Lost in Translation: Linguistic Barriers in World of Warcraft (Part 1)

World of Warcraft’s playerbase spans the entire world. While certain regions can boast higher concentrations of players, we’re a fairly diverse bunch on the whole. Naturally, this means that a great deal of WoW’s playerbase either speaks English as a second language, or does not speak English at all.

To the credit of the WoW team, they’ve made great strides in trying to localise the game to various languages. Examples of other languages that WoW has been localised to include Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, German, Italian, Korean and both Simplified & Traditional Chinese. Each language localisation also has dedicated teams that work to translate major news such as patch notes, hotfixes, updates, etc.
As a whole, Blizzard is to be commended for the effort it puts into making the game accessible for non-English speaks.

At the same time however, this doesn’t overshadow the fact that there are parts of the game experience that end up either being limited or limiting due to a lack of proficiency in English. They can essentially be broken down into two components, though the first half of this blogpost will only focus on one.

The Blizzard-Player Paradigm:

The past 18 months have seen unprecedented  improvements in the ability of the average player to communicate directly with developers- mostly due to an increased presence on social media. I do not refer here to individual blogposts, which are easy to translate, but more informal settings. The most popular forum that it utilised by both sides by far appears to be Twitter. While initially limited to CMs such as Zarhym or Bashiok, we now see a number of WoW developers with their own twitter accounts. The best known public faces are probably Celestalon, Watcher, Holinka, and (formerly, but never forgotten!) Ghostcrawler, but we’ve also seen more reclusive faces such as Kalgan or Forge make appearances.
Popular WoW news sites such as Wowhead and MMO-Champion have also picked up on the usefulness of these tweets as a means of promoting news that is pertinent to the entire community, and often feature them on their front pages. To provide an example, just a few days ago Celestalon tweeted some important details about the Level 100 DK talents in response to player questions.

Being able to directly communicate with the people who produce the game that we dedicate so much of our leisure time to can mean a lot for some players. We’re a fairly passionate group of people, and being able to offer constructive feedback –ahem– is an opportunity that many jump at. Just look at the sheer number of individual WoW players on Twitter (yours truly included), and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to expect that the informal style of conversation found on most social media sites will receive translation on Blizzard’s side. Consider how many thousands of tweets must be exchanged each day between players and developers on a myriad of issues- would Blizzard really see compiling, translating and transcribing them for the benefit of non-English speakers as being worthwhile?

What does that leave non-native English speakers with though? Being unable to communicate directly with developers can be a huge letdown for those who can’t overcome the language gap. Sure, one could argue that they have the option of leaving their concerns on a localised forum where their question might be noticed by a CM who then proceeds to pass it on- but how fair of an expectation is that to leave them with?
Ghostcrawler, when he still worked for Blizzard, expressed frustration at not being able to directly address concerns brought up to him in languages other than English, and it’s likely that the other developers feel the same way. But again: How realistic is it to expect the developers to start learning various new languages (insert new Twitter trend?),  for the sake of improving player communication in an informal setting?

Like it or not, those of us involved with the WoW community who speak English at native-level proficiency have an innate advantage over those who do not. I speak here as someone who did not begin learning English until the age of 6, but was fortunate enough to become fairly well-versed in it within a few years.
I’ll even take that a step further and say that for me personally, communicating with both Devs and CMs would be a lot harder if I didn’t possess what knowledge of various American colloquialisms or expressions I do. This is, of course, not an indictment on their part but a reflection on some of the hoops other players may need to jump through in order to get their point across.

The takeaway message that I hope comes across in this post is that we all need to consider how much of our work (both “official” Blizzard and informal player-side) is inaccessible to others due to language barriers. This is also why I hold players who personally volunteer to do  translation work in high esteem; indeed, roughly a month or two back a Polish player contacted me asking for permission to translate my Siege of Orgrimmar spreadsheet for Death Knights into his native language to make for better access to others.

In Part 2 of this  series, I intend to discuss language barrier issues and experiences on the player side of WoW. Until then, happy playing.

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