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How Video Game Translation Differs from Other Types of Translation

I am often asked why LAI focuses ONLY upon the translation and localization of video games. This article discusses the nuances of video game localization and distinctions between the translation efforts of different creative mediums.

Karin Cederskoog, Blogger

September 25, 2012

14 Min Read

[Originally posted on LAI's blog.]

At Language Automation, Inc. (LAI), we focus specifically on the translation and localization of video games and ensure all of our translators have experience within the video game industry.  Why is this important? 


Well, have you ever tried to explain a video game to your parents, grandparents, significant other, anyone who isn’t a gamer?  Assuming both of you are fluent speakers of the same language, as soon as you launch into World of Warcraft jargon, you may as well be speaking an entirely different language. 


(View the larger image in our blog post.)

For example, in the comic above, this avid gamer is screaming about a graveyard, mobs, runs, Taurens, and tanks.  Now, unless your mom is leveling her own toon in WoW, you may as well be speaking Martian.  And, chances are, unless your translator’s accreditation program had a class focused specifically on the translation of key vocabulary in MMORPG’s (unlikely), your run-of-the-mill translator will have no idea how to translate words like “pull,” “mob,” “run,” “Tauren,” and “tank,” much less the host of other WoW-centric words including “rez” and “drop.”  By now, WoW has a rather extensive library of words used for the various language packs available to players, but many games don’t have that luxury.



The Unique Language & Translation Challenges of Video Games

There is an established set of vocabulary across languages for popular fictionalized creatures such as elves and dragons, but what do translators and localizers do when they come across newly developed words?  (Now that would make for an interesting study – the number of new words invented by video game developers every year.)  Not only do writers establish new creatures and races (such as Moogles in Final Fantasy and Draenei in World of Warcraft), but they also create names for equipment and items unique to a game or game series.  Thus, video game translators need to know enough about gaming to make appropriate decisions for the intended market.


I came across an article a while ago in which the translation of a piece of equipment from Japanese to English was discussed.  The combination of four Kanji characters eloquently conveyed the attributes of the weapon through wordplay in Japanese, but a literal translation into English would have resulted in four very separate words that, when combined, would make no sense to an English speaker.  Translation puzzles like this give the localization team a unique challenge in sorting out whether a more literal or metaphoric approach should be taken, giving some freedom in the translation that should be produced.  (Unfortunately, I was unable to find the aforementioned article while writing this, but if I do come across it, I’ll add a link in the comment section.) 


In some cases, video game translators are faced with an even more unique challenge, in that they are allowed creativity while at the same time balancing highly rigid constraints.  One of the translators of Phoenix Wright spoke at PAX East 2011 about the difficulties in translating the name Masashi Yahari to English, as the Japanese name literally means “with certainty” (Masashi) and “I knew it” or “of course” (Yahari) and is the source of a number of jokes within the game, such as “when something happens, you know it’s Yahari.”  If this name had not been given a lot of thought in localization efforts, the character would have lost a major component of who he is, and fans would have been incredibly displeased.  In English, his name became Larry Butz, which was specifically developed to be the source of a number of jokes (as in the Japanese version of the game), some literal and one due to a mispronunciation of the name altogether.


This is where the translation of creative works gets interesting.  You wouldn’t find a legal or medical translator in Starbucks, racking their brain to develop a name that can easily lend itself to literal jokes and an intentional mispronunciation.  Video game translators are likely to come across unique translation puzzles such as the one faced by the translators of Phoenix Wright – cleverly coming up with a name that can work in a variety of very specific contexts.



Immersion into Creative Works via Language

I’m sure a select few are heavily invested in legal and medical documents, but there is no widespread audience quite as invested in translatable material like the fans of creative material.  Books, films, and games have an extensive network of followers with incredible emotional investment.  Just as J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, and Square Enix’s original works are closely followed by their fans, so too are their translated works.


It’s not just the original language and the target language that translators have to consider with books, films, and games.  Often, new words, idioms, pieces of fantasy languages, even entire languages are developed by authors, screenwriters, and game writers to add another layer of depth to creative works.  William Shakespeare invented an estimated 1,700 words in his writing (a good number of which English speakers currently use in everyday speech, such as the word “accommodation”).  In addition to inventing a wide variety of words, J.K. Rowling created many idioms that play off of “Muggle” expressions, which arguably immerse readers and movie viewers deeper into her fantasy world, such as “I’m so hungry I could eat a hippogriff,” “I wouldn’t come near you with a ten-foot broomstick,” and “What’s got your wand in a knot?”  


And while some authors, scriptwriters, and game writers develop fragments of new languages (such as certain languages in the Star Wars universe), others – like Tolkien – develop entire languages for their fantasy worlds.  Even specific languages in Star Wars that were once pieces of a language have since been turned into fully-functioning languages, such as the Mandalorian language, Mando’a, further expanded by Star Wars author Karen Traviss.  Even Star Trek’s Klingon language transformed from the initial sounds and scattering of words created by actor James Doohan into a full-fledged language.  This adds another set of challenges for translators, as there is generally no frame of reference for the development of new words and particularly for the newly developed languages of fantasy worlds. 


While entire languages will likely remain the same for translated versions of creative works, other devised languages add extra thought for translators, such as the Japanese-to-English localization team of Final Fantasy X.  Since the Al Bhed language was based upon a letter substitution system, the English translators had to develop an equivalent system so English players could share in the same gameplay experience – hunting down different language “Primers” to unveil letters translating Al Bhed.  According to a Final Fantasy X translator who served as the language reference for actors speaking Al Bhed, Welsh letters were used to make up for the lack of vowels in the English language, since Welsh includes more “w’s,” though the language was spoken with an Arabic pronunciation due to the desert setting of the Al Bhed people.  The role of the Al Bhed language couldn’t simply be dismissed by localization teams, as that would have eliminated an entire element of gameplay from Final Fantasy X.  Therefore, translators had to use some of their own creativity to recreate the same gameplay experience for players in the target language.



Immersion into Game Worlds

Like books and films, games are expected to immerse players into another world.  This is highly important to keep in mind, as even small translation errors can result in a jarring experience for the player.  As such, translations are heavily critiqued by fans, and if the game translation isn’t up to par, they experience decreased enjoyment of the game.  For example, in a forum on Blizzard’s Starcraft II page, a fan states:


Czech translations of terms like “Terran Dominion” (“Terranské dominium”), “Queen of Blades” (this one is very funny; it’s translated [sic] as “Královna dlouhých nožů” – literally “Queen of long knifes”), “Brood War” (“válka o nástupnictví” – in English “War of succession”) and others sounds very strange.  I think that people who translated this don’t really know the Starcraft universe.


Regardless of whether this person was “right” or “wrong” in their assessment of Czech-English words in Starcraft, the fact of the matter is that this person experienced a reaction contrary to what translators ultimately strive for – an immersive gameplay experience that translates across languages and borders.  The last line of the paragraph expresses the importance of having translators knowledgeable not only of gamer lingo but also of particular game worlds.  The last thing these translators would want is for anyone to perceive that they are anything but an expert of the Starcraft universe: translations that remain true to the original are key.  This is why translators typically play the games before translating, especially for content-rich worlds like RPG’s (40+ hour games) and MMORPG’s (essentially never-ending games).


Final Fantasy XII makes a particularly interesting case study for immersion, as you wouldn’t think a renowned company like Square Enix would mispronounce a word like “marquis,” yet you can find disgruntled fans all over the internet who protest at the pronunciation of the word as “mar-kwis.”  Well, Square didn’t get it wrong – it was a very intentional decision on their part.  The translation and localization team wanted to convey the influence of Britain across that part of the world, so instead of using the American “mar-key,” “mar-kwis” was used instead.  Since there were an incredible number of fans who didn’t pick up on that distinction, Joseph Reeder, translator at Square, said that is one of the choices he would go back and make differently if he could.


People will always have varying opinions of what “works” in translation and what “doesn’t work,” but game translators work towards what is best for the game world and what will translate best across a widespread audience.  This is particularly important to consider when the target audience spans across vast regions such as English speakers in Australia, Europe, and North America; Spanish speakers from Mexico and the U.S. all the way down to the tip of South America in addition to Spain; French speakers in Canada, some parts of South America, Africa, and France; and Portuguese speakers in South America, Europe, and beyond.  (On a side note, be sure to watch for our upcoming blog post about the linguistic differences between these regions.)  The wide spanning reach of languages necessitates that translators possess a thorough understanding of the target audience in order to make the best decisions possible and deliver a game experience on par with that of the game in the original language.


To ensure as much as possible the immersive nature of a game, linguistic QA testing should also be made a priority.  This helps guarantee that translation decisions make sense within the context of in-game environments and gameplay.



When Games Stand Alone

You may be thinking that video game translation can’t be all that different from the translations of novels and films, after all, they incorporate similar vocabulary and fictional worlds.  However, in addition to the gamer-centric vocab referred to at the beginning of this article, there is one very distinct difference – games are interactive.  How does that make video games different from other visual modes of entertainment such as TV and movies?  Well, there’s the UI, menus, control mapping, and a host of other issues to consider when it comes to the interface and gameplay modifications.  (At the very most, DVD’s have extensive interactive menus.)  These are each critical areas to consider when bringing a game from one market to another. 


For example, German words require roughly 30% more space than English for each UI element, whereas European languages are generally “twice as long as English, which is twice as long as the Japanese.”  Fortunately, certain tricks can be used to test these facets of localization, such as testing the UI with Pig Latin due to its length.  If Pig Latin fits in the allotted space, longer languages like German should as well. 


These aspects of localization are considered to be part of internationalization.  A properly internationalized game is one which can easily be localized for any target locale and language without having to change the code or make special customizations.  When graphical elements must be changed, it can hold up time to market in order to fully localize each component.  While larger organizations now know to account for these differences, translation, localization, and internationalization may not be at the forefront of indie developers’ minds, particularly when they are concentrating on getting their first game to market.


Small developers new to the game space may be trying out their ideas and hoping for success…though without expecting their game to do well in their region and abroad.  As such, independent developers may be less likely to build a game that is properly internationalized, resulting in future difficulties with localization and greater time to global markets.


I recently spoke with a Localization Manager at Yahoo! who cited the importance of educating programmers on the internationalization of strings, since even products that are initially built for certain markets may someday go international.  According to him, there is a lot less time and cost associated with building in the ability to internationalize a product upfront, as opposed to going back in and changing the code later to adapt for foreign markets.



Why Focus Only on the Translation and Localization of Video Games?

At Language Automation, Inc., we focus our efforts exclusively upon the translation and localization of video games to ensure a high quality of localization through a stringent set of translator qualifications.  There are not only the language-to-language capabilities to consider but also the translator’s ability to fully immerse and engage players in another world (and therein lies the distinction between simple translation and full localization efforts, as outlined in our previous post “When to Forgo the Culturalization of Video Games”).  Therefore, we require that our translators reside in the country of their target language, since they will be knowledgeable about current linguistic trends (such as slang), the evolution of the language (how specific mannerisms and patterns of speech relate to historical periods and themed worlds), and the nuances of language integral to an immersive gameplay experience.  Since this sense of immersion is contingent not only upon the translator’s linguistic skills but also upon a writing style and vocabulary specific to certain games genres, it is also necessary that game translators also have creative writing ability and a deep understanding of gamer culture and game worlds


The necessity of these aspects is discussed in Heather Maxwell Chandler and Stephanie O’Malley Deming’s The Game Localization Handbook (2nd edition), as they state that “vendors who specialize in localizing games […] are the best choices for a game developer” (93):


Since popular culture is constantly changing and evolving, translators located in-country are good barometers of what translations are needed to convey the context of localized games.  Additionally, translators who have experience translating for games and playing games will be more effective.  They have an immediate understanding of what the developer’s translation needs are and can quickly understand how to convey the “fun” factor of the game in the localized versions (103-104).


Chandler and Deming also cite the importance of using a creative writer to polish game translations and note the benefits of selecting a translator who is also a skilled writer, as it is preferable not to “[pay] twice for something that could be done by just one person, a translator with creative-writing skills” (108).


Each of these components – linguistic and cultural knowledge, an understanding of games and gamer culture, and writing abilities – are essential skills for game translators to bridge differences between various regions, thereby creating an immersive experience that translates across borders.



As you just read, video game localization is vastly different from other types of translation and localization – from the user interface level down to the nitty gritty of gamer lingo.  It requires a specialized localization team supported by a good QA process.  Even the best intentions of game translation can go unappreciated by gamers, such as the pronunciation of “marquis” in Final Fantasy XII to convey a deeper level of cultural influence and acclimation.  Ultimately, like books and movies, games seek to immerse players into another world, and it is the job of translators to accurately convey the entire world and narrative to gamers, which means giving justice to the original work and speaking with gamers through their unique jargon.

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