Why the “Graveyard Duck” from Castlevania II Isn’t a Mistranslation After All

16 Comments

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest for the NES is notorious for having bizarre text – some characters spout nonsense, while others outright lie to you. On top of that, the translation is full of mistakes, typos, and missing details. As a result, it’s hard to tell if a line of text is true, false, or just gibberish.

There’s one line in particular that has baffled players for the past 30 years:

Quack quack Richie

The Problem

The line “GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER.” has at least two potential interpretations:

  1. There’s a duck in a graveyard that will give you a helpful silk bag.
  2. There’s a silk bag in a graveyard. Ducking will help you survive there.

Option #1 indicates that there’s a duck in a specific graveyard – but there isn’t a duck at all. Instead, you get the silk bag from some random guy in the graveyard:

Option #2 assumes that there should be punctuation after “GRAVEYARD”. Missing punctuation was common in NES-era games, so it’s a reasonable interpretation. Ducking in the graveyard doesn’t do anything helpful, however.

Both interpretations still seem strange, so different fans have different theories about the line, including a theory that the line was mistranslated from Japanese.

In Japanese

Was the line mistranslated? Let’s take a look at the original Japanese line and see:

What a horrible night to go duck huntingWhat a horrible night to go duck hunting
Dracula II (literal)Castlevania II
Receive a Silk Bag from the duck in Strigoi Graveyard and you’ll live longer.GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER.

So we see that it was referring to a duck all along – there wasn’t a mistranslation or a punctuation problem at all.

Further Confusion

Now that we know the line is about an actual duck, the next question becomes: “Why would it say there’s a duck in the graveyard? That makes no sense!” I can only offer a couple theories of my own:

  1. Since many characters lie to you in the game, this one might be lying to you too. I don’t know why he would give such an obvious and pointless lie. Plus the hint is actually true – you can get a Silk Bag from someone in the graveyard, and the bag is useful.
  2. Maybe the person in the graveyard is named “Duck”?
  3. The Japanese word used here is アヒル (ahiru), which does indeed mean “duck”, as in the animal. But maybe it has a different meaning here or is slang for something else?

Looking through old English-language forums and web pages, I found people claiming that ahiru has other meanings in Japanese, including “recluse” and “hardhead”. I’m not a native Japanese speaker so I’m not as in tune with rare word usages as a native might be, but I’ve never heard ahiru used as anything other than “duck”. Still, I checked all the big-name dictionaries and slang resources but couldn’t find anything to back up these claims.

Finally, I dug deeper into Japanese fan sites and found that Japanese players chalk it up to the guy lying to you – there are no attempts to try to explain possible alternative definitions for ahiru. It seems the duck was simply meant to be a duck.

Legacy of the Duck

During my research, I realized that ducks are a running gag in the Castlevania series – some of the designers have been adding secret little rubber ducks to their games for years:

I’m not a Castlevania expert so these are the only examples I know of off the top of my head. If you find any more rubber ducks in any of the games, let me know and I’ll add them here!

Incidentally, GameCenter CX: Arino no Chōsenjō / Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS – which is intentionally filled with old retro game references for fans to discover – appears to reference the famous graveyard duck as well:

Possible Origin of the Duck

It turns out that Yada Bon, the character designer for several of the games in the Castlevania series, included a personal message in the readme file that came with the X68000 version of the first game.

During the game’s development, I bought books and watched horror videos for inspiration, but then I remembered that I can’t handle horror movies very well, so there were a number of movies I never managed to watch all the way to the end. They didn’t turn out to be very helpful, I feel. I don’t care what anyone says, scary stuff is scary scary scary. So scary that I can’t forget it. I hate ducks. Because one time I kicked at one and it came rushing after me super-fast. Ducks scare me more than Dracula.

So it looks like there’s been some connection between ducks and the series for a very long time. I don’t know if Yada Bon’s message is what started the running gag or if it started with something else, but it’s at least an interesting coincidence.

Summary

It appears the “graveyard duck” line in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest wasn’t a mistranslation, but rather another bit of false information from a lying NPC. Additionally, secret ducks have been a running joke in the Castlevania series for a long time, with this being perhaps the first example of it in action.

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16 Comments
  1. Gee, and all this time I thought they were just missing a period before “duck”!

    Thanks for all your localization tidbits, by the way. This game translator just eats them up.

    Reply
  2. What makes it more annoying is the fact that “duck” DOES have a slang meaning in Japanese, except it’s カモ instead of アヒル, and even then it means “mark” (think con men or carnies) instead of something contextually appropriate, too.

    Lousy lying townspeople.

    Reply
  3. In the Guadia Quest subgame in Retro Game Challenge (English version of the first Game Center CX DS game), there’s another duck in the graveyard; I wonder if that’s a reference to CV2 as well?
    http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/wysiwyg/image/guardia_duck.jpg

    Reply
    1. Whoa, cool, I never made that connection! I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a reference 😯

      Reply
  4. It could mean something akin to “The odd duck” as in a weird person but that’s only in English. In the end I have a feeling it was poorly written out in Japanese to mean the aforementioned conman and then translated poorly to mean the man is an odd duck. This is going out on a limb tho.

    Reply
    1. No, conman uses that カモ (kamo) definition. The game uses アヒル (ahiru) to refer to ducks. So that doesn’t work. The game really did put “duck” in there.

      Reply
      1. Oh, sorry, カモ also doesn’t mean conman – it means a conman’s _target_. A “sitting duck”, basically.

        Reply
  5. Duckie was a character in Pretty in Pink but I doubt that movie was super popular in Japan at the time (1986) this game was made.

    Reply
  6. Bisqwit, the founder of TASvideos, did a really good, thorough retranslation of Castlevania II recently (in English and Finnish). He’s got some really good translation notes at http://bisqwit.iki.fi/cv2fin/diff .
    Quoting his site, “Yes, it explicitly says ahiru, meaning domestic duck, in the original text. However, the word ‘ahiru’ in Japanese also appears to be a slang term, that refers to e.g. an uniformed policeman that walks a beat slowly, like a duck.”

    Reply
    1. Yeah, there was a bit of an argument about it actually: http://www.romhacking.net/forum/index.php/topic,15524.msg246739.html#msg246739

      So it looks like the retranslation isn’t necessarily a literal one:

      As for ducks as an in-joke in Konami games (which I have never heard of before), I do not want to make this a literal translation. The primary reason is that it is by far the most criticized line of the English translation, and one that was understood by about zero players as an in-joke.

      Which is fine. The main point, though, is that the original “duck” line wasn’t really a mistranslation like everyone suspected for all these years.

      Reply
  7. There’s a duck in Aria of Sorrow, too. In one of the rooms there’s a fountain with a rubber duck floating.

    Reply
  8. Sounds to me like it’s a lie that was only a lie by replacing one word. Maybe to make you think that the other lies might have actual meaning, too.

    Reply
  9. I wonder what Yada Bon would think of that old cartoon Duckula?

    Reply
    1. If he had any sense, he’d think it was awesome. On account of it was awesome.

      Reply
  10. Notice how in the succubus bathtub screen, the water pours from a d-pad, specifically the down button?

    Reply
    1. So it’s tell you to duck in front of the duck. Clever!

      Reply

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