It's May 15th 2011, and here's a hint what today's issue is about …
Yes, you guessed it, it's …
When Portal 2 came out not too long ago, I played through it like anyone having counted down the days until its release would: in one go, not being able to stop. The next day, I was naturally craving for more, and since my friends are not that much into gaming and I didn't want to waste the coop campaign on some stranger, I decided to just play through it once more — only this time in German, which is my native language.
I went into that experience fully aware that it's generally a bad idea to consume text based art in any language other than the original one, but for many people, this is the only way they are able to enjoy the text at all, so I was quite intrigued by the prospect of experiencing the game through their eyes (and ears). There is a long history of dubbing in German television, with the result that most people, while on a higher cognitive level certainly knowing they are consuming a translation, will nevertheless not be constantly aware of that fact (even in cases where the lip sync is atrocious). This makes it all the more interesting to see what their impression of the game might be, because most likely, they won't judge it as the tradeoff it is — if something doesn't sound right, this will much more likely be attributed to the game itself, rather than to a translator's mistake.
Now, in video games, this is often not that much of a problem, because in many cases, the writing isn't very subtle to begin with, which makes the translators' job pretty straightforward, and the resulting translation will perfectly convey the authors' intentions. This gives rise to a bit of a paradoxical situation: the more effort that has been put into the writing, the worse experience a large percentage of the audience will have.
What does that mean for Portal 2 and its translations? Basically, it's comedic writing, which is always very problematic — there are lots of subtleties that make a line funny, and it's very easy to neglectfully kill a joke in translation. Furthermore, one of the main characters is quite manipulative and passive-aggressive, and it should be pretty obvious how a character saying one thing while meaning something else can pose a problem to translators who don't have a firm grasp on the character's intentions. Those are the main problems that arise in almost every line of the German translation of the game.
To set this a bit into perspective: Compared to other translations inside and outside the video game industry, the German translation of Portal 2 isn't awful. There are no “all your base are belong to us” moments in there, since, obviously, professional translators with a firm grasp on the target language were hired to do the job. The point, though, is that, for some reason, most professional translations of both video games and movies/television programmes are not very good, and Portal 2 is no exception. One possible reason might be that the translators just don't care enough, because their clients are typically not in a position to judge the quality of their work. Another might be that the clients themselves don't care enough to provide the translators with all the information they need, because possibly they perceive the translations to be just a crutch anyway, or because the translations are commissioned by the publisher, who couldn't care less about the artistic vision behind the product.
Whatever the reason, my particular grudge with the Portal 2 translation is that Valve obviously cares a great deal about the quality of their products, and they are definitely in a position to apply that same high standard of quality control to the translations, which, here, sadly, they didn't.
Since it's a bit too easy to belittle other people's work without explaining why it is bad or how it might have been done better, I decided to do both. The rest of this article will consist of a detailed analysis of the German translation of Portal 2's second chapter. All the lines have been extracted from the subtitle file of the game, and each presented line will feature the original English version, the German translation, a double translation (the German translation translated back to English, so non-German speakers can follow the remarks), and a proposed German translation that tries to tackle some of the problems that have been found with the actual translation.
A few remarks on the translation quality rating system:is pretty self-explanatory; lines could have easily been done better, which most often means that some subtleties and jokes are lost; is reserved for lines whose translations completely miss the author's intention, or are completely out of character; won't be used unless the translators either had absolutely no idea what's actually going on in the original line, or made very stupid and amateurish mistakes.
Here we go:
A bit of a disclaimer for this particular article:
1.) I tried to include all the lines of the second chapter, in order to present an unbiased view on the overall quality of the translation, but since this is an interactive medium, there might be a few lines missing that are not part of the main narrative.
2.) I am aware that the proposed translations are often longer than the original lines, which is a general issue with English to German translations, but since there is no lip or animation sync to worry about in the analyzed part of the game, this should not pose any problem.
3.) I am aware that, reasonably, my target audience should be non-English speakers that played through the German translation of the game, and it might seem a bit silly that I decided to write this article in English, but I believe that it's more important to point out the problems of bad translation to an international audience, than it is to confront non-English speakers with what they are missing out on.
4.) My native language is German, not English, and I am fully aware that my English writing skills are far from perfect. Please don't let that be a measure of my ability to discern inadequacies in the German translation of an English text.
5.) The presented double translations are, of course, just translations too. So, while I decided to include them in order to give an idea of what went wrong, they can only reflect the problems with the German translation to a degree.
6.) Everything presented here is about the translations themselves, and not their interpretation by the voice actors. That's a whole other can of worms right there, which is not part of this article.
7.) All opinions presented here are my own. I have no affiliation with Valve whatsoever.
8.) Obviously, the whole thing is a spoiler, if you haven't played the game yet. Maybe I should have mentioned that at the beginning, but seriously, you are supposed to have played the game by now. And if you haven't but for some reason still decided to read through this whole article, I'm not feeling particularly bad for you.