An inside look at video game localization (part I)

This is part one of a two-part post (Part 2) written by Thaís Castanheira, a Gengo Senior Translator in the English to Brazilian Portuguese language pair. Learn more about Thaís by checking out her translation website.

When people ask what I do for a living, I usually tell them I’m a translator. The fun part is when they ask what kind of translation and I get to say “I localize games.” Of course, anytime I share my secret with kids (especially young boys), their response is always the same. They light up and marvel with envy, “wooow! She translates video games!”

Yes, localizing games is fun and I love it! Why? Because I’m a gamer. I naturally love playing games, and translating them just adds to the fun. Video games, board game, role-playing-games, live-action-games…you name it, odds are I like it.

What makes a great game localizer?

Does it take a true game enthusiast to make a great game localizer? Well, in my opinion, the answer is a resounding “yes!” In fact, once in a while, fellow translators ask me how to break into game translation and the first thing I always tell them is “you must like video games.” The way I see it, translators who don’t play video games don’t have the necessary background and understanding required for translating the specific and niche-terms gamers expect in the gaming world. Not to mention, game reviewers can generally tell if the localizer is, in fact, a true gamer. That’s all there is to it.

Not everyone agrees with me on this. Some believe it doesn’t matter who the translator is as long as they’re a professional. But let me give you one example of why I am skeptical of this.

Once I was asked to translate the back cover of Assassin’s Creed – Revelations from English into Brazilian Portuguese. At the time, while I was aware of the game, I hadn’t actually played it. And even though I wasn’t a fan, I didn’t have to be one to know how important it was for those who were—especially since it was the third game in the series.

If you aren’t a gamer, think about it this way. For a moment, imagine if you had played this game from the very beginning. Not only would you have seen exactly how the story first evolved, but you would have also saved the game countless times as you slowly worked your way through each level of the game defeating bosses, rescuing entire villages and discovering new secrets taking you to new and exciting places. Next, imagine that you cleared the first game, then the second and now you’re ready to play what could be the third and final chapter of this thrilling story.

Clearly, as a gamer, you’d want everything to be perfect, right? And this is the exact reason I knew that I had my work cut out for me. The content I was given to translate included:

  • A portion of a speech given by Ezio Auditore, the main character in the story
  • Copy about the weapons, enemies and an entire universe I wasn’t familiar with at all
  • General marketing and PR materials about the game


Translation vs. localization

I had a choice. I could either translate, or I could localize. And when I say “localize,” I’m not talking about just localizing it into Portuguese, but into Portuguese as it would be used in the world of Assassin’s Creed. This means translating words with the same vocabulary that appeared in previous games and marketing materials. And because fans of the game would expect it to be done this way, that’s what I did. Now let me tell you how.

1. Become familiar with the language

Gamers are your most valuable source of information when it comes to learning more about a game. And that’s why I always like to start a project by browsing the internet to read forums, pages about the game and comments in the target language. Having this background knowledge can be very helpful.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. The main character in Assassin’s Creed (Ezio) uses a weapon called a hookblade. The Portuguese translation of this word is lâmina-gancho, but research showed me that most Brazilian players actually refer to it by its English name instead.

The reason is because the previous games of this series didn’t have subtitles in Portuguese, so the gamers learned the name of the weapons in English. Without research, I would have never known this important detail and I could have mistakenly translated the word into something that was “correct,” even though it wasn’t the word adopted by the gaming community.

Now how about this next example? The localized title of Assassin’s Creed is Ordem dos Assassinos (Assassin’s Order) instead of Credo dos Assassinos as many might think it would be. Again, the bottom line is that translating critical words (i.e. the title of the game) without careful research can be a move that’s detrimental—take my gamer’s word for it.

2. Learn the ins and outs of the characters

Who is this guy Ezio and why is he an Assassin? What is the Assassin’s Creed anyways? How was this game translated into my language in the first place? 

Essentially, these were the types of questions I was pondering at the start of this project. Finding the answers definitely required some investigation. So I dove into Ezio’s life, learned his story and guess what happened? I loved it so much that I became a fan! In fact, I even bought the book and it still sits on my shelf today.

If possible, I also like to play previous versions of the localized game, but this isn’t always an option. Otherwise, I do whatever it takes to go deep into the story and use the (sometimes little) time available to try and understand what it is that makes so many people crazy about it—even if I don’t always agree.

In the case of Assassin’s Creed, I was hooked from the start, but this isn’t always how it works out. That’s why, regardless of whether I share the same sentiment about any of the games I translate, I always make sure I respect the feelings of the gamers who play them.

Part II : How do you successfully localize a game?

Now that we’ve discussed what makes a great game localizer, we’re still left to answer what it takes to successfully localize a video game. Make sure to stay tuned for part two of this post to learn more. See you soon!

Want to become a Gengo translator?

Spencer Huddleston

The author

Spencer Huddleston

As Gengo’s lead Account Executive, Spencer acquires and manages our US and European clients. Based in San Mateo, he was previously responsible for making data-driven decisions to improve overall speed, quality and capacity as part of our Crowd Operations team.

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