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NeoCab - Translating the (Cyberpunk) Future

How we evolved the Italian language for a cyberpunk setting
NeoCab - Translating the (Cyberpunk) Future

I'm a video game translator, and I love my job. It's odd work, sometimes stressful, sometimes bewildering, but it always provides interesting and inspiring challenges. Every project brings new words, slang, and cultural trends to discover, but translating also forces me to reflect on language itself. Each job also comes with its own unique set of problems to solve. Some have an exact solution that can be found in grammar or dictionaries, but others require a more... creative approach.

Sometimes, the language we’re translating from uses forms and expressions that simply have no equivalent in the language we’re translating to. To bridge such gaps, a translator must sometimes invent (or circumvent), but most importantly they must understand. Language is ever in flux. It’s an eternal cultural battleground that evolves with the lightning speed of society itself. A single word can hurt a minority, give shape to a new concept, or even win an election. It is humanity’s most powerful weapon, especially in the Internet Age, and I always feel the full weight of responsibility to use it in an informed manner.

One of my go-to ways for explaining the deep complexity of translation is the relationship between gender (masculine and feminine) and grammar. For example, in English this is a simple sentence:

“You are fantastic!”

Pretty basic, right? Easy to translate, no? NOT AT ALL!

Once you render it into a gendered language like Italian, all its facets, its potential meanings, break down like shards.

  • Sei fantastico! (Singular and masculine)
  • Sei fantastica! (Singular and feminine)
  • Siete fantastici! (Plural and masculine)
  • Siete fantastiche! (Plural and feminine)

If we were translating a movie, selecting the correct translation wouldn't be a big deal. Just like in real life, one look at the speakers would clear out the ambiguity in the English text. Video game translation, however, is a different beast where visual cues or even context is a luxury, especially if a game is still in development. Not only that, but the very nature of many games makes it simply impossible to define clearly who is being addressed in a specific line, even when development has ended. Take an open world title, for example, where characters have whole sets of lines that may be addressed indifferently to single males or females or groups (mixed or not) within a context we don't know and can't control.

In the course of my career as a translator, time and time again this has led into one of the most heated linguistic debates of the past few years: the usage of the they/them pronoun. When I was in grade school, I was taught that they/them acted as the third person plural pronoun, the equivalent of the Italian pronoun "essi." Recently, though, it has established itself as the third person singular neutral, both in written and spoken English. Basically, when we don't know whether we're talking about a he/him or a she/her, we use they/them. In this way, despite the criticism of purists, the English language has brilliantly solved all cases of uncertainty and ambiguity. For instance:

“Somebody forgot their backpack at the party.”

Thanks to the use of the pronoun "their," this sentence does not attribute a specific gender to the person who has forgotten the backpack at the party. It covers all the bases. Smooth, right? Within the LGBT circles, those who don’t recognize themselves in gender binarism have also adopted the use of they/them. Practically speaking, the neutral they/them pronoun is a powerful tool, serving both linguistic accuracy and language inclusiveness. There's just one minor issue: We have no "neutral pronouns" in Italian.

It's quite the opposite, if anything! In our language, gender informs practically everything, from adjectives to verbs. On top of that, masculine is the default gender in case of ambiguity or uncertainty. For instance:

  • Two male kids > Due bambini
  • Two female kids > Due bambine
  • One male kid and one female kid > Due bambini

In the field of translation, this is a major problem that often requires us to find elaborate turns of phrase or different word choices to avoid gender connotations when English maintains ambiguity. As a professional, it’s not only a matter of accuracy but also an aesthetic issue. In a video game, when a character refers to someone using the wrong gender connotation, the illusion of realism is broken. My colleagues and I have been navigating these pitfalls for years as best we can. Have you ever wondered why one of the most common Italian insults in video games is "pezzo di merda"? That's right. "Stronzo" and "bastardo" give a gender connotation, while "pezzo di merda" does not.

A few months ago, together with the Gloc team, I had the pleasure of working on the translation of Neo Cab, a video game set in a not too distant future with a cyberpunk and dystopian backdrop (and, sadly, a very plausible one). The main character is Lina, a cabbie of the "gig economy," who drives for a hypothetical future Uber in a big city during a time of deep social unrest.

The story is told mainly through her conversation with the many clients she picks up in her taxi. When the game’s developers gave us the reference materials for our localization, they specified that one of the client characters was "non-binary" and that Lina respectfully uses the neutral "they/them" pronoun when she converses with them.

"Use neutral pronouns or whatever their equivalent is in your language," we were told.

I remember my Skype chat with the rest of the team. What a naive request on the client's part! Neutral pronouns? It would be lovely, but we don't have those in Italian! So what do we do now? The go-to solution in these cases is to use masculine pronouns, but such a workaround would sacrifice part of Lina’s character and the nuance of one of the interactions the game relies on to tell the story. Sad, no? It was the only reasonable choice grammatically-speaking, but also a lazy and ill-inspired one. So what were we to do? Perhaps there was another option...

Faced with losing such an important aspect of Lina’s personality, we decided to forge ahead with a new approach. We had the opportunity to do something different, and we felt like we had to do the character justice. In a game that's completely based on dialogue, such details are crucial. What's more, the game's cyberpunk setting gave us the perfect excuse to experiment and innovate. Language evolves, so why not try to imagine a future where Italian has expanded to include a neutral pronoun in everyday conversations? It might sound a bit weird, sure, but cyberpunk literature has always employed such gimmicks. And rather than take away from a character, we could actually enrich the narrative universe with an act of "world building" instead.

After contacting the developers, who enthusiastically approved of our proposal, we started working on creating a neutral pronoun for our language. But how to go about that was a question in itself. We began by studying essays on the subject, like Alma Sabatini's Raccomandazioni per un uso non sessista della lingua italiana (Recommendations for a non-sexist usage of the Italian language). We also analyzed the solutions currently adopted by some activists, like the use of asterisks, "x," and "u."

  • Siamo tutt bellissim.
  • Siamo tuttx bellissimx.
  • Siamo tuttu bellissimu.

I’d seen examples of this on signs before, but it had always seemed to me that asterisks and such were not meant to be a solution, but rather a way to highlight the issue and start a discourse on something that's deeply ingrained in our language. For our cyberpunk future, we wanted a solution that was more readable and pronounceable, so we thought we might use schwa (ə), the mid central vowel sound. What does it sound like?

Quite familiar to an English speaker, it's the most common vowel sound. Standard Italian doesn’t have it, but having been separated into smaller countries for most of its history, Italy has an extraordinary variety of regional languages (“dialetti”) and many of them use this sound. We find it in the final "a" of "mammeta" in Neapolitan, for instance (and also in the dialects of Piedmont and Ciociaria, and in several other Romance languages). To pronounce it, with an approximation often seen in other romance languages, an Italian only needs to pretend not to pronounce a word's last vowel.

Schwa was also a perfect choice as a signifier in every possible way. Its central location in phonetics makes it as neutral as possible, and the rolled-over "e" sign "ə" is reminiscent of both a lowercase "a" (the most common feminine ending vowel in Italian) and of an unfinished "o" (the masculine equivalent). The result is:

Siamo tuttə bellissimə.

Not a perfect solution, perhaps, but eminently plausible in a futuristic cyberpunk setting. The player/reader need only look at the context and interactions to figure it out. The fact that we have no "ə" on our keyboards is easily solved with a smartphone system upgrade, and though the pronunciation may be difficult, gender-neutrals wouldn't come up often in spoken language. Indeed, neutral alternatives are most needed in writing, especially in public communication, announcements, and statements. To be extra sure our idea worked as intended and didn't overlook any critical issues, we submitted it to a few LGBT friends, and with their blessing, then sent our translation to the developers.

Fast forward to now, and the game is out. It has some schwas in it, and nobody complained about our proposal for a more inclusive future language. It took us a week to go through half a day's worth of work, but we're happy with the result. Translation isn't about mechanically replacing a word for another, it's a creative endeavour, and sometimes it can afford to be somewhat subversive. To sum up the whole affair, I'll let the words of Alma Sabatini wrap things up:

Language does not simply reflect the society that speaks it, it conditions and limits its thoughts, its imagination, and its social and cultural advancement.

— Alma Sabatini

Amen to that