April 17, 2012

The Perfumed Undead & Other Wordplays

As I was putting rosewater in my coffee – a vice I’ve picked up ever since discovering we had a lot more rosewater than we needed for baking – I had a gaming-related idea. 

In Persian, the word for this:


Is very close in pronunciation, and very easily misspelled, as the Arabic word for this:


In Persian, rose is Gul; the Arabic Ghul, on the other hand, is exactly our inspiration for the iconic Ghoul, that unclean devourer of corpses and low-level adventurers. And this got me thinking how easy it can be for someone translating a script in another language to mis-record a word as something else.

Imagine your (low-level) adventurers finding a scroll with a cryptic reference to ‘roses that might awaken … if the treasure vault is opened.’

The theme of mis-translation is very apt for games in which digging around ancient ruins is the basis for many adventures.  There can be many words in different languages that seem similar, but a slight misspelling can mean a world of difference.  Heck, even in English we often have a stick of lipstick (rouge) breaking into crypts and stealing stuff! (And yes, that rogue-rouge thing really gets my goat when I see it!)

Sometimes you can even get the word right, but misattribute it to a similar language.  For example, in my cradle tongue, Tagalog, our word for ant is the same as the Ilonggo word for bird; and in Tagalog, our word for rat is the same as the Bicolano word for earth.  Our word for ‘hill’ and for ‘lie in state,’ as for a funeral, are spelled the same, burol. And our word for rice cake, puto, is spelled and pronounced exactly the same as the Spanish word for a male prostitute!

Which brings me to my next mischievous suggestion for GM’s: you can compound a mis-translation with the translator’s own biases and concerns, so that instead of merely translating the word, the translator resorts to euphemisms and circular references. 

Imagine this situation: a scholar-priest has discovered some secrets of an ancient, vanished civilization, but in describing it, he has come across words which in translation can be misconstrued by his superiors as evidence of heresy.  To guard himself, our scholar muddles up his own records by very obscure wordings and references.  Three hundred years later, his book is re-discovered, launching a quest for treasure …

You could do something like this in your game by preparing two versions of the same document – one a wrong translation, and a correct one that you can hand to the players if they can get at the right clues.

Have fun!

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