About a year and a half ago, in March of 2017, I was introduced to a fairly recently released game from Japan called Detatoko Saga. I was enamored with the notion of the being one of the first English speaking players of a game from Japan, and took meticulous notes on how the game ran. Though after a month or so of regular play, the group moved on to a different game, and thus my collection of the rules was incomplete.
I then did what any sensible person would do; I acquired a copy of the game myself and finished the translation on my own.
Perhaps I should say that’s what I PLANNED to do, because I didn’t understand Japanese at the time. It’s been about a year or so since then, and I’ve made significant strides in learning the language, and I’m finally able to begin my harebrained scheme of bringing one of Japan’s games into the English speaking world.
And through this journey, I’ve confirmed many things that up to this point I’ve only heard said by other people. Presented for your reading enjoyment are some of those points.
1) Japan Designs Their Rulebooks Differently (If Ever So Slightly)
Recall your favorite RPG Rulebook. What are the first few pages dedicate to? For more modern games, it’s likely a short chapter introducing the idea of an RPG to you, followed by some of the basic mechanics of the game, and then a chapter dedicated to creating your character. While Japan more or less follows this same approach, they typically lead off with something you don’t often see in American or European games at all.
The first 15 or so pages of Detatoko Saga were dedicated to what in Japan is known as a “Replay;” a complete text transcript of what went on during a session of the game. This isn’t unique to Detatoko Saga, either. Some of Japan’s games may even have several of these Replays compiled in the beginning of their rulebooks, turning them into works of fiction with a rule compendium in the back. (The translation company Kotodama Heavy Industries is planning to release the English rulebook for Shinobigami in this format, if you’re curious to see what I mean!)
One other interesting feature to Detatoko Saga hinges on the fact that many Japanese books are softcover with a dust jacket. Removing this jacket reveals that the front cover of the book is a copy of a character sheet for the game! This is an important addition, since print media still dominates the book market in Japan; it’s rare to find .pdf or other ebook variants of Japanese publications.
2) Translating Is An Art, Not A Science
One of the golden rules of translation is that it’s not a mechanical task; it’s why Google Translate is generally regarded as better for individual words and phrases than complete sentences. The way certain words are used, especially when coupled with other words, can make a world of difference.
A similar scenario I encountered when translating Detatoko Saga was the name of a skill possessed by the “Dragon” class. It was a skill that could be used in combat to retaliate against an enemy attack. This was originally translated as “Counter.”
The translator for this game was going through quickly, and admitted that a few times he picked names for the skills based on what they did, as opposed to what they were actually named. So I went back to re-translate it for practice. The skill that was known as “Counter” was spelled “逆鱗” which means “Imperial Wrath” or “One’s Superior’s Anger.”
There’s also additional layers of meaning added to the original name: the individual kanji that make it up are 逆 for “reverse” or “oppose” and 鱗 for “scales” like those on a fish or lizard. So this skill is thus used by a creature with scales to oppose being attacked, which would rightfully make them angry.
This illustrates perfectly why translating is a creative skill: neither “Counter” nor “Imperial Wrath” is more correct than the other. One gets the point across of what the skill does just by the name, while the other is specifically what was said, even if the word play gets lost in translation. Which is also to say nothing about the option of re-writing the name to capture that same whimsical word play by using a name like “Red Hot Fury.” (Since Dragon’s are popularly known as fire breathing creatures.)
3) It’s Practical Experience In Using A Language
I spent around a year reading up about the basics of reading and speaking Japanese, as well as using a bunch of language learning apps. Every so often, I would crack open my copy of Detatoko Saga with the hopes that I knew enough and it’d make sense at a glance.
I’d pick a passage, and see if anything stood out or made sense. When I couldn’t recognize anything, I put my rulebook away and went back to my language books, hoping that more study would get me ready.
It never did, by the way.
Translating a game was much like how I described learning a new game; at some point, I needed to take the plunge and work with what I knew, or I’d wind up perpetually saying, “Just a little bit more study, then I’ll be ready!”
It’s been slow. I’ve clumsily had to stare at various kanji to decipher how they’re constructed before I could punch them into my dictionary, and one line of text would take me roughly 15 minutes to figure out. However, these were words that my language apps and text books weren’t teaching me, so I couldn’t necessarily wait.
I had to let the experience of figuring them out for myself teach them to me. From time to time, I’ll encounter Japanese words in other places, and since I’ve taken that leap to figure them out from Detatoko Saga, it wasn’t as difficult for me to understand it that second time around.
If it wasn’t already obvious, translation is a complicated subject. It’s why it took eight years for Tenra Bansho Zero to be completely translated. Not only was it close to 1000 pages of material, but there was also a great deal of cultural detail that needed to be considered at the same time.
Which is to say nothing of the fact that Japanese is such a wildly different language from English or many of the other European languages. Despite the long road I had to take to start making sense of Detatoko Saga, though, I’d have to say that starting it was worthwhile.
Much like the difficulty of learning about and playing roleplaying games.
Aaron der Schaedel is the resident weeb at High Level Games, and is still a really long ways off from finishing the translation of Detatoko Saga. You should find him on Twitter (@Zamubei) and tweet pictures of catgirls at him.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Detatoko-saga-Ryo-Kamiya/dp/4775313274
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.