Saturday, September 29, 2007

Translating boardgames

An out-of-turn post this week - because (for once) I had a post ready early, and Fraser has been busy buying games this weekend. Paradise at our place!

I've spent the last week or two deep in the world of rules translation. Now, I'm an amateur at this, but I thought a glimpse into the process might be interesting.

As an example, I will use Agricola, Uwe Rosenberg's new (Essen) game about agricultural development. This is a medium-to-heavy game (literally - it weighs in at over 2.2 kg or close to 5 pounds), with very detailed rules, as well as lots of theme - and in this context, "theme" means (among other things) 17th century farming terminology. That complicates things because, like most of you, I am not a specialist in historical agricultural practice (although all those trashy historical novels are finally coming in handy). Especially in German.

Agricola boxfront
Agricola boxfront. Image courtesy of, uploaded by Uwe Rosenberg

In Agricola, players start with two family members, a 2-room hut and an empty farmyard. By selecting Actions (new actions become available in each round - players place a family member disc on an Action space to select that action), they can raise animals, plant crops, produce food, extend or renovate their hut and grow their family - important, because each family member can take only one action in each of the 14 rounds. They can also choose to play cards which allow them to acquire a range of abilities and equipment. The goal is to develop your home and farm as fully as possible while (of course) ensuring that you can feed your family after each Harvest.

The wide variety of cards (360!) ensures variety in the gameplay. It must have been a huge job to illustrate this game but the images and the design are simple, clear and attractive - kudos to Klemens Franz for taking on such a massive project. I see he claims to have had nightmares about the game - I can well believe it - I certainly dreamed about it while I was working on the translation!

I should stress again that this was an amateur translation, which I did for fame and glory fun. A week of fun. Several emails back and forth between me and the publisher to clarify teeny tiny details of fun. In other words, fun :)

I start out by reading the rules. It sounds obvious, but it's important. This isn't a detailed read - I don't take any notes - but it gives a sense of the flavour of the rules and also of their structure - what will I find where?

Next, I assemble my toolkit. My online dictionary of choice is - mostly because I can put the word straight into the URL, if needed. The paper dictionaries I have are somewhat older - not really a problem for this piece - but still useful, even though they are less comprehensive and more cumbersome to use. Why? Because it's easier to scan the page for any related terms or variant spellings - and because sometimes they have a different range of terms than the online dictionary. I have a German-English/English-German dictionary as well as a German-German dictionary, which can be very helpful. I also have a very very old (early 1900s) English-German/German-English dictionary, which I thought might be helpful for some of the farming terms, but it wasn't quite old enough to be useful. Also, the old font made my eyes bleed.

The first paragraph of the rules is often the hardest to translate - this is the background story for the game. Often I leave it till last, although in this case it was relatively straightforward. I did rework it a couple of times, though.

It's helpful that most rules start with the components - this forces me to make some choices about which term to use for which bit of the game. In Agricola, there were some decisions to be made:
  • Anschaffung - literally, Acquisition. I started with Acquisition, although I felt it was a bit unwieldy - can you really picture yourself playing a game and talking about your acquisitions?
  • Ausbildung - literally, something like Training. The word has the sense of a skill that you have acquired through training or even an apprenticeship.
  • Stall - Stable. I wasn't sure about this translation, because these buildings can hold various types of animals (sheep, wild boar, cattle) and to me stables are only for horses. Fraser pointed out that that was probably the Australian climate talking, rather than my extensive agricultural knowledge.
  • Nährwert - literally, Sustenance value. I kept Sustenance for about a day before switching, with the full agreement of everyone who had looked at the draft rules, to the much easier Food. It just sounded too over-the-top in English - just picture yourself asking an opponent, "How many sustenance will this acquisition provide me with?" Ugh.
  • Anspruch - Demand. On my quick reading of the rules, I had missed what these were for. There'd be time to clarify later.
  • Acker - Field. These are planted with vegetables or wheat.
  • Weide - Pasture. For animals.

Because I knew that this was a complex game and the rules were long and detailed (14 pages in the original German), I started a separate file with a glossary table. This let me quickly see what term I had already chosen (and make sure that I hadn't already used a word for something else - but more on that later). I've uploaded this file as a playeraid, as it should be useful for non-German-speakers who are trying to make sense of a card or space, but originally it was just for ensuring consistency across my translation. I believe that translation software is available (for professionals) that automatically manages these internal glossaries.

As I worked through the rules, I found that some of the terms really didn't work. The first to go was Training - when I found out more about the cards, I felt that some of them were not really training at all. Skills seemed to fit some of them - Wet nurse, Travelling players, Vegetable seller, Rat catcher - but not others. I toyed with Specialist but, in the end, I felt that Occupation was probably the best fit - although it still doesn't quite cover "Chief's daughter" or "Lazy student".

Next to go was the Demand marker - Claim seemed much more apt. Certain cards allow a player to take any raw materials that are left on an Action space at the end of a round. These markers are placed on the space as a visual cue that someone may take some resources. This is a nice addition that enhances the usability of the game.

Now it was time to get creative. The German terms Phase and Spielphase translate directly as 'phase' and 'phase of the game'. Ugh. There are 6 Spielphasen in Agricola, each consisting of a different number of rounds. Each round, in turn, consists of 4 Phasen (with a Harvest at the end of each Spielphase). I needed a better term for an English-speaking player, to avoid the problems we often experience in Power Grid and other games with this many-kind-of-phase problem.

I went with Stage - easily understood and clear. So now we have a game that is played in 6 stages. Each stage consists of a varying (diminishing) number of rounds, and each round consists of 4 phases. There is a harvest at the end of each stage, and a total of 14 rounds in the game. Seems clearer now, I hope.

At this point, a friend pointed out that rounds might not be the best choice of word either. Every time the rules referred to "round cards" he expected to be playing circular cards, not rectangular ones (there are no circular cards in the game). I solved this problem (I hope) by capitalising Round cards. Compare:

  • Play the next round card. (play a card that is circular?)
  • Play the next Round card. (play the next card from the Round cards deck).

Better, I hope. This decision led to lots of capitalisation through the rules, for consistency - hopefully it improves readability rather than hindering it.

It was around now, too, that I search-and-replaced Acquisition, which I couldn't like. I've used Improvement, which I think captures the spirit of what these cards do - they improve your family's home and farm. Examples: Bee hive, Chicken coop, Herb garden, Holiday house, Fish trap, Turnip field, Writing desk, Watermill.

One of the challenges of translating a game like this is that so many of the rules are actually on the cards. With 10 Major and 136 Minor Improvement cards, for instance, it just wouldn't be practical to include the effects of each card in the rulebook. This won't be a problem for someone playing the game (and the icons on the cards should make it OK for non-german-speakers), but for me as a translator it was a bit tricky. There were some emails back and forth to Germany about how exactly a fireplace worked to turn animals into food, and when you could bake bread in the various bread-baking facilities - all answered with a look at the relevant card. Too easy!

Beanfield Minor Improvement cardAnother example is the Beanfield Improvement shown to the right. (Image from Boardgamegeek - uploaded by the very patient Hanno Girke). While it may look a little daunting at first, all the information you need is on the card.

In the top left, we see the pre-requisite for the card: a player must have played 2 Occupation cards (2 Ausbildungen) before s/he can play this card. There is no cost to play the card (top right corner is empty). The number 1 in the gold circle shows that this card is worth 1 VP at the end of the game (scoring is only conducted at the end of the game) and the E indicates that this card belongs to the basic deck, important if players choose to play with only a limited number of cards. The highlighted text gives a brief description of the card: "Plant vegetables on this card" which is explained in more detail below: "When you choose the Seed Action, you can plant vegetables on this card as you would on a field (This card does not count as a field in the scoring). The icon, showing vegetable markers piled on a card, demonstrates this.

Once you understand how these cards work, and how they are laid out, it's easy to follow the rules.

This was where my OCD tendencies came in. As well as my glossary of game terms, I started a list of all the cards that were mentioned in the rules. This was important because I needed to make sure that I always used the same English term for the same German card - and that I didn't use the same English term for more than one German card! With so many cards, there are a few that can overlap - one example is the Fleischer and Metzger cards. Both words mean butcher - the only difference is in which area of Germany they are typically used. I didn't think that "Butcher (northern Germany)" and "Butcher (southern Germany)" would be particularly useful game terms, so eventually compromised on Butcher and Meat-seller.

Now, we were getting there.

Along the way, I had to make some formatting decisions. Although I never actually documented it, I essentially developed a Style guide, deciding how I would present the names of cards and actions and their German equivalents. Because this was an unofficial translation, to be used by English-speakers playing with a German copy of the game, I felt that it was important to include the German terms as well as the English translations. It makes the rules longer and somewhat more unwieldy to read, but I think it also makes them eminently more usable than if I had just produced an English-only document. Players will quickly recognise that Family Growth is Familienzuwachs on the board and on the cards, especially after playing the game several times.

I also had to decide how to deal with the gender issue. I'm just not comfortable using "he" for everything. Where possible, I avoided gender-specific terms or used s/he - and where longer text seemed to require more detail, I tried to alternate between she/her and he/his. I recognise that this will annoy some readers, but it would have annoyed me more not to have done this.

My rules document is not laid out like the German rules - it doesn't include the illustrations - but I have indicated where the page breaks are in the original rules so that anyone reading mine can refer to the illustrations and examples in the original document. A friend tells me that I need to produce prettier rules documents - at least using a serif font - and kindly tinkered with an early original - but in the end I couldn't bring myself to use his layout because it just didn't feel like the document I'd laboured over for the better part of a week. I never claimed to be rational about these things!

The rules didn't end with the original 11-page Word document, though. There was an additional Appendix (which runs to around 15 pages). This very useful document details the scoring and action spaces, and clarifies how the Improvement and Training cards work in combination with one another. Want to know how the 5 special ploughs work? Or what happens if you upgrade a Well to a Village well? Whether you can use a Market woman with your Market stand, or in what order to evaluate the Milking shed, Distaff (for spinning), Butter box mould, Milking stool and Weaving stool? How to use the Lassoo, or the Wood distributor? Whether you can combine a Stable boy and a Fence overseer? It's all here, and all spelled out in detail - based on what's on the cards. Not having the detail of the cards, I did have to fire off a few questions, mostly to do with interaction between the different players. Again, these were quickly and unambiguously answered with a look at the individual cards.

So what would I have done differently if this were an 'official' translation? Not much - I like to make my translations as good as I can, even if they are just (I hope) an interim step and planned to become obsolete - it would be great to see this game picked up by an English-language publisher. In the meantime, though, my goal is to make the game playable and unstressful for non-German-speakers - so it would be silly to cut corners.

I think the main differences are that for an official translation I would have had a full list of all the cards, which would also have needed translating, removing the need for so much to-ing and fro-ing about what the effects of a particular combination of cards might be. I'd also have put more detail into the names used for the cards - I think the terms I have are OK, but a book on 17th century agriculture might have clarified whether there are really such things as a Vehicular plough, Turning plough, Improved plough (OK that one might be a cheat), Furrowing plough and Hook plough. (Fraser is complaining that there's no Stump-Jump Plough -- maybe there needs to be an Australian expansion, with kangaroos, rabbit plagues, droughts and Jackaroos?) Depending on the publisher, I might also have to use US spellings (although that is perhaps better left for the editor to fix). A publisher might also have views on the personal pronoun/gender issues I discussed earlier.

Because my translation was for gamers, I didn't have to worry about some of the terms I used. I did eventually dump "Counter mix limit" (mostly, there isn't one, but there is a limit on the number of fences, stables and family members a player may have) as just toooo much jargon, but I have kept "orthogonally adjacent". I figure that anyone playing a German edition with a home-grown English translation is going to be a gamer, and gamers know what that means.

End result of the translation:

  • Rules (uploaded to BGG - currently in the Files queue)
  • Playeraid - glossary of game terms (uploaded to BGG - currently in the Files queue)
  • Appendix - scoring detail, clarification of interactions between cards, descriptions of cards (still proofreading)

At some stage, I hope to do a translation of the text of the cards as well, for the sake of completeness.

It's been interesting to chat briefly about the game with the lovely William Attia, who is doing the translation into French and who has encountered much the same issues as I have. Sadly, my French is almost non-existent (unlike his excellent English), which limited the opportunities to compare the two translations, but it was great to discuss the different terms that we were considering.

Thoughts on the game itself:

I think this will be fantastic. It is a deep, variable, well thought out and well-playtested game that is definitely worth a good long look. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should perhaps say that it seems on my reading(s) of the rules to be just the kind of game I like - role/action selection, development, limited number of rounds. )

I am unclear over how much interaction there is between players - I suspect this occurs mostly in the selection of actions in each round (any action may only be taken by 1 family member token, so there will be some competition) but some of the cards do seem to allow stealing a little more direct interaction.

The challenge is in building production to acquire other cards - developing a resource engine of sorts, I suppose - with the mix of cards that you have - thematically, making the most of your limited resources. You need to make new family members to help you with the work (Ha! I'm guessing the Rosenbergs don't have children!) but also to make sure that you can feed your family after each Harvest.

Players all have access to build the ten Major improvement cards which include fireplaces and cooking hearths for turning animals, wheat and vegetables into Food. In addition, each player is dealt a hand of 7 Occupation cards and 7 Minor improvements at the start of the game, which may be played as you achieve the required pre-requisites. Players do not draw additional cards during the game - you get what you're given - although a variant rule in the Appendix allows you to discard 3 cards from your hand and draw the (face-down) top card from one of the decks.

For non-German-speakers, the language barrier will be a hurdle initially, but I don't think it is anything like a show-stopper - with the clear layout of the cards, I don't even think that paste-ups will be needed. Obviously, it would be easier if it were in English, and it would be great to see this game picked up for an English language release <self-pimp>and I know a great translator who is very familiar with the game already</self-pimp> :)

The game itself offers incredible variety - I am not even going to try to calculate the number of possible combinations of cards - as well as a simplified "Family" game (no Minor improvements or Occupations) and a Solo game, where you are challenged to improve your score over successive games. Playing time is given as half an hour per player for the full game - shorter for a family game - and player age from 12 years or 10 for the family game. I'd be confident playing this with my 9 year old as well as with my gamer friends - from what I have seen, it has the range and flexibility to appeal to a wide variety of people.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fabulous post, Melissa! The game already sounded interesting, and while I'm happy that I'll have a chance to play Agricola at Spiel, I'm doubly happy that I can read the rules ahead of time and get a sense of the game. Many thanks!

Melissa said...

Thanks, Eric. It's well worth looking at Hanno's tutorial at BGG as well, which gives a really great sense of how the game actually plays.

SodakLady said...

Wonderful article, Melissa. I've read the tutorials that Hanno posted and it sounds very interesting so I'll be taking a look at your (unofficial) rules translation. Thanks.

And didn't you know that you're already famous? ;)

Melissa said...

Thanks, Mary. I think this is a game you will really enjoy.

We celebrities have to maintain our public image, don't'cha know? ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Melissa!

And I don't just mean pointing out the game... but also for going into detail about the pitfalls and howtos of (board) game translation; there is not very much around about this particular art, at all.

For an "official" translation, I guess you'd probably run into another issue to do with the cards: space. Myself I'd consider it possible, by & large, to bring across everything that is in a text, but then there's only such-and-so much that would or could fit into a card at a given text size.

Btw, "chief's daughter" is of course not comfortably subsumed under Ausbildung in German, either, so I'd consider "Training" to be prime choice there!

I also notice that Aussäen has become a "Seed Action"... I love that. (Perhaps because I've seen a number of clumsy game rules translations into German where some uninspired colleague would've rendered "Seed Action" as a hugely cumbersome Aussaataktion or some such thing... a classic trap and you're not falling for it. Pure pleasure to see.)

One last thing: c17 agricultural handbooks to and fro, but I always find it extremely helpful in cases like that to check Wikipedia in both languages... ;)

Anyway... now I'm curious, and I'll go get & try the game one of these days... in the meantime: chapeau!

Melissa said...

Thanks, Robert.

There were even more changes after I got to the 360+ cards - where, as you say, making sure that the text will fit is as important as making sure that it makes sense. And there are some concepts that I found quite hard to translate - hopefully there will be some feedback from early playings to inform any necessary tweaking.