What factors are specific to video game localisation and how does this differ from “normal” translations?

Few areas in the translation industry arouse passions as much as video game localisation. Games today are considered a kind of art form. The gaming community is highly critical and will not forgive the slightest mistake, so it is in the field of video game localisation that the trite phrase “we do not translate words, but meanings” applies more than anywhere else. Video game localisation is a quite distinct area of translation and in some respects requires an approach that is different from the translation of ordinary documents. So what makes video game translation so radically different from the usual guides, manuals, instructions or training that we encounter most often in the industry?

1. Context is key

If video game localisation is to be successful, knowledge of the context, background and circumstances is crucial. Unlike normal translations, games are interactive, with players often able to choose whether to assume the role of a male or female character. Many of the lines we translate may crop up in completely different contexts and situations.

The same applies when characters address one another and engage in dialogue, e.g. there are situations where two characters may speak to one another, multiple characters may speak among themselves, or a female character may speak to a male character, and vice versa. Obviously, this is not such a problem in English, which is essentially free of issues surrounding declension and grammatical gender. In Czech, however, proper contextualisation is absolutely vital to localise video games well.

Knowledge of the context is not limited to this area alone, as Czech is a richly flavoured language that needs to be adapted to the circumstances. We therefore need to have at least a rough idea of whether we are translating a sentence that a character utters in the heat of battle or in a tavern over a beer, whether a given character is stressed, aggressive, or threatening another character, and so on. It is often said that an essential feature of a game is immersion, i.e. the extent to which it is able to absorb players into its plot and world so that they do not notice what is happening around them, outside the game. No matter how fantastic a game is, if it contains errors of this kind, it loses its quality because the immersion factor is broken.

2. The non-linearity of the process

Imagine you are translating subtitles for a film. You can’t see the film, you don’t know the setting, the plot, or the main or supporting characters. And you don’t have all the subtitles to be translated. In the first batch for translation, the client sends you texts from the end of the film, then nothing comes for a month, then you translate the character profiles, and gradually more portions of subtitles make their way to you in a completely arbitrary and chaotic order. Plus, the client is constantly altering the plot of the film that you are working on, discarding some characters, adding others, and devising new subplots.

For purposes of quality, consistency and overall impression, this is an absolutely nightmarish scenario, but it is also a fairly common occurrence.

When game publishers know from the outset that they want to localise a game, translation starts very early in the game’s development. It is natural, then, for the development team to make changes, some bigger, others smaller, from time to time, or not to have a clear idea of how a given game mechanic works or what a special item or weapon will actually look like in the game.

3. Anyone can translate video games

Do you find it logical that the instructions for a device used for the radiotherapy of cancer patients should be translated by a specialist with appropriate training and/or experience? This expertise is often overlooked in video game localisation, but is just as important here, too.

A lot of new games are created from the ground up – new game, new world, new characters, new mythology, etc. In this situation, it more or less suffices to decide whether the game is of the fantasy, sci-fi or military genre, and to pick a translator who is generally dedicated to and familiar with such subject-matter. However, when dealing with an established brand, you need to find a translator who has experience of the game series and perhaps even the entire existing universe.

In an ideal world, the client would provide a glossary for existing games or entire established game worlds, but this is often not the case, and yet the client still expects the translation to be consistent with previous localisations. This is where the success or failure of localisation depends on getting the right translator. Fans of sci-fi worlds or the Warhammer fantasy would be very unhappy if someone changed the terminology they were familiar with from the plethora of books and existing game localisations. Likewise, if we were translating a game from the Warcraft universe and used the term goblins instead of orcs, or if we didn’t adhere to the terminology established by the books for games set in the Witcher world, we’d be in hot water.

4. Consistency of terminology and style

There’s nothing worse than inconsistent terminology. Even if a video game localisation is hardly a work of brilliant creativity and translation skill, it should at least be internally consistent. Inconsistent translations dramatically detract from the game experience.

Just for the sake of one example – you’re working with the term “prsten moci” from the original text, and you translate it in one place as “ring of power”, but in another place as “ring of strength”. You think it’s no big deal? Then you’re sorely mistaken! The term is to be used in a large fantasy RPG set in an open world. The Dwarf King sends your game character on a quest for the Ring of Power, and a “find the Ring of Power” message appears in your journal. So you wander the game world and, following a bloody clash with goblins in a remote cave, you stumble upon the Ring of Strength. And now you say to yourself, “well, I’m looking for the Ring of Power, so I don’t need this Ring of Strength,” and you get rid of it. Ultimately, this is an issue that can result in a player failing to complete a quest and becoming frustrated.

Consistency, however, is not just about the uniformity of the translation as such, but also the uniformity of the style of the language. Again, let’s transport ourselves into a fictional fantasy world – in a tavern, you encounter a gruff hobbit who swears like a trooper. The hobbit sends you to purge the cellar of his house of rats. You may not be saving the world, but you tell yourself that no quest is beneath you, and every gold coin will come in handy, so you head down to the cellar and clean it up. You come back and that very same hobbit speaks to you in the King’s English.

What can we take from this? Games are not played out in the world of washing machine manuals or corporate training. They need to be plausible and nuanced, so the player should encounter characters who speak in varying degrees of colloquial speech, and it is up to the localisation team to determine in advance what kind of speech will be typical for a given character (e.g. based on the character’s role in the story, status, personal history, etc.). The different layers of relationships between the characters must also be taken into account. Some of them already know each other and they’ll be very informal with each other from the outset, and some of them may start off as strangers but get to know each other as the game wears on, and so they begin to speak more familiarly with each other over time. Once a consensus is reached on these issues, it is imperative that each character keep to a consistent style of communication.

5. Testing, testing, testing…

Now you might be thinking that it’s virtually impossible to produce an error-free translation of a game on the first try. And you’re right, of course! The success of a video game’s localisation is due in equal measure to thorough gameplay testing.

Once the translation is done and the game is a few months away from release, at best, and a few weeks away, at worst, it is necessary to start testing that translation. Testing involves playing the game and checking for language errors, display errors (e.g. the game’s user interface is based on the Czech text of the game, which is shorter, so the English translation doesn’t fit into the space allotted), and contextual errors. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the game, the more open the world, and the less linear and more branching the story, the more time and resources are required for testing (we’re talking hundreds of hours for really big games). If you intend to release your game without testing, the chances are the money you spent on translation has been completely wasted.

Filip Ženíšek’s translation of The Witcher 3 is rightly acknowledged to be the best video game localisation on the Czech gaming scene. Once the translation had been completed, several thousand changes were made in response to the testing! Does that mean the translation was originally of poor quality? Far from it. When all the above factors are considered, it is simply impossible to produce a translation so that everything in the game works flawlessly.

What do the above points imply for cooperation between an agency and a client who publishes video games?

  1. It is vital to provide as many references to the game, story, world, characters and game mechanics as possible.
  2. It is important to establish a reliable channel of communication between the localisation team and the developers; compared to normal translations, we can expect exponentially more queries about the text, context, etc.
  3. The glossary should be translated as soon as possible, and then it needs to be continuously expanded, maintained and modified as necessary.
  4. The developers should make the alpha version of the game available as soon as possible.
  5. Game development should take into account that translated texts may take up more space in the user interface.
  6. Publishers should also factor game testing into their plans and budget.
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