Comprehend Languages and metaphor


Pathfinder Second Edition General Discussion


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I’ve always wondered where this spell draws the line between what’s translatable and what’s not. If a document is written in a dead language but is otherwise unremarkable, the effect is straightforward. If it contains a secret code written in the same language but hidden, it would translate the code if you noticed it, but if you fail the check to notice it, the spell doesn’t help.

At first, I thought the spell was simply there to eliminate unintentional obstacles to understanding caused by language barriers, but then I thought some more and things got complicated.

I’d like to ask how other tables handle things like context, metaphors, and figures of speech. Does this spell translate “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or are you spending the whole session learning to communicate, Picard-style?


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One flaw pointed out about that Star Trek episode is that a universal translator should (with enough exposure) be able to parse out what those references mean, how they are used, even if unaware of the greater historical context. Those names might not be present in an English translation, not as names. Not to mention how do the aliens transmit to each other what new phrases mean. Would children even understand more than the usage? Think about phrases we use that we later learn have specific roots that were unnecessary in comprehension.

Which is to say that "context, metaphors, and figures of speech" are all part of language usage so magic that helps you comprehend a language would have to help you comprehend those parts, even if much of the flavor gets lost. Perhaps it'd do so using comparable ones from one's own language, a common RPG/genre conceit especially for riddles. "Common" sure does resemble English when it comes to alphabet count, etc.
Now phrases which hold multiple meanings might be more difficult, in that case requiring many more words to translate it all, but the same goes the other direction if some long term can be summed up more swiftly in English. "Oh, you mean QED. Got it."

In the end I do think the spells run as per your initial thought, as a simple way to overcome an obstacle. IMO few tables would enjoy parsing linguistics any further as part of their RPG entertainment.
Can't understand becomes can understand. Yay! Now on to the next step of figuring out what to do with this info/riddle/etc.


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I feel like some phrases might just be untranslatable because the two languages communicate a thought in very different ways... but I don't think that means it wouldn't be intelligible. If I'm comprehending languages and somebody tells me that they're bored as an oyster, even though it doesn't translate the metaphor I still get the sense.

Of course, not all phrases are as immediately intuitive as 'bored as an oyster' from Spanish. Even so, I feel like the basic meaning is communicable in general, even if sometimes it sounds strange. People who have watched subbed anime for long enough should be familiar with unusual phrases that repeat because a common way to say something in Japanese has a different feel in English--and perhaps you might learn to pick up phrases from other languages like this.

Darmok might be a tougher call as that metaphor is as much the culture as it is the language. In these cases I imagine it's simple enough to have somebody explain the reference they're using--the point of being unable to translate metaphors is that you're getting a direct translation and not an automatic way to understand coded speech.

Somebody who says "The eagle is landed" won't have their phrase translated as "The people we have been watching have arrived at the destination" because that is a layer of meaning removed from the metaphor used. It's a relatively low-level spell (at base anyway) and shouldn't really describe the 'intent' behind words.

I don't think inability to translate the meaning behind a metaphor is a very hard barrier to communication, though. If somebody tells you that the snow is a blanket, you even if you've never heard that metaphor you're probably going to understand. If somebody calls you a regular Einstein, no matter what language you speak you depend on knowing the person and their reputation to understand the phrase so you either have to ask or be familiar with the reference.


Looking at the spell itself, it doesn't translate so there shouldn't be translation hiccups like "well, in my language that would mean or imply something else". The target can comprehend the language, so should understand basic meanings and symbolism, i.e. a "blade of grass".

Then it says this:
"This doesn't let it understand codes, language couched in metaphor, and the like (subject to GM discretion)."
Codes is rather obvious, as a natural speaker wouldn't understand codes either. As for "couched" we get "phrased or expressed in a specified manner" which I'd say contrasts with metaphors in general use. The line between a typical metaphor vs. a specific metaphor I'd think would lie in whether the phrase would be found in a dictionary of standard usage. So casual talk about the "grass being greener over yonder" would be comprehended, but not say a poem about grass in all its glory (at least no more or less than a native speaker would).

It does bring to mind the question of how well the spell would work with a person who can't understand such straightforward concepts in their own language. I have met functional people who lack the capability to understand analogies I take for granted as part of English. Or think of Drax who won't let anything go over his head.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I think it is far more important for the GM to decide what role the spell will play in their own campaign than for the spell itself to overly define what magical “universal translation” can mean, since any real life attempts at such are going to be problematically reductionist.

The reason “common” exists at all is a conceit that many tables don’t really play RPGs to deep dive explore the nuances of language and the complexity of how ideas are shared. Now, these are topics of personal and professional interest to me, but even in my home brew I rarely delve into them because languages take many users, often millions of users, and years and years to grow and develop naturally. Representing that in a game is often going to either require more work than anyone wants to do, or rely on reducing language down to “replaceable expressions” of inherent core meaning, which usually just results in doing a lot of work to disguise your own language experiences into something else. Which can be fun, but might not be playing a game with your friends, or at least not the game they agreed to play with you.


Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

What happens when languages grow and change over time? If I say something that you understand through comprehend languages, but the word meant something different 100 years ago, which meaning would you receive?

What if you were reading a book written 100 years ago? Would the spell know which 'version' of the language to call upon?

The spell says it doesn't translate 'language couched in metaphor', but is that meant to extend to all forms of metaphor or idiomatic language? Does the spell access some sort of ethereal dictionary and machine translate words? Where does it come from and how is it brought into being?

Paizo Employee Creative Director

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That sort of thing makes for a good one-off episode of Star Trek for sure... but when it comes to stories, be they interactive (like tabletop RPGS) or not, if the storyteller can't convey the information to the person listening (be they players, readers, or watchers), then the story is a failure. Metaphor is a GREAT tool to evoke more in the audience than the words can do on their own, but it can also get in the way of the story if it's overused. I feel like, particularly in a tabletop RPG experience, putting information barriers in front of players risks more than it adds. (Similarly to how if you put a puzzle into a game that the players have to solve on their own without their character's input, it can be a frustrating experience to come to a game expecting one thing and be unable to progress because something unexpected got in the way.)


Slightly off the topic, but when I need to have distinctive limited translation, I restrict it entirely to monosyllabic words, except for untranslated proper nouns. It's an easy way to have something sound obviously translated without losing the gist.

A bit off the point, but when I need to have "not the just same" and "not the best" words changed to not be the same tongue, I make it so it has just one sound per word, save for those words that are not changed as they are just names. It's not a hard way to have a thing sound like it was changed to not the same tongue in a way that does not lose the gist.


Prosperum wrote:

I’ve always wondered where this spell draws the line between what’s translatable and what’s not. If a document is written in a dead language but is otherwise unremarkable, the effect is straightforward. If it contains a secret code written in the same language but hidden, it would translate the code if you noticed it, but if you fail the check to notice it, the spell doesn’t help.

At first, I thought the spell was simply there to eliminate unintentional obstacles to understanding caused by language barriers, but then I thought some more and things got complicated.

I’d like to ask how other tables handle things like context, metaphors, and figures of speech. Does this spell translate “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or are you spending the whole session learning to communicate, Picard-style?

It's going to be a GM call, but I've always run it as literal translation, like a machine translation from the early aughts. Very literal and not robust.

Nowadays, Google translate can handle some idioms and phrases between languages because someone specifically added in exceptions for those phrases.

I don't imagine comprehend language doing that since it says "This doesn't let it understand codes, language couched in metaphor, and the like".

Now, to James Jacob's point, putting that into an adventure is often not fun so you should really have a plan (for how the players understand it) if you're going to provide this text with metaphors/idioms embedded in it.


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I do think that "couched in metaphor" is a very high threshold. That's how you describe something that isn't intended to be immediately or broadly understood. In the example, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" is something that the language uses to communicate clearly and would be broadly understood, like "on a soapbox" or "two cents' worth".

The couched in metaphor exception is put alongside code so that it wouldn't only be literal codes. You can't use the spell to check if a lion in the story is a veiled reference to the king of the country, and the priest that wrote his real message hidden behind layers of religious imagery doesn't have to worry about the spell digging up the real meaning.

Paizo Employee Design Manager

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“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” was actually in the reference material for and kind of the foundational premise of a Pathfinder Society adventure called "Death on the Ice", where an archeologist dug a little too deep after translating some old stories without having enough context to fully grasp their deeper warnings. (That was one of the earlier adventures I outlined for the company and it was also the first time we introduced Ainamuuren and Elder Seshu.)

It's an easier sell as the adventure premise than as something that happens live to the PCs, though. PCs using their resources correctly is something that usually want to reward and if those tools are going to work differently than it says on the tin, it's usually a good idea to get them bought into the idea before you jump into it. If the PCs have been brought into the game with the idea that spells like comprehend languages might have some foibles like those described and have the tools to untangle the metaphors, you can have a very fun game night. You just want to avoid "Gotchya, your spells don't do what you thought they did" moments that make the PCs feel like the story is undermining their agency.

Paizo Employee Creative Director

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It's also adjacent to the category of putting word puzzles into adventures. Not only can those grind game play to a halt, especially if you have players who just aren't all that good at word puzzles, but when you start to put word puzzles into things that get translated into other langauges, or when players start to ask questions like "So... Thassilonian uses the same alphabet as English then, I guess?" it starts to break down verisimilitude or makes things just flat-out impossible.

Back in the early D&D days, when player characters didn't have skills at all, a lot of that stuff WAS intended to be mind-twisters for the players to sort out. And they worked best when a GM custom-built puzzles that would play to their players' strengths and abilities. But once the game started giving PCs more to do than just fight, it grew increasingly important to support the characters' abilities to solve puzzles rather than the players' ability.

After all... you don't have to be able to benchpress 200 pounds in order for your character to force open a heavy door, and don't have to be able to hit a bullseye at 300 feet with a longbow to play a great archer, so it's always been kind of weird to me to expect that players are the ones who need to bring world-class diplomatic speaking skills or top-tier puzzle-solving skills to a tabletop RPG.


James Jacobs wrote:

It's also adjacent to the category of putting word puzzles into adventures. Not only can those grind game play to a halt, especially if you have players who just aren't all that good at word puzzles, but when you start to put word puzzles into things that get translated into other langauges, or when players start to ask questions like "So... Thassilonian uses the same alphabet as English then, I guess?" it starts to break down verisimilitude or makes things just flat-out impossible.

Back in the early D&D days, when player characters didn't have skills at all, a lot of that stuff WAS intended to be mind-twisters for the players to sort out. And they worked best when a GM custom-built puzzles that would play to their players' strengths and abilities. But once the game started giving PCs more to do than just fight, it grew increasingly important to support the characters' abilities to solve puzzles rather than the players' ability.

After all... you don't have to be able to benchpress 200 pounds in order for your character to force open a heavy door, and don't have to be able to hit a bullseye at 300 feet with a longbow to play a great archer, so it's always been kind of weird to me to expect that players are the ones who need to bring world-class diplomatic speaking skills or top-tier puzzle-solving skills to a tabletop RPG.

100% Agreed.

I think generally, unless not fully understanding the text is a specific plot point that you are accounting for as a GM you should tell players that despite sections of it not making sense when taken literally they are able to reason out enough meaning to determine X piece of information that they need to continue the plot. If the investigation is the point of the story and the text is simply one step of that, not having comprehend language reveal all the information is probably good but it needs to reveal enough information to give a players a clue to the next step without really needing to "puzzle out" anything.


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Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

Reminded of watching the first season of Enterprise where part of the opening premise was that their translators weren't as good so they had language barriers almost every episode. Made me realize that while linguistics and language is really cool, making it a recurring theme can also get very tedious.


Comprehend Language does not translate.

So it's not analogous with "what does this mean in my native tongue; does this concept translate", it's more "the target now understands that language; comprehends without needing to translate".
The spell bestows comprehension to the target, a receptive fluency (and if Heightened, the ability to transmit too). So there would be no hiccups with basic idioms like "drawing a line between" or my use of "hiccups" in this sentence. The target would understand most anything outside poetry, codes, or subtext, which they should have as good a chance with as something in their own language (though due to their intelligence, not the spell).

Of course there still might be issues explaining to one's peers, much like I comprehend "genki" in Japanese, yet it would take several words to explain in English because it's more than simply "wellness" or "health".
(This explains why my local cluster of gaijin adopted the word into our English, as well as other words that had no direct translation or a breadth of translations.)


Perhaps very basic idioms translate, but I'm certain not all would. Even if you understand the words without issue, there is cultural context associated with some and I don't believe that Comprehend Language helps with that.

For instance in Chinese there is something called Chengyu, which are idioms composed of 4 characters (words). These characters references a story, and typically just the moral of the story and not the events. Without understanding the story, you wont understand what the person saying/writing them is trying to communicate because it's too divorced form context.

One such example is 瓜田李下, which translates as melon field, beneath the plums. It is actually a reminder not to take actions which could be considered as taking improper actions. It references a poem in which the character adjust their shoes in a melon field and their hat under a plum tree and is accused of having improper relations because of it.


What's a "very basic idiom"?
Or more to the point, what's a normal part of comprehending a language?
I think it goes deeper than "very basic" and into standard usage.

I agree if you're saying there's a difference between an idiom and a literary reference, though it's a spectrum as many idioms originated in literature or long lost sources. I think if an idiom gets used by those with no knowledge of their source, it's then become part of that language. If so, then the spell grants understanding of that, even if not telling what oysters have to do with boredom. They just do.

Plus language comprehension goes far beyond word-by-word understanding. Again, the spell does not translate, it gives fluency. If a standard speaker would be expected to know Chengyu's moral aspect, then so would the spell's target, even if it granted them no knowledge of the story it referenced.
"You're saying it means 'melon field beneath the plums', yet deals with taking improper actions?"
"Yes, though darned if I know why. That's what it means in that language, even though it doesn't mean that in any other tongue I've heard of."
(Assuming that's standard usage, not limited to say poets and authors.)

And I've read one linguist say that all of language is metaphor, so there's that and its odd implications.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

That is what I was trying to say earlier. “Universal translation” is in and of itself a fantastical, magical concept that is either just magic, or is something incredibly complicated to try to “hard fantasy.”

The GM should just decide to rule it the way that will be most fun and best fit for the expectations of the party and campaign. Most of the time, “you just generally understand what is being communicated unless the communicator is trying to disguise the message” is probably the best default option.


Unicore wrote:

That is what I was trying to say earlier. “Universal translation” is in and of itself a fantastical, magical concept that is either just magic, or is something incredibly complicated to try to “hard fantasy.”

The GM should just decide to rule it the way that will be most fun and best fit for the expectations of the party and campaign. Most of the time, “you just generally understand what is being communicated unless the communicator is trying to disguise the message” is probably the best default option.

I agree with this statement, that generally comprehend language should give enough understanding for the purposes that the party needs it.

However, I still say it's not going to function as giving fluency in a language. The spell says "The ability to read does not necessarily impart insight into the material, merely its literal meaning." So I 100% stand by saying anything that you couldn't make your own mental jumps to get the meaning you're not going to understand with comprehend languages. I liken it to google translate, which is pretty good but not perfect.

And unless you're making it part of the plot to investigate, players should get what they need to know from it.

To the point someone else made, unless the person communicating was attempting to be circumspect or hide their meaning the person hearing it (with comprehend languages) should understand enough to act on the information.


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Well, I think we agree in game design terms:
If "it's in an unusual language" is the obstacle, then this spell bypasses that. And if that's only part of the puzzle due to a code, riddle, poetic embellishment, et al, then the spell bypasses only the foundational language barrier portion, not other language-based obstacles meant for the PCs to overcome, no matter if they deal with comprehension in a broader sense.

And I'll add especially if it's only in an unusual language due to story lore & setting, and not intended to be a plot point per se. Information barriers, as James called them, can hinder one's appreciation of or participation in the story so should be used with caution. So whether or not one intends to have a language barrier as an obstacle, there should be a path toward understanding even without this spell or a linguist handy.

---
I'm reminded how one of the most prominent designers (I forget who) held a game weekend at his home with many tables running. One special scenario used pregens where one PC had to translate for another. And the translator was a mole, so could and should lie about what they translated when needed. Those two players were high caliber, so pulled it off, with I believe the main clue for other players being that sometimes a short statement would be translated into too long of a reply. And from what I heard, they all loved it, so sometimes information barriers can be used for good, even if not recommended for standard play or players.

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