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Localization and Humor Translation in The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island

Akademische Arbeit 2019 19 Seiten

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Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Localization and translation challenges

III. Analysis of humorous fragments in The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island

IV. Conclusion





This essay analyzes whether it is possible to localize humor maintaining equivalence in the target language. The issue will be applied to the case of the video game saga Monkey Island, since humor has always been an important element of it. The English and Spanish versions of two titles of the video game saga were selected in order to answer the question: Are both video games The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island good examples of successful localization and humor translation? Those titles are The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island since humor constitutes a substantial part of their dialogues and because they earned great popularity among the gaming community. Dialogues containing humorous elements, such as puns and wordplay, were extracted while playing those games in both versions, comparing each other and observing anisomorphisms. Regarding the issue of localization and transcreation and their challenges, research conducted was based on articles and books written by game localization scholars, who also deal with the issue of localizing humor in video games and its challenges. The analysis conducted in this paper consists in comparing each version of both titles and stating whether translators managed to maintain humorous effects in puns and wordplay, or if they failed to meet the challenge. Research shows that, indeed, humor in The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island was successfully localized despite challenges translators faced, and that the target player experiences the same humorous elements as the original source.

I. Introduction

The history of video games can be traced back to the 70s, when the first video game, Pong, developed by Atari, saw the light. Back then, video games consisted of a mixture of pixels and images with barely no text: the only text the player could find were numbers and the words “Play”, “Score”, “Insert Coin”, and “Game Over.” This did not cause any problems to translators, as they were simple words with no double meaning and with no attachment to any specific context. As video games began to include cinematics, talking characters and scripts, there was a need to improve translation methods and localization started to earn its place in the translation process. Translators now must bear in mind new elements such as screen space limitations, context-bound dialogues, cultural issues and even humor. Humor in video games is still an unpopular subject and some do not even regard it as a substantial element of video games although it is certainly an excellent basis for absurdity. However, others believe that there are some video games where humor plays a significant role and poses translation challenges which are not always met. Maintaining humorous effects requires more than an ordinary translation process. In order to successfully translate humor in a video game, it is necessary to make use of creativity and transcreation to build the same atmosphere as the original in the source language. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the different aspects involved in the translation of video games nowadays, and how some of these have been used in the translation of humor in two titles of the LucasArts’ Monkey Island saga: The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island, two of the most famous graphic adventure games. To this end, research based on academic papers, books and specialized articles focused on localization, transcreation and humor in video games has been conducted.

II. Localization and translation challenges

Before a video game is translated, an internationalization process is required. This stage involves “making such elements as the code base, core feature, set and User interface generic enough to minimize re-engineering when the product is localized” (qtd. in O’Hagan 2005, p. 3). Adaptation done by translators is made easier by software developers who create interfaces which, for example, eliminate concerns regarding screen space limits for words and characters (González De Benito, 2016 - 2017). A second step entails the localization1 of the game so that it is appropriate to the features of a different culture.

Dunne (2006) defines localization of digital products as:

The processes by which digital content and products developed in one locale are adapted for sale and use in another locale. Localization involves: (a) translation of textual content into the language and textual conventions of the target language, and (b) adaptations of non-textual content – from colors, packaging, etc. – to take into account the cultural, technical and regulatory requirements of that locale. (qtd. in González De Benito, 2016 – 2017, p.14).

Localizing a game involves structural, technical and culturally - motivated changes. An example of this is the need to adjust the marketing strategies of the game.

Disregarding the cultural context may impact the reception of the product, undermining the primary aim to create a similar experience for all players and estranging the fan established base (Czech, 2013)

Such is the importance of considering the cultural aspect in video games that some even claim that they ought to be regarded as “cultural artifacts” (Czech, 2013). They base this claim on the fact that the use of language is involved. According to Peter Newmark, “language is a substantial but partial reflection of a culture” (Newmark, 1991, p. 73). He explains that translators not only have to transfer information but they must also bear in mind different cultural elements with the aim of making the transfer of said information clearly and fully understood by the target culture.

In fact, one of the most significant challenges translators encounter is associated with the idiosyncrasy of the recipients. Culturalization is, indeed, of substantial importance in this process, since the translator needs to be mindful of cultural factors such as religious, geopolitical and historical forces which, if ignored, are more likely to generate negative effects on the target culture (Lepre, 2014). Edwards (2011) highlights that “culturalization ensures that gamers will not be disengaged from the game by a piece of content that is considered incongruent or even offensive” (qtd. in Lepre, 2014, p. 31)

At the moment of localizing a video game, translators face another challenge, since they ought to also bear in mind deadlines, which are of substantial importance, since missing the release date announced can have rather negative effects from a financial point of view (Lepre, 2014). What is more, deadlines may be difficult to meet since the translation of a video game is complex and time consuming. This is due to the fact that many games, specially those with extensive narrative, present text fragmentation and variables; in other words, players are given the chance to influence on the game’s story, either by choosing a specific dialogue or by doing actions (or not) at some points of the narrative. With every action or choice made comes a new line of dialogues while others are excluded; therefore, it is important for translators to render the whole game script. On this, Ornella Lepre (2014) explains that:

Lines of a dialogue may or may not be heard, instructions of the game may or may not be triggered by the player […] a game script can be made up of a series of “fragments” which do not necessarily have a clear meaning outisde the context of a game (pp. 27-28)

Since translators are not frequently provided with enough contextual information, and they do not always have the opportunity to see the game before it is released, they might misinterpret the game’s script (Czech, 2013). Therefore, the context is of vital importance in the translation process since most utterances are bonded to specific situations, and those situations are linked to social, linguistic and cultural contexts. Without previous knowledge, the translator is bound to make lexical and grammatical errors. Czech (2013) elaborates on this:

Lack of situational context can lead also to a number of complications in other sociolinguistic aspects: translation of humor […] choosing a specific register or level of politness and, finally, assigning proper gender markings English seems to be a fairly neutral language, as it rarely distinguishes morphologically between gender and the English pronouns are not overtly marked for politeness. On the other hand, nouns in [Spanish] are explicit in their grammatical gender. Moreover, the choice of the case inflection pattern is also dependent on the gender of the noun; therefore, not knowing the gender of the game character or its relations with other characters may lead to “wooden”, unisex expressions that sound rather awkward when used abundantly (such as the use of passive voice in [Spanish] (p. 15)

Other problems translators face are of linguistic and technical nature, and they derive from the complex cultural environment and the specific technical issues associated with the industry. According to Mangiron and O’ Hagan (2006), to solve them, translators are given carte blanche to use new jokes and other cultural elements to maintain the player’s experience and to make the translation sound engaging. A typical example of this is the translation of dialects, which must be recreated altogether “shifting the balance between translation […] and transcreation[..]” (Czech, 2013, p. 12). Transcreation may be defined as the quasi-absolute freedom video game translators enjoy “to modify, omit and even add elements which the game localizers deem necessary to bring the game closer to the players and to convey the original feel of gameplay” (Mangiron & O' Hagan, 2006, p. 8). Nevertheless, said freedom is constrained by the standards and regulations applicable to every localization process, such as space restrictions that the Graphic User Interface imposes. In addition to this, localizers, game studios and developers are the ones who ultimately evaluate whether transcreation or a more faithful procedure is required.

Bernal-Merino (2007) explains that there are two different types of video games based on the degree of freedom translators are granted: those which require more research than creativity (research-based video games) and those requiring more creativity than research (creativity-based video games). Video game producers design research-based video games bearing in mind reference products from the popular culture, such as comic books, films, TV series or even previous games. In these situations, the pre-existing common knowledge will constrain the translation of these games, thus eroding the freedom translators would have otherwise enjoyed (González De Benito, 2016 - 2017). An example of this are video games based on comic books, such as Spiderman or Batman Arkham Asylum: as there are meta-textual references to the comic books in the game plot, translators ought to shift balance between transcreation and loyalty to the game’s original source. Consequently, they “must get familiarized with the terminology – including proper nouns – used in the original works and, what is more important, how this has been adapted in the already translated publications in the target language” (González De Benito, 2016 - 2017, p. 21).

On the other hand, creativity-based video games are those which are based on unprecedented, fresh ideas. This provides the translator with greater freedom (transcreation) at the time of adaptation. In this process of transcreation translators may make use of hybridization, which consists in re-inventing the original message into a new one closer to the culture and market of the target locale (González De Benito, 2016 - 2017). To that end, a great deal of creativity is required, since, as Czech (2013) explains:

Failure to recognize elements requiring transcreation may lead to renderings which do not properly convey the original meaning or even hinder the understanding of the entire item […] Translating an item requiring transcreation with standard procedures may also lead to a semantically and culturally impoverished equivalent (p. 14)

In the case of Monkey Island, translators indeed encountered the challenge of translating the dialect of pirates, that is, the pirate jargon. This type of register is not always easy to reproduce in the target language since both Spanish and English use different techniques to that end. In English it is more frequent to use contractions or change the end of a sentence for an apostrophe, but in Spanish it is more common to insert pirate expressions in the speech and respect the spelling. Nevertheless, in both cases translators resorted to omission: expressions like Ahoy there! I’m Guybrush Threepwood or Aye , and he complained about me chicken were rendered as Ey, hola , soy Guybrush Threepwood and , y se quejaba de mi pollo respectively . To preserve the pirate jargon in the game the translator could have considered another strategy such as ¡Saludos, marineros! or ¡ Hola, camaradas! or even insert pirate expressions to the speech such as Arrrr. Yet, it is possible that screen space limitations hindered the translator from doing this, since this is an oral dialogue and, therefore, the translation cannot be extensive (i.e ¡Saludos, marineros! is four syllables longer than Ahoy there!).

Translators are also free to adapt humor elements in order to consider the local culture’s sense of humor. Yet, this entails a significant challenge since transcreating puns, rhymes or idioms can be extremely difficult to achieve without experiencing a loss in meaning or leaving some subtle differences in the source language. This is due to the fact that humor is so closely associated with the different cultural frameworks of societies that its adaptation to other cultures may be almost an unachievable task (Fernández Costales, 2011).

III. Analysis of humorous fragments in The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island

Humor is found in all aspects of communication and its major role is to entertain, whether it is found in a simple joke, a book, a film, or a video game. When humor is expressed in the same language as the recipient’s native tongue, hardly any comprehension issues arise. Notwithstanding, if the target audience’s native tongue differs from the source language, the translation process that it requires usually entails significant challenges (Mangiron, 2010). According to Mangiron (2010), humor in video games can be used for characterization purposes, for strengthening the engagement of players, and to make them feel more involved in the game and in a social group. She also argues that the insertion of humorous elements can help relief players from the tension that many games deliberately bring about.

The series of Monkey Island produced by LucasArts’ is one of the most popular graphic adventure sagas developed in the history of gaming. The choice to analyze this saga, particularly the first and third titles, was made on two reasons: the substantial importance dialogues have in this graphic adventure, especially when most of them are of humorous nature, and the place this saga has earned in the heart of almost every gamer. In all of these games, the player controls Guybrush Threepwood, a young man who wants to become a great pirate. Since the first game, Guybrush falls in love with Governor Elaine Marley and has to fight zombie pirate LeChuck several times in order to be with her. During his adventures, Guybrush shipwrecks in Monkey Island in more than one occasion and this mysterious island, which is inhabited by a large number of monkeys, starts to reveal its secrets.

Monkey Island is a point-and-click adventure game in which the player continually needs to interact with the environment by instructing Guybrush to perform specific actions and solve puzzles with the help of objects collected through the exploration of different locations. Lepre (2014, p. 148) explains that in these games:

If the player hovers the cursor on an element of the screen that can be interacted with, its name appears In the command line (e.g by pointing to a door, the line becomes ‘walk to door’). To open the door, the player has to click on the appropriate verb (i.e ‘open’), and then on the door [ Figure 1 ].

The first game released was The Secret of Monkey Island (TSOMI) in 1990. The game is set in Mêlée Island, an imaginary archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Guybrush Threepwood, the series’ main character, is introduced to the player who will have to guide him throughout his journey to become a pirate. In the process, several secondary characters appear, ranging from ridiculous pirates to healthy cannibals.

In the third title, The Curse of Monkey Island (TCOMI), which saw the light in 1997, Guybrush finally proposes Elaine, but the engagement ring is cursed and turns Elaine into a gold statue, which is stolen by some pirates afterwards. The player needs to lead Guybrush through the fictional Plumber Island and Blood Island in order to complete his mission: rescuing Elaine.


1 “The boundaries between “translation” and “localization” are far from being well defined” (Lepre, 2014, p. 26)


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Universidad de la República
Translation Humor Localization Videogames



Titel: Localization and Humor Translation in The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island