Why Google Translate DOESN'T CUT IT for Video Game Translation!!!

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. (A:For the love of games - DON'T DO IT!)

[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.



Here’s a recap of Myths #1-4:


Myth #1: A translation is a translation is a translation – In the long run, cheaper is better for my company’s bottom line, so I should always be searching for vendor alternatives.

-          In actuality, switching localization vendors can have a negative impact on your company’s financial statement.  In this section, we take a look at the implications of changing vendors. 

Myth #2: Translation vendors are all built the same.  There’s no difference in one agency versus another.

-          Without a broad understanding of the quality issues you may encounter with some translation vendors, you are risking financial loss due to consumer drop off.

Myth #3: Prior localization efforts are unnecessary to current translators of my games.

-          Learn how to avoid paying threefold unnecessarily by effectively utilizing work that has already been done. 

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

-          Your game and company brand are at stake, and gamers know what they want when it comes to quality.  Don’t repeat the fatal mistakes made by other game developers!


This brings us to our final myth…



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.

“Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  Even though your prior English teacher would likely ring you upside the head for using phrases like “try not” in your essays, would anyone dare to correct the Jedi Master’s English?  Remember – Yoda is almost always the exception when it comes to English grammar.  George Lucas granted Yoda special artistic license in his use of the English language that just doesn’t apply to the rest of us – we checked.  As a general rule, jumbled sentence fragments simply do not create the immersive environment players want to experience during gameplay.


However, we can apply Yoda’s philosophy to translation attempts with Google Translate.  “Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  Have you ever tried running a whole e-mail or article through Google Translate?  How much of the translation did you really understand?  While you may get lucky with a couple short phrases, would you really want to read an entire newspaper fed through Google Translate or even a whole book?  I could spend incredible amounts of time trying to warn you of the dangers of Google Translate, but it’s far more effective if you experience Google Translate for yourself…


Let’s perform a little experiment, running sentences from Don Quixote through Google Translate.  Now here’s an inspired quote, “All kinds of beauty do not inspire love; there is a kind which only pleases the sight, but does not captivate the affections.”  Now the full meaning of that quote may take some time for consideration, even for native English speakers but is far more poetic than the alternative.  If you run the original Spanish version through Google Translate (“No todas hermosuras enamoran, que algunas alegran la vista, y no rinden la voluntad.”), it yields a phrase which may sound poetic on some level but certainly not like a human translated version – “Not all love beauties, some happy sight, and will not yield.”


Let’s try another one – “Make yourself honey and the flies will devour you.”  (In Spanish, “Haceos miel, y paparos han moscas.”)  Google Translate’s version – “Honey yourselves, and have flies paparos.”  Google didn’t even attempt to translate “paparos,” though it would like to auto-correct Cervantes by changing “paparos” to “papas” (literally potatoes or fries).  If I go with Google’s suggestion, the sentence “Make yourself honey and the flies will devour you” becomes “Yourselves honey and potatoes have flies.”  Now there’s a translation reminiscent of old video games, in the times when companies cut corners in the translation process…Back when they didn’t see the need to spend hard-earned development dollars on quality localization.  (Can you say, “A winner is you?” J)


If you haven’t figured it out by now, Google Translate DOES NOT do the trick!  I’ll share a secret with you – native speakers can tell when you use Google!  I tested it myself in high school.  Classic scenario, true story – I was in the computer lab for French class and only had one class period to read a news article in French and write an essay about it.  The bell was about to ring, so I ran the two concluding sentences through Google Translate.  Baaaaaad idea.  It was only two sentences, but my teacher knew, oh wow, she knew.


Google Translate aside, dictionaries are not always the way to go either.  You would think that just as long as you were able to match one definition with another, you would be able to produce an accurate translation.  Well, let me paint you another picture.  It was high school French, and this time we were in the classroom – no computers – and were asked to write an essay about anything.  I decided to write about my friend’s project for the local senior center.  Now, I was determined to stay away from any outside help (like an obedient student, I learned from my prior mistake).  However, for my chosen topic, I needed to use the word elderly throughout my essay, but I had no idea how to translate elderly into French.  I used the provided French-English dictionary with my teacher watching me like a hawk.  But guess what – I was still called in after school!  My mistake?  Using the provided dictionary!  My French teacher pointed to my translation of “elderly” and asked why I used that word.  I wasn’t sure how to respond, since I had no idea what was wrong with the translation.  “Um…because it was in the dictionary?”  She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Impossible.”  Then, I pulled out the school-provided dictionary and watched her eyes go wide.  The dictionary translation of “elderly” was literally “old people,” a phrase I had subsequently used throughout my entire essay.  It just goes to show that even seemingly straightforward translation questions can be easily butchered in the hands of a non-native…even with acceptable tools like the dictionary.


You wouldn’t cut corners on game development looking to save a buck, so why would you treat the translation of your game any differently?  Google Translate doesn’t understand context and other linguistic nuances that make all the difference in quality translation.  In fact, some people have intentionally tried to sabotage Google Translate by submitting incorrect translations.  Anyone – including machines– can suggest “better” translations, but there is no human component involved to recognize context and literal translations vs. figurative.  It’s a fact of life – quality translation requires human translators, humans who understand the distinction between “elderly” and “old people.”  Low quality translation treatments will 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.


Ever hear of Star War The Third Gathers: The Backstroke of the West?  It is a prime example of why machine translations just don’t work.  This bootleg version of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith provided English speakers loads of entertainment, though not due to Lucas’ original intentions.  This version took the Chinese subtitles and most likely used a machine translation to convert the text back to English, resulting in translations such as the Jedi Council as “Presbyterian Church” or “Hopeless Situation Presbyterian/Parliament,” the Sand People as “Pathetic people,” and C-3PO as “Below the skin.”  I can’t imagine the multilingual C-3PO would approve of those translations.


As for hoping the purchasers of your game speak English, that’s a tall order considering 50% of worldwide video game revenue comes from markets outside the US.  Even the US, UK, and Australia cannot boast 100% English-speaking populations.  According to a study conducted by the European Commission, English is not even the most widely spoken “mother tongue” in Europe but rather, German.  When looking at the country rankings in the English Proficiency Index, one of the top countries for video game consumption – China – ranks as one of the lowest countries in “low English proficiency,” with Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong ranking under moderate proficiency.  Even though the Nordic countries rank under very high English proficiency, it is still common for developers and publishers to localize their games for Nordic gamers.  Why?


First of all, the English proficiency rankings are based on adult knowledge of the language, meaning children will likely have a significantly lower level of language proficiency.  In addition, just because someone has moderate or even high level proficiency does not mean it’s their language of choice or that they will understand the cultural context of a game in English.  Even native English speakers from different parts of the same country or across international borders may not understand certain cultural elements.  Humor, vocab, holidays, etc. change depending on location.  References to Swan Upping (occurring annually in Britian) or cheese curds (commonly served in parts of the US and Canada) will not translate across all English speakers.  This is where localization comes into play.



What’s the bottom line?

You’re putting your time, company resources, and ultimately, your company’s name on global versions of your game.  You wouldn’t want to slap your brand on another “All your base are belong to us,” now would you?  The reputation you worked so hard to build can disappear in an instant through fatal localization errors keeping with the above myths.  There are proven problems with Google Translate, machine translations, the use of novice translators, and vendors that cut corners on quality, passing the subsequently lower cost AND lower quality product onto you.  While cheaper vendors may appease higher ups in your organization and game studios just starting out, the overall goal is to satisfy your consumers, and gamers don’t stand for subpar translation.  Gamers continue to make videos, blog posts, and forum comments about poor translations from older games.  DON’T let your game fall subject to this treatment!  It is ALWAYS worth the cost of QUALITY translation and localization – including the use of fully-qualified, professional translators who understand game terminology and translation agencies that employ quality-checking techniques such as review by a 2nd translator and quality assurance testing methods.  Quality translation begins with a quality translation vendor.  Use a translation service that you can trust to deliver a quality product to your consumers and eliminates the cost of translation and localization errors.  Speak with Language Automation, Inc.’s CEO, David Lakritz ([email protected]) to learn how LAI can meet your cost and quality considerations.

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