Remember when you were a kid and mom came to your bed to wish you good night? She probably didn’t want you getting up in the middle of the night, but did she ever threaten you with a wolf attack? If not, you’re not a Russian.
Munchkin Russia — which debuted as Русский манчкин from publisher Hobby World in October 2020 — is coming out in English from Steve Jackson Games in October 2021, with this set featuring 168 cards with a merry Russian soul. Some entendres worked in both English and Russian with a direct translation, but most of them were an exciting adventure with multiple paths, exemplified by the “Crossroads” card.
Let’s begin with the simple ones:
• An “Iron Curtain” as a political situation and a shower curtain combined. Drawing a guy behind a curtain made from iron — voila, 100% match!
• Another great example and basically a no-brainer was a “ROFLing Pin”. In Soviet culture, a rolling pin accompanies a tough Russian woman waiting for her husband who comes back home late and drunk. In the Russian edition of the game, this symbol of an enraged Soviet lady has a rhymed name meaning “a rolling pin with bared teeth”.
During the translation, the wide smile turned into a ROFL and we’ve got ourselves a nice new name! Easy enough, but there were quite a few cards that were more challenging.
• For instance, the wolf reference we mentioned earlier. It comes from a terrifying lullaby that is known by every Russian child:
Sleep sleep sleep
Don’t lie too close to the edge of the bed
Or a grey little wolf will come
And grab you by the flank,
Drag you into the woods
Underneath the willow root.
It’s totally understandable why a mother wouldn’t want a child to fall from the bed, but creating a full-fledged phobia is probably not the best way to prevent that! It’s like with the English saying “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”. Falling asleep definitely stops being the top priority in a kid’s mind.
In the Russian edition, the card is named “Grey Little Wolf”. While the name refers to the lullaby, the image is another layer of the joke. “Little wolf” sounds exactly like a “whirling (or spinning) top” in Russian. Additionally, if you’re affected by its Bad Stuff, the wolf “grabs you by the flank” and you lose a level. Thus, there is a clever visual and semantic entendre!
There was one big problem for the translation: No one outside of Russia would know about the lullaby, and even if we used the “grabs you by the flank” phrase, an English-speaking player wouldn’t understand the context, so for the translation, we had to abandon the lullaby reference and play with the remaining wolf and whirling top. Here is the result:
• Another case involves a fairy tale that you might know as “Goldilocks and The Three Bears”. In Russian folklore, the bears suffering the intruder are the same, but the girl is called “Masha”, which is short for the female name “Maria”, while the Russian word for “bear” sounds exactly like a nickname for the name “Michael”, that is, “Misha”.
In the Russian version, the card gives -3 to your Level if you have the same name as a female character from a fairy tale, and a +3 if your name is Misha. What should we do when there are very few Mishas in America?
We had the idea to instead pursue Goldilocks and her blonde hair so that all blonde players would have a -3 modifier and all brown-haired players would get a bonus. However, we realized that instead of being activated occasionally, this effect would be activated almost every time.
Thus, for the English edition of “Three Brown Bears”, we decided to drop the suffering of the bears and let everyone come up with a fairy tale with their name in it.
• And let’s talk about the most sacred one for today. Back in the USSR, everyone had many carpets. People put rugs on the floor, hung them on the walls (preferably on several walls at once). The more carpets you had, the more prepared you were for the winter and the wealthier your family was.
The tradition is still strong, especially among elderly people, but youngsters are not so far removed either. Try googling “Rugs in Russian culture”, and you’ll quickly realize that it’s a special thing to take selfies with a good ol’ rug in the background.
The closest translation of the Russian version would’ve been “Your Carpetliness”, but we needed to share that obvious Russian urge, so we went for this option instead:
As you can see, trying to explain local memes, traditions, or superstitions is a great challenge, especially the ones involving multiple layers of humor and double entendres. This kind of cultural localization is the most tricky and, therefore, the most rewarding of all.
Is there anything that you would’ve translated differently? Share your ideas in the comments, comrades!