Translating gamer slang in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft, the hugely successful massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) by Activision Blizzard, is not only a world of quests and adventures; it is also an intensely complex linguistic universe. Tens of thousands of objects, characters, quests, spells and much more exist in this online world, which have also been localized into German, French, Spanish, Russian, Korean and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional). Yet beyond this, the gaming community has spawned a jargon of its own. World of Warcraft had over 12 million subscribers as of October 2010, which makes it the largest MMORPG in existence. I became involved in this online universe when I took on the function of German language lead for the German translation of a magazine specializing in World of Warcraft. Translators and proofreaders for this print magazine received extensive reference material, and there are many additional resources about this nomenclature on the internet (see Resources on p. 32).

The scope of localized material in the game is enormous. I used a glossary with almost 150,000 entries, but that did not always prove to be sufficient. There are tens of thousands of non-player characters, items, quests, locations, spells and animals in World of Warcraft. Figure 1 shows a small section of the German database for plate armor, which alone contains 3,000 entries.

Interestingly enough, Blizzard has received a lot of criticism for localizing place names and character names, where, for example, Ironforge becomes Eisenschmiede and Lady Proudmoore turns into Lady Prachtmeer, as a recent discussion on the official Blizzard Localization Forum showed ( As one participant in the discussion put it, one would not expect the name Johnny Cash to be literally translated as Johnny Bargeld. Yet most players discussing the issue agreed that quest texts or item descriptions should be translated. As with the discussion of the localization of other games that I have witnessed over the years, there is a certain element of exoticness in this issue, as some players consider English “cool” and German “uncool.”

 Playing World of Warcraft is, of course, a prerequisite for understanding many of the game-specific technicalities of the language. I came across the expression grey-toting characters in one article, for instance. This appears to make little sense unless you know that in World of Warcraft items are classed into different levels of rarity and quality: poor (grey), common (white), uncommon (green), rare (blue), epic (purple) and so on. A grey-toting character would thus be a beginning character who owns weapons and armor of poor quality.


Characteristics and functions of gamer slang 

However, World of Warcraft is not simply a game, but is also a huge online community. Besides the official terminology and lore, gamers have developed their own jargon. Gaming slang predates World of Warcraft, of course, but it is in online games that it takes on a much more important function, as players communicate in chat channels, during group quests and in guilds. While voice chat is an option, much of the communication occurs by typing into a chat window. As gamers are often busy, brevity is the soul of wit, and abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), BRB (be right back) and K (okay) abound. This also applies to numerous locations and battlefields in the game. The Arathi Basin would become AB, Icecrown Citadel would be expressed as ICC and Sholazar Basin as SB. Many of these expressions and abbreviations might be rather difficult to understand for newcomers. However, that is another typical function of gamer slang — to create the feeling of an in-group and keep the “noobs” excluded. Here are a few such terms that would baffle a newbie, but are commonly used in chats on World of Warcraft and related forums.

buff: A spell or effect that will increase some of the player’s abilities, such as strength, agility or stamina. The opposite would be a debuff.

clothies: Character classes such as priests or mages that can only wear cloth armor, which offers much less protection than leather, chain or plate armor.

DPS: This stands for damage per second and is both a weapon statistic and an abbreviation for damage dealers — players who inflict damage on the enemy (as opposed to healers or tanks, for instance).

farming: Repetitive actions in order to gain certain objects or goals. This could include killing certain animals for the leather they provide, killing humanoids who “drop” cloth (such as linen or silk), collecting ore or gaining good standing with a certain faction by doing daily quests for it. A notorious version is “gold farming,” in which players sell in-game gold for real-world currencies, which is actually against the game’s terms of service.

grinding: Repetitive actions with the goal of reaching a higher level. A player, for instance, might kill dozens of animals, each of which will grant him a few experience points, rather than complete quests.

kiting: A tactic in which the player keeps an enemy at a distance while dealing damage long-range. A hunter, for instance, could walk backwards while shooting at the advancing enemy. The image implied is that of moving a kite on a long string.

mob: Short for mobile. Any bad guy, enemy or monster to be killed by the players. The World of Warcraft Wiki explains that the term was originally used in multi-user domains (MUDs), the text-based precursors to MMORPGs. In many MUDs, in-game objects are defined either as stationary item objects (ranging from fountains to wearable equipment that you could pick up) or mobiles.

tank: A heavily-armored character who absorbs damage from the enemy while being healed by the healers, thus allowing his group’s damage dealers to attack the enemy. The classic tactic in which the tank takes the defensive role while the damage dealers attack is called tank-and-spank.

toon hop: Many players have several in-game characters, which are sometimes called toons (from cartoon). Logging out as one character and logging back into the game as another one is referred to as a toon hop.


English, German or Denglish?

One basic problem in translating highly-specific gamer slang from World of Warcraft is part of a larger issue in localization. German popular culture, particularly in relation to high tech, uses numerous English terms. Once upon a time, for instance, the German term for motherboard was Hauptplatine, but now German magazines such as CHIP and PC-Welt simply call it Motherboard or Mainboard. The most extreme result of this tendency is that Germans have even invented “English” terms not used by native English speakers, such as Handy for cell phone. Hard-core German gamers, in particular, have adopted many English terms such as MMORPG or RTS (real-time strategy) and have turned numerous other English terms into a hybrid form, sometimes called Denglish. Denglish takes an English term and tries to fit it into German grammatical structures. A noun such as laptop, for instance, would become das Laptop or der Laptop — assigning grammatical gender to English nouns in German can be tricky. Verbs would take on German endings, and thus to download would become downloaden. Unlike French, German does not have a strong “purist” movement, and the use of Denglish has proliferated enormously. It would be perfectly normal, for instance, to find a sentence such as Downloaden Sie diesen Patch (Download this patch) on a software company website.

In World of Warcraft, such constructions are also common. German players use game-specific Denglish words such as grinden (to grind), droppen (to drop, in the context of a dead mob dropping loot), kiten (to kite), leveln (to level up or in other words to gain an experience level) and many more. Sometimes, the combination between English terms and abbreviations can become almost opaque, such as in the following message I saw on a chat channel in the city of Stormwind, on a German-language server: Shamiheal lfg bara.

A “translation” of this message (which could have appeared in exactly the same form on an English-language server, by the way) would read: “A Shaman specializing in healing is looking to join a group going to Baradin Hold.” How, then, should a German translator or editor react to this type of jargon? Essentially, there is a spectrum of solutions ranging from German purism on one side (heruntergeladen or erbeuten) to free use of English or Denglish on the other (downgeloadet or looten). Blizzard itself is an ambiguous guideline in that respect, as the German version of the game sometimes uses English terms (as in der Account), while at other times avoiding them (as in using Stärkungszauber instead of buff). The decisions will have to be made individually and should take the following aspects into account:

The target audience. It makes a big difference whether a text is intended for the general public, new players or experienced raid participants or guild members.

Precision and economy. Sometimes, there might not be a concise and clear translation for a popular game-related term. Take kiting, for instance, which was explained previously. I can think of no single German verb that would express the precise meaning of that term in World of Warcraft (ziehen is the translation of pulling, but that is different from kiting). A possible solution would be to place the English or Denglish term into quotation marks the first time it appears, provide a brief explanation and continue using the term afterwards.

Aesthetic considerations. This de-

pends on one’s degree of linguistic purism. Some of the Denglish forms can sound quite ugly in German, and if there is a perfectly adequate German equivalent, such as Schwächungszauber for debuff, it should be preferred.

Of course, World of Warcraft keeps changing, and the recent expansion Cataclysm brought new playable races, regions and quests, resulting in even more terminology and jargon. So, what is a translator to do to keep up with this evolving challenge but to continue playing World of Warcraft?