Bilingual role-playing

This topic popped up on the Discord and Ross suggested someone who is not anglo-monolingual post about it. Here I am, I’m bilingual in English and Italian. @Ron: If I’m too vague with framing the discussion here, feel free to steer it in the direction you feel is useful.

I consider myself bilingual in Italian and English, and fluent in both languages. I think bilingually, which really is not that impressive, as it just means I’m crap at both and end up coming up with an expression in one language when I’m speaking the other one.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been living far from home, and English is my primary work and social language here. I end up playing in Italian from time to time (mostly over Discord). At this point I don’t notice much difference between playing in one language or the other, at least not internally – I tend to express myself in a way that I can map my thoughts to both languages, most of the time. When playing an English game in Italian, I’m careful to create glossaries to avoid mixing in loanwords during play.

I’ve noticed that the play habits of people, and in general the play culture, are quite different, and whether the root cause is language or culture is irrelevant, as these are inextricably linked. I honestly can’t say I enjoy Italian play culture very much: even at its most functional, it seems that it reflects how our culture is oriented around status and rooted around clientelism and patronage. The spine-chilling habit of calling the player with the GM-role “Master” instead of their given name will make the anglophones here apprehensive. Even in non-traditional gaming circles, the ongoing status game tends to make at-the-table interactions phony and performative. 

On the other hand I’ve felt that the times that I’ve had good gaming experiences in Italian they have felt almost more poetic and at the same time rich in some sort of existential groundedness. English is a language rich in vocabulary and poor in grammar, when it comes to ability to express oneself, while Italian is the opposite, and sometimes English can brutally express in a few words what it takes Italian a long sentence to say.

I’ve heard Lorenzo describe this as “compact” but I think it goes a bit deeper than that – it’s much more difficult to build mental and linguistic shortcuts in Italian, as it is explaining new concepts that the language doesn’t map yet. But when you say complex things using existing concepts, it feels as if you’ve mapped it to things you already know. Learning a new word in English often involves reflexively picking it up from other people’s usage, internalizing its meaning, and only after prolonged usage one ends up being able to describe the meaning. This process is the same in every language, but it’s doubly prevalent in such a vocabulary and idiom heavy language as English.

One example: what in English I can describe as “agency” I need a few sentences to explain in Italian. There is a word which we can borrow from sociology (“agentività”), but its meaning is not commonly understood.

Regarding anglophone play culture, it has its problems, but it’s a much tougher beast to approach, and I don’t dare poke it with my tiny sword.

9 responses to “Bilingual role-playing”

  1. Stages of growth

    This was meant for the main post, but I’ve decided to put it in a comment it was becoming too long.

    Obviously, I went through several stages as I learned my second language, and I was roleplaying throughout, so it’s interesting to see exactly how the language-relationship changed and how that affected the roleplaying experience.

    If you find yourself in similar situations, please comment with your own experience!

    Stage one, mostly monolingual.

    I learned English rather early, but at this stage it was mostly good for reading Harry Potter novels and not intricate roleplaying manuals, much rather for creatively expressing myself at a table.

    D&D3.x books were readily available in Italian, and that’s what we used, if not for the fact that not all supplements were translated, and almost no third-party books. So, the curious gremlins we were, we obtained bootleg copies of such English supplements to use in our campaigns.

    This is the stage where you clumsily translate names and terminology into your mother language. It’s not that great and we barely understood the contents of what we were reading, often just interpreting it to our needs and wants. I can only imagine what it would be like to play a game that’s entirely in a foreign language like this; unfortunately I don’t have this experience to share.

    Stage two, translation

    At this point my English competence was such that I could readily translate material to a good level of accuracy and preserve the meaning. This is also the period where I started interesting myself in lesser-known independent games that did not have a readily available translation – or the one available wasn’t that great.

    However, most of the people I played with were not able to read the language, and so the main work I ended up doing for game groups was to create glossaries and summarize whatever godforsaken booklet we decided to play that month.

    I think the attempt was successfully made to play completely in our own language, without using English terminology – we quite cared about this, after realizing that mixing in loanwords which we didn’t know the meaning of had a negative effect on our play and understanding of the game concepts.

    Stage three, language-playing

    This starts when I move out into a small European country and start speaking English as a primary language. This includes the roleplaying, and the first attempts were clumsy. A language you use for practical communication is not a language you are used to expressing yourself creatively with. I especially noticed my clumsiness confronting myself with local nationals who as far as I know can normally speak English – the country is quite small and they are not coddled by translation of anything readable and listenable coming from outside.

    In any case, I eventually got used to it. The roleplaying experience is quite different when you’re speaking a foreign language: it feels rather efficient. I didn’t know as many words, and we were all firmly grounded to the common shared vocabulary of a bunch of second-language speakers coming from different backgrounds. The quantity of things you can express evidently is more limited, and you end up having to make the best of the vocabulary you know. Despite the struggle, this was a positive experience, as there was no real space for thespianism or purple prose, but just for straightforward communication about the game.

    Stage four, equivalence

    This is basically where I am now, and what I described in the main post.

    • This is a really interesting

      This is a really interesting perspective, and I wish I had some kind of experience playing outside my own language to compare it to. (I haven't dared — French is ostensibly my best foreign language, but I haven't actually held a conversation in it in over 20 years.) Your observations about English as a communication tool for gaming are ones I wouldn't have thought of — when I think about English vis-a-vis other languages, I usually only shake my head ruefully about the multi-car traffic accident that is English spelling and pronunciation.

  2. What “woes?”

    I see no woes in your description or ideas. Did you choose the title for cleverness or something like that?

    The Discord conversation includes two outlooks:

    • Native English speakers who are a bit apologetic that everyone has to learn English in order even to look at the vast majority of role-playing textss, and also a bit ashamed that Anglophone countries provide inferior training in other languages. I definitely share this view.
    • Non-native English speakers who apparently rather like having a shared language across all these cultures, and (to the surprise of the above group) identify aspects of English as useful or appealing in terms of the activity itself.

    My current perspective is that of an immigrant (not "expat") to a non-Anglophone country with widepsread training in English and other languages, and a strong undercurrent of English familiarity via pop culture and commerce. I find myself in trouble because (i) I very much want to speak the native language as practically and thoroughly as possible, but (ii) whenever anything gets tricky a lot of people switch to English "for me." Furthermore, as a parent, home-owner, and business-owner, pragmatic beginner Swedish is simply not sufficient for the importance and technicalities that have to be negotiated.

    My current plan is to stick with English for Spelens Hus play, but to try to inject as many Swedish phrases or easy statements as I can as we go along. I will have to ask participants not to make fun of me for it, which, frankly, is a real problem. I also plan to try mostly-Swedish role-playing some time this year with very sympathetic participants, for a deliberately limited time and using an especially streamlined, single-mechanic system.

    • Uh, you got me. I did choose

      Uh, you got me. I did choose it for cleverness. 

      Apologies, it could probably be changed to “Bilingual Roleplaying" or something along those lines.

      I've had the same "speaking English for me" experience in the Netherlands, but to be fair my friends there have been very graceful in allowing me to try out my very limited and heavily accented Dutch. 

    • I’d like to add a phenomenon

      I'd like to add a phenomenon I see in Norway where people play in English, or play dialogue in English and other stuff in Norwegian, or the other way around. It is very strange to me. Some locals, who speak this viking language, see their own language as embarrasing and not fit for fantasy roleplaying.

      I dodge the "all speak English to me" bullet in everyday situations by being good enough at the language (one year of Danish was helpful), combined with persistency and always using any other language besides English when possible. Roleplaying has still mostly been in English.

  3. Native language


    Interestingly, I definitly prefer to play in my native language, myself.

    Gming or playing in English is not a problem, but sometimes leads to misunderstanding. Generally when a figurative expression is used, and I "think" I understood it, but I didn't. Also because sometimes, I'm trying to remember or think about something while somebody talks to me – and in english I can't do both, so I have to focus and ask the other player to repeat.

     I can see the point about playing in english (I would not say "another language", because the only other language I played is english) being more straight forward, but I would prefer to have people "share languages". I deliberatly use french sentences during Rod's Sorcerer & Sword game – my character coming from an explicit "french-like" feodal culture, and Rod sometimes used french words. It was really fun, I think for everyone. I also get that English has really more efficient phrasing, words that describes phenomens that takes full sentences or weird figure of speeches in French to be understood. 

    Ron's immigrant problem (everybody's switches into english) is a typical reaction – I have the same in my own country, Belgium, when I try to speak flemmish (I'm so bad every flemmish switches to french – but then I never improve my flemish). What is bothering me the most, by talking another language with native speakers, is that they are so kind that they never correct my mistakes, and I keep frustrated after that that I repeat those mistakes.

    Another thought, which is a frustration: I'm always struggling to "translate" names from a fantasy english game. The name conventions of locations, for instance, are different that in french. Whenever I try to translate some location name which means something in English, such as "Greenest", , it doesn't work very well in french .. or it feels very artificial. A solution is to not translate it, but the result is that everything feels english-native or filtered through anglophonic lens. I don't really have a solution for that. Sometimes I translate it anyway, sometimes more literaly, sometimes more figuratively, sometimes changing letters. Some I just keep it english.

    • An interesting detail about

      An interesting detail about locations' names is that in all languages, apparently, they are usually boring unless they are named after someone or use a name from another language that the founders/namers considered exotic ("Chicago"). Most of them are "bridge town" or "two rivers" or "meadow village" or "three roads crossing" because that's what the people who lived there all these centuries called it, because that's what it was. If they do sound a bit dramatic to a native speaker, it's because the language has moved on since the naming.

      But to a non-native speaker, the name sounds like "fantasy syllables," so that Okinawa or Stockholm (both sadly mundane) take on mysterious and powerful significance, as if they were practically incantations.

  4. Let me try a multilingual answer

    Suomeksi pelatessa asiaan liittyvä ongelma on roolipelitekstien kieli; vaikka kotimaisiakin pelejä löytyy, on suurin osa tavarasta silti englanniksi. Ja jos D&D 3:ssa esimerkiksi ”constitution”, ”fortitude”, ”toughness” ja ”endurance” ovat kaikki eri käsitteitä, niin miten ihmeessä ne kääntää? Yritän silti pelata ja peluuttaa mahdollisimman suomeksi. Hyvää kielijumppaa se ainakin on.

    The first I played in English was with Jim Raggi at some Ropecon. With all the background noise, that did not go so well. After that I have gained lots of routine and now it is not so much of a problem, though I do forget common words every now and then. And the names of trees and other plants, articles of clothing and food vocabulary are always challenging. But usually I can just explain the word, refer to another language shared by at least one player or (if playing online) check the correct word, so communication is not a problem. My passive vocabulary is quite strong and understanding is not a problem.

    Jeg boede i et år i Danmark. Det danske sprog er mærkeligt at udtale og det var som Ron sagt: de fleste snakkede engelsk til mig. Og det var godt, siden jeg kunne ikke forstå dansk så godt. Jeg har ikke spilt rollespil på dansk så vidt, men jeg forstår det nu og kan snakke skandinavisk med lidt dansk accent så at danskere plejer at forstå mig godt nog; måske ikke de yngste, men de ældre sikkert. Jeg bør prøve det.

    Etter Danmark flyttede jeg til Norge. Det større norske skriftspråket, bokmål, eller mer eller mindre dansk som uttales på en forståelig måte, så jeg kunne snakke det neste fra dag én. Å forstå alle de dialektene er vanskeligere. Omtrent ett år etter å ha flytta hit deltok jeg på Hexcon og spillede lidt Mage: the awakening delvis på norsk. Det var utfordrende. Ett år etter det, på samme konferansen, spillede jeg Fiasco (D&D fantasi som sjangre) på norsk og det gikk bra nok, sammen med en spillprøve av et spill hvor vi spillede orker og drepte dverger (litt i retning av 3:16 faktisk, men uten dypde). Da var jeg allerede en fullstendig deltaker. Jeg er ikke sikker om jeg kunne spillede på norsk ennu; å beskrive mange lokasjoner og personer ville være vanskelig.

    Så har jag spelat få gånger på svenska. Jag har jo studerat svenska på skolen, men jag hatade det och lärte inte så mycket. Pakkoruotsi (eller pakkoruåtsi), som vi säger på finsk. Det gikk ok när det var miniaturer och kart, men nästan omöjligt utan dem. Allting må sägas många gånger, ellers får jag inte tak i det. (Ursäkta min dåliga svenska.)

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