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I am trying to write the story for an RPG I will make in the future. The world itself is huge with multiple continents and landmasses, but the current story takes place on the main four continents. While the third continent is an empire, the other continents have a huge, diverse amount of kingdoms/nations and languages. The story involves the main character, a destined "chosen one", having to go all over the main continents to try and make diplomatic alliances.

One problem with the worldbuilding I have is the immense number of different languages. While there is already a solution for the protagonist (his enchanted helmet "translates" the major languages,) deuteragonists and tritagonists unfortunately do not have that luxury. While a few are at least bilingual, the rest only know one language.

What is some advice for trying to have character communicate with different languages and barriers, but without too much filler of having to constantly learn a new language?

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  • Are you wondering how your character can effectively communicate with the character who speak a different languages? Or are you trying to convey the different languages to the reader?
    – user613
    Nov 23, 2022 at 15:44
  • @user613 Both actually, but mainly the first option.
    – Crafter
    Nov 24, 2022 at 16:20
  • If you'd like to include a poem in English (a title + 11 lines, mostly short) about difficulties posed by English then let me know. (You'd have to clearly display the author's name and the date of writing the piece under the poem).
    – Wlod AA
    Nov 25, 2022 at 8:29

2 Answers 2

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I’m not sure if this is an answer so much as a bunch of musings on what you’ve presented, or possibly even a frame challenge, but maybe some of it will give food for thought.

You say in a comment that you are trying to both communicate with a character who speaks a different language, and trying to convey the different languages to the reader (but mostly the former).

I’m not clear on why the first is relevant, when your protagonist has a translation device. Assuming your deuteragonists/tritagonists are part of the conversation the player is having, can’t the protagonist translate for them? You’d only need one scene to show this, then the player will assume that’s how it works for the rest of the game.

I appreciate you’ve built your world and are trying to be consistent with it, but as the author you have the power to change that world, and are free to decide that there are ways more people have knowledge of other languages. For example:

  • The ‘universal translator’ enchantment could be more common, because it’s so useful. It’s pretty much the first spell enchanters learn.
  • There could be a trade language – non-traders might well have picked up enough, here and there, to get by.
  • The language of the most powerful continent could be commonly taught.

To convey that other languages exist, you could:

  • Show other cultures through clothes, rituals, food, etc. As a player, if I travel to a different continent and see unfamiliar things, I’ll probably assume there’s a different language to go with it. On a meta level, I would realise that everything’s written in the language of the game because I need to understand it in order to play.
  • Show a conlang on unimportant (to the player) book covers/letters/signs.
  • Have the protagonist lose their helmet for a while - could be a fun quest of a different nature trying to get it back if you make the challenge about dealing with lack of language skills.
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  • Thank you for the comment. What I am trying to do is try to not have filler of learning a whole new language, especially since there was going to be a romance between two characters who speak different languages.
    – Crafter
    Nov 25, 2022 at 14:37
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    Assuming neither is the MC (so no magic helmet), why can't you adjust the world/their background so that they speak at least a few words of the same language? Personally speaking, as a player, I'd be quite happy with handwaving a bit of language in a game - more so than in a book. Maybe you could put a cutscene showing them learning a few words of each other's language. Nov 25, 2022 at 18:20
  • More ideas: When the MC interacts with a group of people, it's enough if one of them understands the language and can act as a translator. The player will understand that this is how they communicate when the MC is not around. Similarly, you can show other characters communicating with gestures. Use clear iconography, pictures and diagrams. And if two characters have the same kind of (manual) job, they might be able to work together even if they don't speak the same language, simply because they both know how to complete a task.
    – Llewellyn
    Nov 26, 2022 at 18:09
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+25

The way this is often done (I'm inclined to say "usually", but I can't justify that numerically) is, when characters understand what's being said, it's delivered in the language in which the story is written (or the selected language for the game). A story written in English would use English when two French people were talking to each other in French.

When the characters don't understand each other, the thoughts and speech of the Point Of View (POV) character would be in the language of the story, while the speech of other characters would be in their own language. This puts the reader / player in the same position as the POV character, where they know what they're saying themselves, but can't understand the other person. When characters start to learn the other language, that language would be written as if it had been said in the story / game language - with occasional slips to indicate confusion with unknown words or expressions serving to pass that confusion on to the reader / player.

Most of what your protagonist hears will be in the story / game language. I'm saying "most" rather than "all", as there may be times where the scene or characterisation work better when people say a few words in the original language, which might also be true if and when other characters become fluently multilingual. An example of this being done particularly well is the Star Trek Universal Translator - most dialogue is delivered to the viewer in English, but nothing says "Qapla" like "Qapla".

Here's to success.

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  • I would say this is a good answer except that when writing a video game, the language of the player is typically set by the player, so it should be done so the player follows these roles. Also, it ignores a trend that many video games will have CC for all dialog and several with frequent foreign languages will leave the translation in the CC and may offer to turn the translation CC off so the player can be as clueless as the PC OR Be in on the jokes with their fellow Bilingual players.
    – hszmv
    Nov 23, 2022 at 16:33
  • Also, love that you cited the frequent untranslated Klingon in Star Trek, but I tend to like to use "p'taQ" as the demonstration word, as it has a clear definition (dishonorable) but it's lack of translation implies it has a more nuanced meaning than the English Translation is capable of conveying. This is a frequent linguistics problem (And English is especially prone to this problem). Consider that "to Urinate" and "to Piss" describe the same action, but the former is far more clinical and polite than the later.
    – hszmv
    Nov 23, 2022 at 16:37

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