ESL Creation/Translation/Review

I liked the writing of Aesthetics over Plot and thought it was really funny, and then read several reviews complaining about its multiple mistakes and awkward syntax, which is kind of dispiriting for ESL authors that might have a shot at translating our work.

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Was Aesthetics Over Plot translated into English? I am not familiar with the author, though I did take a brief look at their blog. Or is this more a matter of reviewer responses to language and grammar in general?

(disclaimer: I haven’t played it yet)

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If you asked here, I’m sure you could get someone fluent in English to look over your work and make sure there aren’t any widespread grammatical issues. But I’m a big advocate of getting beta-readers and not just beta-testers for IF games in general (regardless of native language), which I realize isn’t a widespread opinion. (Of course, I have it easy in this regard, because Encorm and I proofread for each other.)

That being said, I don’t remember noticing any major language issues in your games!

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It is likely my review was one of the ungenerous lot. I have a lot of empathy ESL speakers/writers, in that I clearly see the challenge. English is a deeply clumsy, crufty beast that even native speakers rarely master. Comedy is perhaps the toughest genre to write in a non-native language. A lot of comedy comes from rhythms, definitional nuance, surprising phrasing and cultural implications. It feels daunting to attempt in a language you haven’t lived a lifetime in.

I do not mean my feedback to be discouraging, though understand that reading. I would never suggest “Because Everest is so tall, just stop climbing.”

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I’ve played a bunch of games by authors with a first language other than English, and some are really tough to read with errors all over the place, while others are overall clear of basic errors so the occasional odd turn of phrase doesn’t register as all that significant (in fact I feel like sometimes they can feel kind of charming and creative – especially so in comedy games, actually, though I do agree they can be tougher than those that play more straight). And for what it’s worth I’ve certainly seen games by native speakers that are pretty much as unreadable as the worst stuff I’ve seen from ESL authors.

So yeah, just agreeing with others that testers/readers, especially native speakers, make a big difference regardless of what language you’re most comfortable in, and this forum is usually a great place for support on that front!

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I think once you know expectations it can help, too. Ruber Eaglenest and Victor Ojuel both are native Spanish speakers who entered IFComp with games that had really cool ideas but suffered in translation.

Both of them worked hard and went on to enter games in English that are highly regarded for their story and writing ( Ariadne in Aeaea and Tuuli, respectively). Victor has a job writing narrative for the game Temtem now. Marco Innocenti had some flak for his first IFComp game because of some word choices (I think some people criticized ‘cyanotic’?), but ended up winning IFComp.

I’m not sure what they did between the starting games and the later games to get so polished, but whatever it was worked!

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I am very impressed with the most successful ESL authors as I know from myself that even if I manage to avoid technical mistakes when writing English, my writing is a lot less varied than when I write in my own language Danish, which is why I focus on puzzly parser games rather than focusing on writing an exciting story.

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The thing is, I don’t recall spotting anything wrong with Aesthetics over Plot while playing, and then after seeing the reviews I thought “oof, there’s no way I can pull this off myself”.

For my own game-writing I try to keep the text minimal and to provide certain game mechanics that players can engage with even if they dislike the writing. At this point I would not attempt to do comedy in my own language (need to build more confidence in my writing chops)

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On one hand, I definitely sympathize with people struggling to write in English, being ESL myself, but on the other hand… yeah, when text is the main medium through which your game is conveyed, too many mistakes or awkward phrases do get in the way of player experience. There’s not much anyone can do about that. I think we should definitely encourage people to get beta readers for things like this.

I’m starting to play RTE right now. I must admit that the initial walls of text are a bit intimidating, but it does look interesting.

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As long as your writing conveys the correct information (something which plenty of English authors certainly struggle with), then I feel like you’re good.

If someone decided to go full-tilt to sound as British as possible, and eliminated all of the original “awkward phrasings” (as it’s being called), then I would feel absolutely gutted, if I knew what the previous draft looked like.

The way that an ESL author approaches the English language can have unique and wondrous qualities, and there is value in that.

So if any ESL authors out there are hesitant to release their game because they’re not a native English speaker, and the revision notes seem conflicting and endless: Your game is welcome. Don’t feel like the barrier to entry requires you to sound like a flawless Brit.

Language is flexible, and our brains are pattern-matching machines. Your take on the English language will have flourishes and aesthetics that are all your own.

Writing is subjective.

Own your unique approach.

I’ve been a tester for ESL games before, and they’re gorgeous.

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Gonna add my grain of salt as an ESL writer who’s also gotten this kind of comment (grammar mistakes and the like). I’ve honestly felt disparaged with the harshness of quite a few of them. I understand how important it is to have a good base, especially as the medium is very text-heavy, and it can break immersion. And I am really grateful for everyone trying to help us ESL writers to fix issues we might have with our text.

But there is something so intrinsically beautiful to see writers brining their mother language roots in their projects. It really is something unique that non ESL authors might not be able to see or appreciate, because it takes codes that might not be in the English language or are contradictory to the rules and still is incorporated in those works. It makes the genre so much more diverse.

IF can be very personal, and it takes a lot of courage to share it with other people. It really makes it extra special to have someone trying to convey a story in a language that they might not be fluent with to share with people who probably wouldn’t be able to read that writer’s language. [EDIT: And it takes a lot more effort to be able to do this than non ESL writer can realise (unless they write in more than one language).]

And I haven’t really felt like we’ve appreciated this aspect enough.

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It’s always interesting to read these sorts of threads, as an ESL writer.

Joey’s nailed it here, I think. I often find the unique phrasing in ESL works to be charming, and God knows that colloquialisms are slippery beasts to wrangle.

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I think this is 100% true. I will say one thing I’ve grappled with as a reviewer is that it’s often hard to figure out how to talk about this; there’s very rarely ABOUT text saying that an author is not a native speaker or that a work has been translated, for one thing, and it’s deeply uncomfortable and potentially offensive to try to like look at someone’s name and grammar choices and make an assumption based on that. So I typically try to soft-pedal spelling and grammar critiques where I have a suspicion a game is from an ESL author without explicitly saying anything about it, but that also means it’s hard to intentionally lift up the positive aspects you mention, too.

Anyway this is something for me to keep thinking about. But I’ll just emphasize I feel super lucky to be a native English speaker, since folks go through a lot of effort to write in a language they didn’t always grow up speaking, and I get to have all the cool, creative benefits without lifting a finger. So y’all are deeply appreciated!

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There is often something about phrases that are not quite idiomatic; they can be quite poetic. Poetry, I find, is often idiom-adjacent. Perhaps this occurs because they originate in an idiomatic phrase that does not fully come across. I don’t know!

I value that in translated work, since I value the poetic.

Those cases seem different from run of the mill grammar stuff. Being honest: without the help of testers and readers, my game would have been unacceptable to many players and reviewers. I say this as someone with a terminal degree in writing and who has taught composition at the university level. So if I need this assistance, I think many ESL authors would as well. Proofreading support for writing projects is probably required for all but a lucky few.

Whenever there are concerns with grammar, punctuation, and the like, I always wonder if the author received the testing support that they needed. That’s true for any game I play, even with native English speakers. I don’t usually see it as a failure on the writer’s part.

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Good (canonical?) examples of ESL writers who turned it into a strength are Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. I’ve even read this about Raymond Chandler. He was raised in England and attended a boarding school there, and so he found the American wisecracking vernacular alien.

A good example of an ESL IF is Ghosts Within from the 2021 IF Comp. An ambitious game!

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I did not know this about Chandler! Now I’m imagining the translations required:

“I say, my dear fellow, perhaps you could parcel out the dosh, lest something untoward regrettably occur?” → “Gimme the cash and nobody gets hurt!”

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I wrote about this on Mastodon recently:

Here’s an article I discovered at the time which expounds further on the subject:

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Not validating anyone being harsh, but this might actually be taken as an unintended compliment: you didn’t trip the “English isn’t this writer’s first language” switch enough to make them realize you’re writing in a non-native language - which for most reviewers will cue them to temper their commentary. You’re being judged as an English writer rather than an ESL writer!

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That’s a good point and I am among the many authors who didn’t do that. I will definitely try to mention that in my next games as it otherwise may put the reviewer in a dilemma. On the other hand I doubt ESL authors are looking for “compassion points” which would not be very satisfactory.

More generally though, I have sometimes liked a very flawed game (language or bugs etc) despite the flaws and as a reviewer I sometimes feel an obligation to rate the game a bit lower than my initial feeling, which doesn’t really make sense as reviews are always subjective anyway :slight_smile:

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These might be good banner-text/library card additions for parser systems:

Prose Language(s): English; Occasional Spanish; Vulcan
Author Primary Language: English

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