Video Game Localisation: more than ‘just’ translating

It is official: in 2020, video games became the world’s largest entertainment media, making more money globally than the movie industry. According to reports by Market Watch and other outlets, this milestone event was caused by changes in consumers’ habits over the past few years – tendencies that were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears that the lockdowns which affected entire countries drove people to increase their consumption of digital forms of home-based entertainment.

Translators need to pay special attention to this field. Major software companies players are heavily invested in the localisation of games – the process of translating the game content and making products fit a specific market and culture. For a video game to be a worldwide hit, it is no longer enough to assume gamers are proficient in the English language.

Nevertheless, software and video game localisation is a complex process that involves more than language proficiency and directly translating scripts. If you are translating a game (into your native tongue or a foreign language), there are several key issues you must be aware of in order to complete your project successfully.

Know your target audience: cultural awareness

Cultural and social cues must be taken into account, the visual elements of the game influence meaning, and what may sound formal or informal in the source language might be terribly out of place in another one.

When starting a localisation project, bear in mind that cultural awareness is a requirement that is as important as a language skill and translation proficiency: cultural awareness. Each country’s cultural and social cues must be taken into account, and the translator must also be aware that, although gaming is a worldwide phenomenon, it manifests in different ways around the globe. In short: make sure you know your audience before translating a game.

A successful game localisation can give gamers the experience of interacting with someone from their own culture or country of birth. Vladimir Konoplitsky, a veteran Russian expert on game localisation, addressed this issue at last year’s LudoNarraCon conference: ‘The basic idea here is to understand your target audience, listen to them in the first place. Even within a nationality, there are different groups of people. You have to know who you’re writing for.’

Be concise

Achieving brevity in localisation is much more difficult than it sounds. It requires a particular discipline to translate key information determined by visual and conceptual elements defined by non-linear interactive media. Message boxes in games and display screens are usually small (particularly in the mobile version of games) so the text should be kept as short as possible while presenting the information clearly and not deviating from the client’s objectives.


Awareness of language and style issues

Forms of address and context are essential for success in localisation. Many languages include polite forms of address with players, and failure to implement them in a game’s translation can negatively affect the user’s experience. 

Each language has its own structure and set of forms of intonation: this includes slang, catchphrases, quotes from personalities or literary texts, memes and other cultural and linguistic elements. For example, in Spanish, the use of swear words in everyday speech is commonplace, while in some Asian cultures swearing and slang are reserved for very private and specific situations and may be considered offensive in daily, even informal, interactions. Even if tone is not the issue, you may run into problems when certain quotes and expressions that lack direct analogues in the target language. 

If you simply reproduce your cultural intonations and structures (instead of those appropriate for the culture you are translating for), the results can be awkward. 


Creativity in translating

Allow yourself to be as creative as common sense allows. Translating a game is both a technical and a creative task. Not every word and phrase has to be translated directly, and the game must feel natural to the user. To achieve this, you might have to change some words and find equivalent meanings and signifiers, possibly even use cultural references closer to those of your target audience to make the content more understandable. You might even have to rewrite content to a certain extent, within the boundaries defined by your client. In short, be ready to perform a transcreation service: flex your creative muscles in order to adapt and modify content.


Technical and design issues

You will have to deal with technical and design issues. Localisation often involves directly working with game files, editing text, changing media files and locating mistakes. The project could also involve technical document translation since some games are complex and require extensive technical manuals that must also be translated. Solid IT skills and basic knowledge of programming will make your job much easier and faster. It will also prevent misplaced or missing information in the end-product. Also, very often you may be required to add content directly to the product’s software code, so some knowledge of common programming languages (such as HTML) is beneficial. Familiarity with machine translation software will also help you deal with tight deadlines, particularly in games with extensive technical manuals and large amounts of dialogue (which may require subtitling), and in-game text content.


Working with a team

Even the most skilled game localisers, working with flexible deadlines and good resources, will make the occasional mistake. No matter how many times you proof your text, a mistake will occasionally somehow slip through. For this reason, whenever possible, work with a team, compare notes with the game’s programmers and designers and test thoroughly. If you are working for a localisation company, you will likely already be working in tandem with other translators and specialised personnel.


Be aware of context

Besides language and translation skills, localisation requires IT literacy and the ability to perform testing and find ‘bugs’. A professional game localiser will usually come up with lists of questions for their clients to know more about the context of in-game content concerning its goal, target audience, the competition, the client’s previous products and other variables.

However, even if you are very detailed in your questions, this may not be enough. Much like watching a movie before beginning a subtitling project, you must become familiar with the game – its script and interface design, its genre and creative features and its qualities and flaws to come up with a translation that makes sense.


Play games!

All of this leads into a final piece of advice: to be a proper game localisation professional, you must be a gamer yourself and be familiar with the mechanics, concepts and cultural references. In other words, understand the media on which you are working. Video games are non-linear, interactive and often complex creative works. To be an effective translator in this media type, you need to have experience in playing games. Understanding and applying common gaming terminology is a basic skill that requires the familiarity of a player. Grasping the finer details of culture, context, characters, strategies, behaviours and the ‘gamer spirit’ demands game time. So, first of all, you must play games, be a gamer! This will naturally improve your skills as a game localiser – and as a bonus, your research will also be fun!


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