The challenges of video game localization

This is a guest post written by a Gengo translator.

Today’s translation business has incorporated new forms of media, the most innovative one being the video game. Since the early 1990s and the advent of the first cheap game consoles, when titles began reaching a broader audience, localizers (or localization professionals) were called in to ensure idiomatic correctness, as well as the full implementation of the translated text within the finished product.

As a bilingual speaker with a passion for languages, I landed a job a few years ago for three major console producers and some of their developers. I was a linguistic tester—basically a proofreader with the ability to understand video games and their mechanics. I was in charge of playing the new games and writing bug reports on linguistic issues to ensure consistency and correctness of terminology.

Most video game developers outsource the translation of their triple A titles, as they can’t afford full time in-house translators. Once the source language is translated into all desired target languages, the job of implementing it always fails, and requires multiple passes before it meets the industry’s standard.

Although most companies hire exceptional translators, tremendous literal translations slip past the testers and have the power of “breaking the suspension of disbelief” of a foreign player. All developers realize the need to provide foreign players with a comprehensible, contextually and idiomatically correct translation of the immersive games now available in the market. Missing or literal translations can detract potential buyers, as reviewers can always tell whether the original text was respected.

Most video game translators never have the opportunity to play the games themselves with the full context for their translation. Rather, they normally have to work on an Excel file with columns for each language. When a game has a lot of written content, various lines of translation are usually disconnected and don’t provide even half of the meaning of either a description or a dialogue.

While Rockstar Games (known for its Grand Theft Auto franchise) actually does hire in-house translators that do get a feel of the game pre-release, other companies such as Bethesda Game Studios ended up with severe translation and implementation issues in both their main franchises (e.g. the Fallout series and the Elder’s Scrolls series).

While this could be due to the massive amount of disconnected lines of text, some of Bethesda’s translation mistakes are due to tight deadlines. Even small things such as “hello there” are translated literally or seemed as if the translator relied on Google translate. For example, no localizer spotted “ciao lì” in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion—a true idiomatic abomination.

In Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas, “restrooms” are sometimes translated as “stanze di riposo” that could be wrongly interpreted by an Italian player as “rooms where to rest”. It should have simply been translated as “bagno” or “toilette”.

I believe most of the mistakes come down to four main reasons: not investigating the context, only having an Excel file to work with, rushing translation, or not considering the idiomatic necessities and nuances when converting the written language. When in doubt, always check with either the translation provider for clarification or take the time to search the internet.

Translators don’t always have the imagination required to make the leap of translation without the help of relevant resources, but they are supposed to be wise enough to know when they can’t rely on their linguistic knowledge alone.

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Richard Gait

The author

Richard Gait

Richard is the author of a five­-hundred page English sci-­fi novel and short stories for the Canadian publisher, Devine Destinies. An experienced translator and English teacher, Richard worked as an Italian linguistic tester for the renowned video-game testing company Enzyme in 2010, and is now a Italian–English and English–Italian translator for Gengo.


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