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Translating a Game 2/3: Preparation and Tools

Part 2 of 3, on what it takes to translate a video game. This part deals with getting off to a good start, preparing your strings, tools, etc.

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In this second part of the translation guide, we look closer at how to separate content from code, and set up strings to become translated text assets. The first part, in case you missed it, gives you a higher level overview of the entire translation/localization process, and the next part will include an example project, and show how to implement it all using Gamemaker Studio 2’s GML scripting language and ini-files.

Torgar’s Quest was built in Gamemaker Studio, but the approach I took for separating the content of the game out from the code is not engine specific. In fact, I first saw this done on a game I worked on, which was built in Unreal. Regardless of your engine, you can use this technique or a variation of it, such as replacing ini-files with XML.

Optimize the Source Material

An often overlooked part of translation begins with fine tuning the original source material, so it becomes primed for good translation. This includes running a terminology consistency check on the content, making sure you refer to important things the same way throughout the game. You should also revisit any flavor text or descriptions which may include either pop-cultural references (trivia), political content (check against local law in your target markets), mature themes or puns. For different reasons, these can all pose challenging for translators.

Some of the worst mistranslations I have seen, have come from the translator not understanding a pun or cultural reference in the source material, and thus translated it word-for-word in their own language, losing all cleverness and sometimes meaning in the process. For better results, be critical of your source material before you hand it to translators.

This does not mean your content has be bereft of pop-culture references or the like. Just make sure you leave it open enough, that a translator can localize it and substitute references with similar ones of their own. If editing your writing to make translation easier sounds like a bad compromise to you, consider that the end goal is to have the best possible result across all supported languages, otherwise why support them in the first place.

Split In-Game Content into Areas

If you have not done so already, now is a good time to categorize your in-game content. This is useful for referencing specific areas later, or for directing focus onto a specific part of your game. A typical way to split up written in-game content might be: Menus, Tutorial, In-game UI, Enemy info, Item descriptions, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc.

How it best makes sense to split up your content, depends on the game you are making. You can define these areas even if your in-game content is incomplete, as long as you know your game well enough to know what parts are still missing.

Double Check the Scope

Besides the strings in your game, there may be other content to consider for translation. If you have Voice Over in your game, will that be localized and recorded for different languages too? Will it be subtitled? How about your store description text and sales copy? What about achievement text, help documents, marketing material and your entire associated website? Point being: be aware of all the content surrounding the project, not just what is in the menus and on screen during gameplay. You must draw the line somewhere, and this phase is your last good chance to double check that line before committing to it.

For Torgar’s Quest, I decided to leave the voice over in English only, as it is purely there for flavor and is non-essential for the game. Compare that to the major hassle and expense of getting it done by voice actors in several countries, and it just was not worth it. I did choose to translate the Lore books you can find, which are also purely flavor, but since they are text based and appear in-game, it would seem weird if they were left in English. Likewise, I chose to translate the store description and achievements, but not the associated website or the trailer.

When preparing content for translation, always look beyond your game itself. Don’t be surprised by these things and end up piling on extra translation work right before launch. Map it out and make strategic decisions now!

Separate Out Hardcoded Strings

If you are like me, every string was first hardcoded straight into the code, and will now have to be found and replaced. I cover how to load the strings in part 3. For now, all you need to know is that every string must be replaced by a string-ID reference. When a string is displayed, the ID is matched with the correct text asset, which is then shown.

Using the areas you defined before, go through each one, looking for strings to replace with IDs. Add the area names as part of your string-ID naming standard. Like with variables in code, it is highly recommended that you name your string-IDs in a way that helps identify where they belong, and what their context is.

Compare these two string-IDs both referring to the label for a save button. Which one is easier to understand:

  • MB30221

I have seen both styles used, even in AAA projects, and I know which one I prefer. You will notice in the top example, the first word refers to the overall area where this string appears, the menus. This helps to locate it on screen, but also, in cases where there are similar strings in different parts of the game that may have different meanings, like saving game progress vs. saving a hostage. Small nuances like these can be important in translation. The second part specifies where the string appears (on a button), and finally, there is contextual keyword to help identify what the string is about. Not rocket science, but you can save yourself a lot of headaches later, if you start out with solid naming.

File Formats and Handling of Assets

Depending on your project and the tools you are already using, setting up the cadence and tools for handing strings back and forth can be surprisingly challenging. For larger projects with multiple translators, you need a system where two people can’t work on the same strings simultaneously (thus overwriting each other and wasting time). Many team-based tools allow checking out of files and locking assets, but it is still something to take into consideration. I have worked with Perforce and Team Foundation Server for this purpose, and they both do a great job. On the low end of the scale, I have used Dropbox, and worked on shared Google spreadsheets, where you had to pay attention to other users’ names, to make sure you weren’t working on the same areas. Not a recommended way to work.

For small games with just 1 person per language, you can take a simpler approach. I used spreadsheets with the source string in one column, the translation in another, and columns for notes and IDs. I would hand over the spreadsheet to each translator, filled out except the translation part. Once completed, they sent it back. I would then compile (also known as copy and paste) each translation into a master spreadsheet. Here is where it gets technical.

In my game, I store the text assets in ini-files, 1 file for each language, and each section within the file matching a previously defined area. These are very easy to work with in the code, but not so much for keeping track of translations.

Ini-files have to be maintained with every translation update, every added, changed or removed string, and that is a mess to do manually. Errors will happen without a doubt! For that reason, I made a macro in the master spreadsheet, which allows me to export a pre-formatted ini-file straight from Excel. It also adds a version number to each file, in case I end up with multiple copies and not sure which one was newer. This took a little time to make, but saved so much more time and frustration down the road.

I am including the master spreadsheet here to hopefully help make your life easier.

DOWNLOAD: Game Translation Master Spreadsheet

You are free to use it or modify it for your own project without paying or crediting me (though I do appreciate a shout out or game key). It has a single record in it, just to show how one would enter records. We will also be using this in the example project, in part 3. As a disclaimer, you are using this at your own risk. I am not able to provide support for using or modifying the tool.

In part 3 I take you through the implementation of this into a Gamemaker Studio 2 project. Do you have questions? Did I leave something out? Let me know, and I will address it.

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