Perception and Reality
Years ago, when I worked
as an in-house German translator at the computer
game company Origin Systems, I reviewed a
number of applications for an job opening
the department had advertised. The cover letter
of one of these applications started as follows:
“I have never translated a computer
game, but how difficult can that be?”
I have always remembered that naïve statement
(and, by the way, this applicant later scored
very low on the test we sent out) as symptomatic
of the common misconceptions concerning video
and computer game localization. This attitude
can be summed up as: Games are something for
children, therefore they are simple, and localizing
games must be easy. That is erroneous has
been clearly shown by the unfortunate effects
of badly localized games, which can range
from awkward (think of the infamous phrase
"all your base are belong to us"
in the European version of the Japanese game
Zero Wing) to simply unplayable (for
a discussion of translation-induced “plot
stoppers”, which prevent players of
localized versions of finishing the game see
Dietz 2006, 125).
Besides these condescending
attitudes towards games, there has been a
kind of culture gap between professional translators
and gaming aficionados. This gap will gradually
disappear, as games have been moving out of
the hardcore user demographic and into the
mainstream. However, most translators still
more or less stumble into the field of games
localization by accident, and the following
discussion aims to help beginning and aspiring
game localizers find their way into this field.
I had to laugh when I saw an article about
translation in the German news magazine Der
Spiegel in 2002. The accompanying illustration
showed an elderly man sitting in a library
with a box full of index cards in front of
him. Even then, this image was incredibly
outdated. Translators have been using computers,
the internet and CD-ROM dictionaries for years
now, and those interested in computer/video
game localization have to be particularly
There are several reasons for this:
- You have to be familiar with the specific
hardware and software terminology in your
source and target languages. If terminology
such as “analog controller”,
“SLI mode” or “anti-aliasing”
is alien to you, you might have problems
translating games-related documents.
- You have to be able to play the game.
This might be difficult for video game localization
projects, where special development/testing
versions of the console may be needed, and
even on the PC side you probably will have
to deal with special copy-protection technologies
in order to play a yet unreleased game (game
development companies are extremely worried
about game copies “leaking”
and then being pirated). However, you should
spend some time playing the game, if at
all possible. Many mistakes I have seen
in game localizations were obviously caused
by someone not being able to visualize what
would be happening on the screen. If playing
the game (or at least watching a QA tester
play the game) is not possible, you should
try to get as much information (screen shots,
videos, plot summaries, walkthroughs) as
possible in order to understand the world
of the game.
- You have to be able to deal with hardware
and software conflicts. Unfinished games
can be rather unstable, and might even crash
your computer. You should ideally be able
to update your video and sound card drivers,
report error messages, even deal with any
necessary hardware upgrades, such as installing
more RAM or a better video card.
- You have to be able to research quickly.
That, of course, means using the WWW. Forget
about finding gaming-related information
in conventional dictionaries. However, there
is a wealth of gaming-related sites out
there – websites of print magazines,
online magazines, discussion sites, cheat
sites, walkthroughs, etc.
Game localization is unique in the sense
that it may require both the skills of a technical
and a literary translator. If you are localizing
a fantasy role-playing game, for instance,
you will have to render tales of elves, fair
maidens and mythical treasures, but you will
also deal with advice about video card chipsets,
versions of DirectX and sound card incompatibilities.
Localizers should also be familiar with
the gaming scene and jargon in the target
culture. Are there, for instance, terms that
would not be translated? Are there standard
translations for certain game types (such
as “first-person shooter” or “real-time
Hard-core gamers tend to be quite passionate
about their fields of interests and will be
quite vocal on internet discussion sites if
they consider a localization to be amateurish.
Therefore, translators should familiarize
themselves with the “gaming scene”
in their target culture. This might appear
difficult, particularly for older translators,
but researching the gaming-related websites
mentioned above and subscribing to gaming
magazines in the source and target languages
should go a long way towards this goal.
This is an issue that is sometimes neglected
in the discussion of game localization. The
thematic content of games can range from extremely
simple (as in an arcade game) to highly complex
(think, for instance, of a flight simulator
with extensive reference materials, such as
the titles in the Jane's Combat Simulation
series, which often came with 250-page manuals).
The required subject matter expertise can
therefore range from literary (fantasy role-playing
games, science fiction games) to extremely
technical (sports and military simulations).
While I would happily undertake a the localization
of a World War II flight simulation or a naval
strategy game, I would, for instance, avoid
a baseball simulation, as I just don’t
know enough about that sport.
A lack of such subject matter knowledge
can have embarrassing results, as, for example,
in the translation of the manual for the helicopter
sim AH-64 Longbow into Swedish (ridiculed
at the time on flight-sim newsgroups) which
mistranslated the pilot jargon “Winchester
ammo” (= we are low on ammunition) and
stated that the attack helicopter (which is
equipped with a 30-mm-cannon, Hellfire missiles
and 5-inch-rockets) had only “shotgun
shells” left. (Google groups archive
for comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.flight-sim. Date:
The upshot of all of this is that translating
games is not child’s play. A translator
must become thoroughly familiar with the special
subject matter of each game, be that medieval
alchemy, skateboarding or avionics, as well
as with the terminology and conventions of
each gaming genre.
5. The Localization
Over the years, the scope of localization
and the recognition of the importance of international
markets has increased alongside with the growth
of the computer and video game industry. While
20 years ago, games might not have been localized
at all (or only partially, e.g. with only
the printed manual and installation guide
translated), complete localization and the
simultaneous (or near-simultaneous) launch
of several language versions have now become
much more prevalent.
The reason lies in the high costs of game
development. Major titles no longer can be
cobbled together by a few people working in
the proverbial garage, but are produced by
large teams of programmers, designers, graphic
artists, sound specialists and others who
work often for years and require multi-million
dollar budgets. At the same time, market competition
is fierce, and the average “shelf life”
of a game is extremely brief – after
a few months, it will be sold at a reduced
price, and in a year or two, you may find
it in the bargain bin. All of these factors
exert enormous pressure on game developers
to serve multiple markets simultaneously through
a so-called “sim ship” (i. e.
the different language versions are all to
be released simultaneously), in order to recover
the huge development costs as quickly as possible.
Game localization is performed in various
ways. Some companies may use in-house staff,
others hire a freelance translator (or virtual
teams of translators, see below), or use translation
agencies. In many cases, it is actually not
the game developers, but the distributors
(or their foreign subsidiaries) who take care
of localization. Unfortunately, this often
means that the translators will receive the
material to be translated, but not the game
What does this mean for the translator working
on a game localization project? Unless an
entire development team has had previous experience
with localizing a game, the process is likely
to be error-prone and difficult.
At the root of many of the problems connected
with game localization lies the fact that
a simultaneous (or almost simultaneous) release
of several language versions requires parallel
development. Programmers, designers, sound
technicians and graphic artists who are usually
under enormous stress during the beta and
final stages of game development will also
have to devote some of their time to creating
(and fixing) foreign-language versions. On
the translator’s side the parallel development
aspect means working with a text that is,
despite all assurances to the contrary, still
unfinished, and sometimes requires frantic
re-writing and re-translating during the last
few days before the game reaches the market.
That the localization of games is often
a difficult process comes as no surprise,
considering the industry’s general reputation
for poor planning and management efficiency.
As Simon Larsen puts it bluntly in his report
Playing the Game: Managing Computer Game Development:
“Game development projects are generally
badly planed and badly managed. This results
in delayed productions and exceeded budgets”
(Larsen, 2002). While
I consider this judgment somewhat too harsh,
I still would have to add: “And localization
usually comes as an afterthought and is sometimes
managed by a person who has no experience
in this field.”
Games are often large projects with extremely
tight deadlines. Therefore, large game localization
projects may be divided among several translators
who form a “virtual team”. In
this case, the virtual team takes over certain
project management functions, in addition
to the actual translation work. One person,
for instance, might be the “translation
memory manager” responsible for updating
and distributing TM files on a daily basis.
Another team member might take on the role
of “query manager”, collecting
questions about the texts and forwarding them
to the development team.
In order for this to work, members of the
virtual team must be active communicators,
using e-mail. Instant messaging or VoIP phone
to exchange information on a constant basis.
If you check your e-mail only once or twice
a day (or still use a dial-up connection),
this might not be right for you. Team members
also have to be reach compromises on terminology
questions in order not to slow down the group's
work. If you are used to working alone, a
virtual team might take some adapting, but
it will be worth while, as you gain access
to game localization projects that would have
been beyond your own capacity.
Game localization can be a complicated and
chaotic endeavor. The structure of the gaming
industry, the often rather parochial outlook
of development teams, and the enormous pressure
to ship several language versions of a game
at once (particularly in publicly traded game
companies) all create obstacles for the localization
process. There are a number of steps, though,
that both translators and members of development
teams can take to reduce friction and make
the process more effective:
- There should be early and frequent communication
between translators and developers in order
to avoid interface design dilemmas, file
format issues or cultural insensitivities.
- Translators should also have one contact
person in the development team (sometimes
jokingly referred to as the “translation
czar/czarina”) who can distribute
queries to the appropriate team members
and ensure that all relevant materials are
routed to the translators.
- Source code tracking software (such as
Visual SourceSafe) can not only be employed
to track revisions of code, but also to
ensure that changes in the English text
are flagged and communicated to the translators.
- Translators should receive basic design
documents early on, so that they can gather
reference material suitable for the particular
type of game.
- The use of translation memory tools (which
is particularly important considering that
many successful games have several sequels
and add-ons) should be increased. This could
involve an industry-standard program like
Trados or SDLX, or a proprietary product
developed in-house, such as Ion Storm’s
Most importantly, translators should have
a chance and be expected to play the games
they are localizing. “Blind” localizations
are unfortunately still all too common, partly
due to developers’ concerns about software
piracy (though protection utilities such as
SafeDisc reduce that risk), partly because
of lack of interest on the translators’
side, who may not be aware of the complexities
of game localization.
The (decidedly) second-best solution would
be providing translators with a wealth of
background information, such as screenshots,
design documents and game walkthroughs and
later have the game tested by native speakers
of the respective target language.
Bates, Bob. 2001. Game
Design: The Art and Business of Creating Games.
Rocklin, CA: Premier Press.
Bemis, Greg. 2002. “Game
Localization: What does it take to bring foreign
games to the US?” TechTV, January 18.
2005. The Game Localization Handbook.
Hingham, MA: Charles River Media.
Dietz, Frank. 1999. “Beyond
PacMan: Translating for the Computer Game
Industry.” ATA Chronicle 28
Dietz, Frank. 2003. “A Translator’s
Perspective on Games Localization.”
Multilingual Computing & Technology
14 (5): 21-25.
Dietz, Frank. 2006. “Issues in Localizing
Computer Games” , Perspectives on
Localization, ed. Keiran Dunne, pp. 121-134.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Esselink, Bert. 2000.
A Practical Guide to Localization.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
King, Brad, and John Borland.
2003. Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise
of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic.
New York: McGrawHill.
Larsen, Simon. 2002.
Playing the Game: Managing Computer Game
Development. International Edition, Version
1.1. Blackwood Interactive. http://blackwood.dk/PDF/PlayingTheGame-IE.pdf
Trainor, Helen. 2003.
“Games Localization: Production and
Testing.” Multilingual Computing
& Technology 14 (5): 17-20.
Game Research: The Art, Business and Science
of Computer Games: http://www.game-research.com/
Game Studies – The International Journal
of Computer Game Research: http://www.gamestudies.org/
Computer Game Localization Glossary: http://www.frankdietz.com/softgloss.htm