, but also worked and invested in order to achieve quality results.

In some way, it's like the Porsche 911.

For the past 50+ years, Porsche has been building the 911 with a rear engine, although this affects handing, but the enduring popularity of the 911 is a testament to their efforts to overcome these limitations.

In the case of Porsche, it's just part of their DNA. In the case of localization, now that games have a larger arsenal of narrative possibilities, I just wonder if it wouldn't be better to move past the cliches and aim for deeper, more engaging stories?

(cover credits)