Sponsored By

Thinking about Using the Multilingual Guy-Down-the-Street for Game Translation? Think Again!

Myth #4: My friend/relative/significant other/guy down the street speaks (insert language), I’ll just have him/her translate my game. - A:Your game and company brand are at stake, and gamers know what they want when it comes to quality.

Karin Cederskoog

November 13, 2012

8 Min Read

[Originally posted on LAI's blog.]

Fact: Over 50% of worldwide video game revenue comes from markets outside the US.


Despite the importance of making games available in a variety of languages for gamers across global markets, translation and localization is still a source of confusion for many developers.  Due to the number of easily-avoided issues encountered by game translation and localization companies on a regular basis, we realized the value to the entire development community to dispel common myths regarding the localization process, thereby perpetuating a network of informed developers to ultimately enhance decisions regarding game translation, producing a global library of games with quality localization.


Part 1 taught you that switching localization vendors can have a negative impact on your company’s financial statement.  Part 2 revealed the quality issues that distinguish one vendor from another, and part 3 showed you how to avoid paying threefold unnecessarily by effectively using prior work.  In this post, we cover one of the most common mistakes made in video game translation and discuss how it, too, can have a significant impact on the quality of your game.  Be sure to check back this Friday, November 16th, for Myth #5.



Myth #4: My friend/relative/significant other/guy down the street speaks (insert language), I’ll just have him/her translate my game.

Good plan, in theory.  However, there is a reason translators spend years earning their qualifications, despite their fluency in more than one language.  Due to the long hours spent training, preparing for their future careers, there is a significant difference in the quality of translation between a professional translator and a bilingual off the street.


If you were developing a massive RPG, you probably wouldn’t want novice writers creating the multiple, overarching storylines that define your game’s genre.  You would want established writers who have a deep understanding of the intertwined web of fully-constructed characters, their complex relationships with one another and the rest of the world, plus the development of an incredibly intricate society, complete with new races and relevant languages, backstories for all aspects of the civilization (including origin) and the creation of different cultures, among a host of other complex components.  There is a layer of depth that will likely be lacking in the hands of someone who has not spent years training and practicing their creative writing abilities under the supervision of highly experienced and studied mentors and, besides that, has no professional writing experience of which to speak.  Just as a RPG with the depth of Skyrim cannot hope to achieve a similar immersive experience by writers with little to no experience writing on a similar scale, quality translations cannot be wished into existence by bilinguals who may not have a clear understanding of translation, creative writing, and/or game terminology.  You wouldn’t want your original text to be written by someone without a thorough understanding of creative writing and video games, so why would your thought-process change when it comes to the translation of your game?


Professional translators have a thorough understanding of the intricacies of languages and what makes a quality translation.  Translations cannot be sufficiently handled by machines because translation is not a straightforward process and there are multiple ways to translate even seemingly simple words.  There are subtleties in meaning, idioms and words without direct equivalents, and the reinvention of character names, equipment, places, items, etc. that make game translation incredibly complex.  While an unstudied translator may be able to handle certain pieces of your game, you don’t want to compromise the overall quality of your game by entrusting its complete iteration into another language to a novice translator.  Remember – your game and company brand are at stake, and gamers know what they want when it comes to quality.


One of the worst mistakes people make is believing that someone with less than native proficiency in the target language is fit to localize their game.  It is a common misconception that a couple semesters of a foreign language or a couple summers abroad qualifies someone to translate a game.  If you’re lucky, a couple summers abroad might set you at the proficiency level of a 3-5 year old, but would you let a 3-5 year old translate your game or even write the original text for your game?  How long did it take you to achieve an adult-level of proficiency in your own native language?  


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in English alone there are roughly over 170,000 words, 9,500+/- derivative words plus 47,000+ obsolete words.  A BBC article estimates that most people know about 50,000 words, and educated individuals may know about 75,000…but how many of these words do people use in everyday speech?  Certainly not all of them!  There are bound to be significant knowledge gaps among people who are still working toward fluency in a language, resulting in lack of quality options for the translation of words and phrases.  There are specific groups of vocab that new speakers of a language may not even be exposed to, such as situation-specific words (describing tools, house repairs, and plumbing emergencies; explaining philosophy and ancient cultures; telling a doctor how you injured yourself, relevant allergies and family medical history).  And, unless your pal is an avid video game player, comic reader, or has managed to expose him/herself to genre specific vocab through consumption of relevant books, movies, and games, it is highly unlikely (s)he will know the words central to the theme of your game – words pertaining to sci-fi, fantasy, MMO’s, etc.


While your friend/neighbor/etc. may be the most intelligent person you know, that doesn’t mean they have reached a level of proficiency that qualifies them to make difficult translation calls or understand cultural nuances pertinent to quality translation.  For example, in a number of cultures, it is common to call boyfriends and girlfriends “husbands” and “wives” if the couple is acting as husband and wife (aka living together).  Someone without that cultural knowledge may translate boyfriend literally as boyfriend as opposed to husband, contextually changing the nature of the couple’s relationships.


In addition, even though someone can easily converse with natives does not mean they can write like natives.  There are different proficiency levels in speaking, writing, and listening that can vary drastically for individuals in a given language.  If the individual lacks writing skills to begin with, they are likely to face equal or greater difficulty writing eloquently in another language.  While you may very well trust your friend to help you close a business deal with a foreigner, it may be a very different story when it comes to writing a follow up e-mail.  Some people learn how to speak a foreign language without ever learning how to read or write, others may have trouble with grammar, spelling, and punctuation in general that would make written interactions disastrous.  After all, do you really want your video game text to be akin to the incomprehensible spam comments you receive on your blog? 


The breadth of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge necessary for translation would be lacking in those who are less than native in the target language, and natives can definitely tell the difference.  After all, would you honestly translate a game with your high school French or Japanese?  It’s like taking a high school level biology course and then applying for a job as a scientific writer – while the fundamental knowledge may be there, a high school bio course does not qualify someone to speak, or write, at a level equivalent to scientists with years of experience in the field. 


Even bilinguals will not have the skills of a professional translator and will quite possibly not have the writing abilities or gaming knowledge pertinent to quality translation of your game.  The experts have a thorough understanding of all of the components important to video game translation and localization – be sure to stick with a qualified professional.



Don’t make the same mistakes commonly made by game developers and publishers.  Read the rest of our “Top 5 Myth” series to ensure you don’t fall into the same pit traps as others, and be sure to read our final game translation myth this Friday (Nov. 16th).  Here’s a preview:


Myth #5: Everyone in the gaming world speaks English, so it’s a waste of money to professionally translate my game.  If nothing else, I’ll run it through Google Translate for other languages.  That’ll be good enough.

  • Low quality translation treatments will certainly generate buzz about your brand – thousands of YouTube videos will be made and your game will get made fun of.  Google Translate doesn’t make for an immersive experience, but it can provide hours of entertainment in other ways. 

  • As for English speakers of the gaming world – not even the US, UK, and Australia can boast 100% English-speaking populations, and even in countries with high English proficiency rankings, children are likely to have a much lower level of proficiency.  Besides that, children and adults alike are not likely to understand the cultural elements that have a significant impact on immersion into a game, elements that are remedied through quality localization efforts.

Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like