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Localising Your Game: How To Make It Not Suck

Underestimating the complications of localisation - My tips and lessons learned from localising Kenshi in seven languages.

The localisation process for Kenshi was a hideous nightmare of endless problems and completely alien language rules to me. I'd never handled game localisation before, let alone managed over 6 translations for a 300,000 word project. Though it turned out to be harder work than I expected, most of those localisations turned out fine. One of them in particular, though, basically needed a complete overhaul and is still being fixed to this day, months down the line after release... When localisations go wrong, they go WRONG, people.

This was actually the worst part of my job working on Kenshi. I hated it. But... where we suffer, sweat, and cry tears of umlauts, we also flourish and grow from our hardships. So, what better way to structure this guide than to build upon my own sweet tasty failures. Most of the below I learned the hard way.

Tips For Good Localisation

Context and consistency

I did not plan ahead for localisation at all. If you can make preparations from the very start of development, you're gonna have yourself a good time.

  • Take the time to write up decent documentation for your translator, detailing the outline of your game and its audience (especially the age range: 18+ or PG), and the tone and style of writing. Use it to explain any speech styles, levels of formality, specific slang, types of personalities, key facts and relevant recurring names or themes in the game. Adding bios for all of the characters is also extremely helpful to a translator: Their gender, personality and role in the story - good or evil, for example.

Share screenshots of the GUI and dialogue in the game so that the translator can see how it will actually display. Even better than that (but not always possible), give them a key to get familiar with the game themselves. Also consider that some jokes and puns may not be easily translatable into other languages - do you prioritise preserving humour in the game, or do you ditch the not-so-important humour for accurate meaning instead?

  • Tell the translator of any GUI character limits. Some languages, in particular French and German, can have extremely long translations which may not fit so neatly on small fixed UI displays.
  • Leave lots of notes attached to dialogue and data during writing. If a translator is not seeing the atmosphere or how something is used in the game, they can easily misinterpret meanings and tones. The more information you can provide on context for your translator, the better. More specifically, some translators might be confused by deliberate misspellings and mispronunciations, or they might not even understand your own sense of humour when it comes to jokes and puns. Point out any specific wording that has been used for a hidden or deeper purpose that they might miss.
  • Organise dialogue by using consistent categorisation or tagging. For more complex, procedural or non-linear dialogues, you can use a kind of tag to categorise the type of event that's taking place during each string or conversation. What is the speaker responding to? Using an item? Using a medkit?... And who are they speaking to? Themselves? Their prisoner? Include their character types, culture, rank, and then refer back to these categories in the documentation.

So, for example, if we have the info: 'Mages Guild Apprentice Approaches Base Without Target', we now know the speaker should talk in the style or accent of the mages guild, he's a humble apprentice level character, and he's outside the player's base without being able to see the second person (as much as this last point seems kind of irrelevant in English, it will likely be an important piece of information for languages with more complicated pronouns and gender conjugations). Which leads to...

Conjugations and gender

  • Be very aware of pronouns, plurals and genders when writing. Before my experience with localisation, I was completely oblivious to just how simple English is in comparison to other languages. It's easy to underestimate the complexity of other languages, but then the time comes to localise a game and we end up suddenly getting smacked in the face with all kinds of crazy gender-dependent conjugations. Did you know that some languages change based on a group of people being mixed gender or same gender? It's totally a thing. Add this information to your dialogue. If you have a system that's a little more open and procedural, make sure to use lots of word swaps for plurals, genders and pronouns.

Don't forget that NPC names can change based on gender as well. For example, 'police' or 'sheriff' will likely have different, gendered versions in other languages. If genders and group numbers aren't visible to your translator in your localisation tool, it will be well worth adding this information for them, plus a way to actually incorporate these extra words and name variants.

But what about names?

Will you translate your game's title? If it's a made up name or a simple word, you might prefer to leave it in English; if it's a longer phrase, it may be worth translating it, both to keep its meaning and so that it's easier for foreign players to pronounce and therefore to actually remember. In South Korea and China it seems to be common to translate titles, but bear in mind that you'll also need to put aside a budget to redesign your logo in that language. It's a good idea to ask your translator their opinion on what would feel right in that specific culture.

Similarly, you'll need to figure out whether to translate character names within your game. Sometimes translated names can break immersion if they're important to its setting but, on the other hand, some names might have a meaning or tone that you want to reflect in your translation.

Don't forget display!

When you're working with whole new alphabets, ask your translator or a native speaker to help choose your fonts for you. It's hard to tell if a Japanese or Russian font actually look good or not when you can't even read the text, so don't obliviously end up with a hideous Japanese equivelant of comic sans in your game. This goes for your trailer font and other marketing as well.

Gimme some quality

Apart from a translator not knowing what the hell they're actually translating because of a writer's total disorganised chaos left behind for them, quality will also be affected by time and budget. As a random, wise Scottish girl once said on my horticulture course ten years ago, 'buy cheap, buy twice'. In short: Don't skimp. But also...

  • Be available to answer questions. Make yourself approachable on Skype or Slack to help with any extra information or misunderstandings. Encourage questions, check in with them every once in a while.
  • Invest in LQA. You get everything translated and proofread, and then you assume everything's all nice and ready to go, right? No! Naughty! You'll often find issues in game such as text not fitting inside buttons, characters not displaying properly, maybe even importing errors, or incorrect fundamental translations that will totally ruin simple gameplay. These are things a proofreader simply can't see and they're extremely common mistakes.
  • Keep spelling and grammar mistakes to a minimum. We are only mortal mistake-riddled humans after all, so if you can, add a spellchecker to your writing software.

What to look for in a translator

  • They are able to speak fluent English to you and there are absolutely no difficulties in communication. This is a really obvious one I know, but it's important nonetheless.
  • They ask lots of questions. If you hire a translator and they go silent, this is a red flag. A good translator will make sure they understand meanings properly. It doesn't matter how good your writing is, there will always be misunderstandings when reading out of context from the backend and they need to be cleared up. Something I'll be doing during the hiring process next time is making sure a translator asks questions before even being hired.
  • Run paid trials. Have potential hires translate a small excerpt from the game and get this checked over by someone you trust, or analysed by a professional. This will be so worth the small expense in the long run, and you'll also see whether they actually ask you any questions about the context or the game itself first.
  • Realistic deadline estimates. A fast finish date means a bad translation. If you get a quote offering quick translation, chances are they're either going to rush it over quality or, even worse, use machine translation. Seriously, appreciate a meticulous translator who takes their time.
  • Choose independent. Freelancers tend to produce higher quality translations with more care, though they are considerably slower and less efficient. Larger companies definitely seem to focus more on banging out the translations as quickly as possible without wasting too much time asking questions. In fact, they'll rarely put you in direct contact with the translators and will often throw multiple translators at projects. In this case it's unlikely they'll put in the time to really understand the meanings and consistencies behind the words.

If you have a simple project and/or a relatively professional setup for them to work from, it will likely be fine. If you have a longer, more complex project and/or a huge unprofessional spaghetti mess on your hands, perhaps opt for a solo translator that you can work more closely with. After working with a mixture of translators myself, I found that the independent localisations turned out great. The localisations carried out by large companies... mostly not so great. The one to one contact between writer and translator definitely made a hell of difference for Kenshi.

And that, is all I have in the way of localisation nuggets to share. Special thanks to Xiaochun Zhang for her recent workshop on localisation where I picked up a few of these great tips from veteran translators themselves.

Good luck ;)

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