A personal insight into the work on the German translation of Return to Monkey Island
While I have had to put off many fans and those interested in interviews, I finally get to give you a little insight into my work on Return to Monkey Island, with full permission from all parties. Stan might be able to sell it to you a little better, but I’ve concentrated on a personal point of view. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it!
I was very nervous at the beginning. German adventure gamers are very demanding – and rightly so! After all, games like these are all about the story, the puns, and the way the characters come across. I asked myself the question: Would I be able to meet these requirements? The translations by Boris Schneider-Johne were showered with praise at the time and have since achieved cult status.
In the end, I decided not to try to pretend – every translator has their own style, and it would have been a crazy idea to imitate Mr. Schneider-Johne’s style. Besides, I came to the realization that there would always be people who couldn’t be pleased one way or the other. For them, only the original would ever remain the real thing – and that was okay! Nevertheless, I hoped that I could bring joy to many German gamers with my translation and that the game would make adventure hearts beat faster both in the original and in the translation.
There was not much preparation time. I only found out about Return to Monkey Island about two and a half weeks before the actual translation started. When I first heard about it, my jaw literally dropped. I felt transported back to the 90s, when I discovered my love for adventure games while sitting on my dad’s lap. Monkey Island had been with me since my early childhood days and was special in the way that it brought the whole family together. I remember trying to solve the puzzles and learn more about Guybrush and the evil LeChuck with my parents, my aunt, my brothers, and my sister.
The first thing I did: I replayed all the games, combed through internet forums and Wikipedia, and gathered everything written about the games – and especially the German translations. I created a glossary with all kinds of names, objects, places, and even quotes from the old games to be able to use them in the new installment if needed – continuity is the key for such a well-known game series. I had already collected more than 100 entries. Whether I would need all of them was unclear. But the preparation was important to me, and I thought: better too much than too little!
While I was waiting for the files to be translated and for the first playable test version, I took a look at what inspired Ron Gilbert to create his game series back then. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction at Disneyland, which I was fortunate enough to visit in December 2019, comes to mind first and foremost. But the novel “On Stranger Tides” by Tim Powers is also often cited as a source of inspiration. I bought this one and devoured it within a few days.
There were still a few days left, so I watched one of my favorite movie series “Pirates of the Caribbean” again and read “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was finally in the flow, and for the next few months, I would be able to think of nothing but pirates, treasure, the undead – and three-headed monkeys!
The work begins
Earlier this year, I received a Steam key for an internal test build. Although there was still some unfinished artwork here and there, and of course, the game didn’t have voice acting yet, I was surprised at how incredibly immersive and also how bug-free it already was. The artwork was unusual at first – I, like many others, had expected to see a similar style to Thimbleweed Park – but I quickly realized how detailed the locations were, and the cutscenes, which were already included, were a feast for the eyes. The fact that a huge debate about the visuals would commence in a few weeks didn’t even occur to me at the time.
I wasted no time and plunged into the adventure to get a first feel. The theme music was still missing, but when the words Return to Monkey Island appeared, I got goosebumps. This was really happening. The thought of me translating this game faded into the background, and I was six years old again.
I played the game for hours until I had played through it within a few days. At least until the part near the end, because that was still kept under wraps. In the meantime, I tried to get fully involved in the game, but in the back of my mind, I was already secretly translating the dialogues, and some puns were already causing me sleepless nights.
Intensive weeks of brooding followed. After laborious but entertaining work, a first rough version of the translation was ready. There were still a few details missing here and there, which Ron and his team were still working on, but a first version was completed and was now waiting to be put through its paces by me.
A big thank you to Ron Gilbert, Jenn Sandercock, Dave Grossman, David Fox, and so many others from the Terrible Toybox and Devolver Digital teams. They all made the job incredibly easy! You can tell how much this game means to all of them and how much love went into it. Also, a big thank you to my fellow translators – first and foremost, Concha Fernandez Alvarez, who provided me and many other colleagues with advice and took care of team communication and organization. You are the best! But of course, thanks also to Alexander Preymak, Rômulo Wehling, Carlo De Rensis, Arina Bedrina, Cristiano Caliendo, and Christophe Pallarès. It’s always a pleasure to work with you guys!
On April 1, Ron Gilbert announced the game on his blog. Since he had mentioned year after year how much he hated April Fool’s jokes, this was the perfect opportunity to get the gaming scene in a bit of a tizzy. Finally, after the weekend – on April 4 – there was confirmation: the game exists. We, the translators, were also able to announce that we were working on this game. It was an incredible feeling to finally let the cat (or rather: the monkey) out of the bag after all these months. The initial response was overwhelming – all sorts of industry magazines and seemingly all of Twitter were abuzz, friends and family wrote to me to ask if it was really true, and countless fans bombarded me with messages via email and on Twitter. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, even if the first critical voices were raised that Boris would not be returning as the German translator, but rather yours truly.
As a matter of fact, a short time later, I was in email contact with Boris. He, as well as I, had received dozens of requests, and he wrote to me to congratulate me on the project. It was also clear to both of us that many players would react with – let’s say – mixed feelings simply due to the fact that he was not the one doing the translation. Nevertheless, we agreed not to “print ‘Boris’ Seal of Approval’ on the package” and I quote Boris: “I would find it […] a pity because it is supposed to be YOUR work.” As for the translation itself, he gave me only one thing to consider, which I would have taken into account under all circumstances anyway: “Root beer is to be translated with Malzbier!”
On September 19, the time had finally come! The game was released on Steam and for Nintendo Switch, and players around the world could finally dive back into the world of Monkey Island. Germany was also eagerly awaiting the game. When the review embargo fell at 6 p.m. sharp, I was really nervous for the first time in years. I thought I had long since gotten over the imposter syndrome, but I still felt as if my very first translation had just been published. I don’t think any other game puts so much emphasis on the German translation – in the rarest of cases in the last ten years, I or my work have ever even been mentioned in a review!
Immediately I saw the first review – it was from GameStar. I had never hit CTRL and F so quickly before to search a page for the words “translation” or “German”. And indeed, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Even though not much was said about the German dialogues, there was a little bit of positive feedback in a caption: “unfortunately, there’s no German – but at least there are good texts.” A weight was lifted from my mind, and my nervousness subsided. No matter what was to come – GameStar enjoyed the translation. They even liked it!
In the coming days, more reviews were published by professional video game magazines and newspapers. But what pleased me the most was the fact that gamers seemed to like the translation as well. “First class”, “terrific German texts”, “extremely well-done”, “captures the humor just as well as the English does”. Of course, there were also critical voices, but fortunately much less – for example, people criticized me for not having localized the name “Locke Smith”. The intention of this post is not to defend myself or the translation, but I will say this: It is part of a translator’s job to know when to adapt certain names and when not to. A forced, half-funny play on words – possibly to make an allusion to the gender debate in Germany (in the lines of “SchlosserIN”)? I could have done that. But I didn’t. 🙂 So Locke Smith remains Locke Smith in German. And Herman Toothrot does not become Heinrich Zahnfäule.
I think I’ve mentioned often enough how much fun I had translating. Nevertheless, the translation held one or two challenges for me. I had to find the right balance between my own style, the previous translations, and the expectations of the fans. Some puns and the rhymes had to be creatively re-imagined so that they made sense in the world of Monkey Island, didn’t give too much away to the player, but also didn’t give too little away, and they had to be funny at the same time. However, for me, that’s what this job is all about and why I love it. In fact, I have hidden one or two easter eggs in the German version. I’m curious if an attentive player will find them.
I am incredibly happy to be part of this adventure. Never in my wildest dreams, back in my childhood bedroom, would I have dreamed of one day being able to work on this game series I love so much. It was an incredible privilege and also a very emotional return to times past for me. Monkey Island was one of the first games I played with my father. He often told me stories – many times with a different ending than you’d find in children’s books. I think he would have had a blast with Return to Monkey Island just like I did. But most of all, I know he would have been incredibly proud of me.
No matter what you associate with Monkey Island, I’m glad we can share that. It’s not a given that a video game can inspire so many people across multiple generations. And I’m excited to see what else the future holds.