Monday, January 12, 2009

Der Burgherr des Teufelsschlosses

A while back, I had the chance to play for the first time a video game that's a fifteen year old classic in Japan but officially sort of new in this country.

The game is Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (Akumajō Dorakyura Ekkusu Chi no Rondo in Japanese), originally released for the PC Engine CD system, essentially the original Japanese version of the American TurboGrafx CD. Aside from the poor commercial performance of the Turbografx here in America, there's no really clear reason to my mind why, but the game was never released over here until fall 2007.

Unsurprisingly, given that the game was released for a CD-ROM system, Rondo of Blood opened with a fairly elaborate animated sequence that explained why, for the upteenth time, a scion of the long-suffering Belmont line had to take up the old whip and travel to Dracula's castle to yadda yadda yadda. What's relevant here is not so much what happens after the intro as the intro itself. Have a look if you like (this is in the vicinity of 3 minutes):

Rondo of Blood's intro

Now, as I was saying, it's not so surprising to see an animated intro in a game on a disc-based system, though by 1993 standards the sequence in question is pretty nice. What was then and continues to be quite surprising is that the intro is auf deutsch mit japanischen Untertiteln. I quote:

"In der guten alten Zeit lebten die Menschen noch ruhig und in Frieden. Niemand glaubte, daß es in Zukunft zu einer Bedrohung kommen wurde. Auf der Schattenseite des Friedens und des Wachstums gab und gibt es aber auch immer das Böse. Die Menschen beginnen, das Wachstum abzulehnen und bezeichnen den Frieden als Degeneration.

"< < Wir haben uns hier versammelt, um die Mächte der Finsternis mit unserem verfluchten Blut zu rufen. Wir wollen, daß sie die Welt regieren. Wir erwarten lächelnd den Niedergang der Welt > >.

"Nach einhundert Jahren ist der Böse wieder auferstanden. Er kann sich in eine Fledermaus, einen Wolf und Nebel verwandeln. Er liebt die Nacht. Er schlürft das Blut von jungen Frauen und lebt ewig. Der Burgherr des Teufelschlosses, der Herr des Bösen, Graf Dracula ist auferstanden."


"In good times past, people still lived quietly and in peace. No one believed that in the future there would come a time of peril. But on the underside of peace and prosperity, there is and always has been evil. People begin to dismiss prosperity and to describe peace as decline.

"'We have assembled here in order to call on the powers of Darkness with our damned blood. We want them to rule the world. We happily anticipate the world's destruction.'

"After one hundred years, evil has risen again. It can transform into bat, wolf, and fog. It slurps the blood of young women, and it lives forever. The Master of the Demon-Castle, the Lord of Evil, Count Dracula has arisen."*

The first time I heard this, honestly, I was so anxious to just play the game that I mostly ignored the German. The one thing I did think was, "hmm, now that's strange. German? Well, okay."

But look, this intro is so strange in so many ways. Maybe the most salient oddity is the choice of German. I don't know what the assumption is in Japan, but I do realize that in the minds of some in the United States, there are exactly two languages spoken in the chunk of Europe east of France that isn't Italy: German and Russian. I suppose that the more geography etc., people get under their belts, the more cultures and languages they become aware of. On that basis, there are also lots of Americans who are aware that there is a Switzerland where they speak, like, Swiss probably, a few Scandinavian countries where they speak whatever, Norwegian or something, Greece, Ukraine, and then some other places whose names end in -ia. At some point along the geographic knowledge spectrum, we become aware that there is a country called Romania, that it is quite large, and that one of this country's largest and most renowned regions is Transylvania.

But maybe some people's knowledge of geography, though it is expansive enough that they are aware of the existence of Romania, still doesn't cover the fact that the primary language of Romania is Romanian. By "the primary language of Romania is Romanian," I mean, to be completely clear, that the primary language of Romania is not German. Don't get me wrong! A very, very small minority of Romanian citizens, descended from Saxons who moved to Transylvania in the 12th century, speak a dialect of German. I could be very much mistaken, but I think this dialect is closely related to the German spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Anyway, if you're thinking, "Oh, well, there are these Transylvanian Saxons, and they speak German! That must be the answer!" you're wrong. Assuming that Rondo's writers had the Dracula = Vlad the Impaler thing in mind when they settled on German, I think it's unlikely to be the Transylvanian Saxons who provide the justification for German in the intro. Here's why: when Vlad III came to power, a number of his rivals found support, and safe haven, among the Saxons of Transylvania, and according to popular legend, Vlad killed thousands of the Saxons in retribution. Of course, all this is probably exaggerated if not false, but it is true that the Saxons were never among the ruling aristocracy of Romania, so German is probably not the language you would normally associate with a bigwig like Dracula.

I suppose it could be that the games draw heavily on the atmosphere and themes (and melodramatic tone) of gothic horror novels from the 18th and 19th centuries. Castle of Wolfenbach is one of the genre's more famous representatives, and as you might guess from the title, it's set in Germany. Frankenstein is almost a parody of the genre, and it was published in 1818, the same year as Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, though the latter had been written almost twenty years before.

Hmm, no. I could be wrong, but I think that prior to Rondo of Blood, the real inspiration for the Castlevania games was less gothic horror than Hollywood horror. Nothing seems to have exerted as much influence on the series, particularly in early installments, as the Universal monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so forth. In fact, the first Castlevania plays a little like an 8-bit version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Dracula, for his part, errs on the side of dapper in those early installments, wearing nice tuxedos instead of ancient old man clothes like in Bram Stoker's Dracula or, as I've interpreted it, the novel itself. Or the silent Nosferatu. Clearly this tuxedo thing comes from the Bela Lugosi Dracula and the sequels that followed it, as well as the various Hammer Dracula films.

Anyway, the Bela Lugosi Dracula may dress like a westerner, but he doesn't talk like one. Out of all of those classic horror movies, the only one I can think of that's set in Germany is, again, Frankenstein. As much as I want to pin the Castlevania creators' entire concept of what a horror story should be on those Universal horror movies, I just don't think that's ultimately the source for the German we have here, either.

What about Simon and his family? Native German speakers? Alas, Belmont is British in origin. However! Richter is an old German name, and if you'll recall (or if you haven't had the pleasure of playing Rondo of Blood), the protagonist of the game in question is Richter Belmont. Perhaps the Belmonts moved to Germany to keep closer tabs on Dracula? Of course, if you watch the entire intro, this doesn't seem to make much sense, since Richter gets to the village Dracula's minions are attacking awfully fast, and the carriage ride from Germany to Transylvania is awfully long. Also, Dracula's castle isn't geographically rooted anywhere specific in the Castlevania series, though I'm pretty sure this is a plot device/retcon that Koji Igarashi (the games' producer these days) came up with well after Rondo of Blood was released.

I'm sorry to say it, but I think we come back to the least entertaining possibility: there's no plain explanation for the German in Rondo of Blood, and most likely it was simply easier to find someone living in Japan who could translate the game into German than someone who could translate it into Romanian. If it wasn't going to be Romanian, it might as well be German, I suppose. Would Russian or Ukrainian make any more sense? Then again, there's always Latin; Romanian was one of the first languages that branched off of Latin, and supposedly Romanian hasn't moved nearly as far from Latin as most Romance languages.

Still, there are these little bits that make me wonder. One is Teufelsschlosses, which seems a little weird until you realize it's just the German translation for the Japanese Akumajou, which means "Demon Castle" or something along those lines. The really obvious and puzzling one I'm sure you've already noticed: schlürft, which I've translated, on the recommendation of my gigantic Collins Deutsch>English/English>Deutsch dictionary, not to mention the comments on the Youtube video above, as "slurp." If our translator from Japanese is so well versed in German, why "slurp?" Isn't this supposed to be all, like, serious? Or is that just it—did the translator take a teensy little liberty he or she thought no one would ever catch?


*I should say that I've transcribed (I think correctly) and translated the intro narration from the original Rondo of Blood, and I'm not at all sure if it's the same in the updated version.

Picture credit goes to What a great idea for a site!


  1. Off the top of my head, I'd say that the German comes from film--just not Hollywood films. They're probably calling on the German tradition of, say, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu which looms so large in vampire culture.

  2. You know what? That may be the case. I think it's most likely a sort of unconscious combination of all of these influences, or else, alas, it's just that whole flattening of European cultures that I talked about in the post. Who knows?