Dungeons & Dragons Online

Translating is more than replacing words: how loosing stuff in translation can help worldbuilding.

In one of my campaigns, the PCs needed goats (don't ask).

Now, they were in the northern territory, smack in the middle of Mêgy. Problem was, none of them spoke megian.

One of the PCs rolls linguistics. He rolled a mediocre 7, but since I also kinda use degrees of success, I told him a half truth. I told him he remembered the name for "goat" was "ishin". Swiftly, they ran to the livestock merchant and started asking for an "ishin", and pointing at a nearby goat.

The merchant smiled, nodded, and went in the back of the pen. 15 minutes later, he came back with an animal as big as a horse, but twice as bulky. It had horns like a ram, and was fairly whooly. It was just a small moment. After a while, they could make themselves understood, they bought the goats they needed, and moved on. Still, every time they said what they thought meant "goat", they kept being pointed to the big work animal with horns, instead of the actual goats.

Now, why did this kept happening? A mistranslation, surely, but, based on what?

Well, based on the fact that goats, in this setting, are actually a selective breed of a bigger animal, the big work beast that they kept being referred to. The people of Mêgy first domesticated this animal, called "ishin", and later found that, through selective breeding, they could get a smaller animal, whose meat was easier to consume, the leather was easier to treat, and was, overall, more manageable than their inner cousins. They called this animal "inishin" or "small ishin" which was later exported throughout the continent in the subsequent military campaigns. The original "ishin" never left the North though, because it had trouble adapting to the warmer south, and so, its use fell out of fashion, except for the most rural areas, where it kept performing its task fine enough.

Now, see what I'm doing? I could have started with a pretty boring exposition about how megians exported the goat throughout the continent, and yaddi yadda. However, devoid of context, that is, devoid of player context, this is just blabber.

But first, if you use confusion, curiosity, and a bit of in-character frustration, then they become curious as to why this is happening, and worldbuilding is eased that way.

It is also a pretty good resource for your own worldbuidling, wether for a setting, or a PC. When thinking of a language, think of its history. Why it rose that way, and try try think of clever, fun ways in which things can get lost in the translatio to the PC languages, or how they can suddenly become confused by an expression. Why do people call money "bitches" in this region? Why do people wish you to "have a lot of shit", with a sincere smile, when they wish you luck in your endeavours? Why do people call you a monkey when they want to say you look good?

Now, believe it or not, all those examples come from a real-life language. I'll let you guess which one it is.


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