ATA 2013: The Pitfalls of Video Game Localization

The Pitfalls of Video Game Localization
Presenter: Tim Hove

Tim started off the Japanese sessions in 8-bit glamour at the 2013 ATA Conference in San Antonio. His topic? An oft overlooked aspect of the translation world and a topic not before broached within the realms of conference-dom: video game localization. Though perhaps seen as somewhat lesser of a specialization to some, the game markets in both Japan and the U.S. are booming and don’t appear to be winding down anytime soon, making it an area where savvy translators can find their niche, even if they don’t have the button-mashing experience to back them up.
Tim separated the task of game localization into four basic levels that the ardent translator must conquer to reach the end of the game, er, translation process: play testing, glossary building, translation, and checking.
In the world of translation, context is key, and with games, it’s no different, which is where play testing comes into, well, play. Context is everything in a game. Without it, a translator can’t hope to write effectively. Playing the game first-hand can give a lost translator insight as to what he or she is translating, where the text will be used in-game, and a better idea of the overall style, tone, and plot points of the game. It could also bring to light potential cultural, political, or legal issues that need to be reported to the client. In the case of cultural references, while some games thrive on various cultural aspects to weave a story or craft characters, if these references would cause nothing but confusion to gamers in another locale, they need to be changed. After all, games are about letting players get lost in a fantastical world, not grilling them on their cultural knowledge and foreign language skills.
No less important than play testing is glossary building (and glossary abiding). Terms are an essential part of a game’s branding and identity. Some terms even get trademarked and are passed from game to game to game in a series. Fans of these series and games will be lost and confused if items and characters they know so well suddenly have different names, which is why abiding by already present glossaries is so important when translating games, along with keeping track of new terms you create for future translators down the line. Fortunately, this is something that CAT tools and their terminology management functions can help with. But never fear—for the thrifty game translator, simple find and replace macros in programs like Excel can prove helpful as well. In fact, many game scripts will come in just that format—Excel documents—which means finding useful macros to aid in the translation process would be a recommended endeavor.
Now that a translator’s been thoroughly equipped through play testing and glossary building, it’s time for some leveling-up, translator style! Just as a gamer grinds levels to up their skills and proceed to the final boss, so too must a translator grind through cell after cell of Excel documents until they reach … the editor. But there’s a lot to game translation that might be unfamiliar to translators of other specialties even beyond terms like Cosmic Sledge Gunblade of Destiny’s Flame. Most games have character limits for their dialogue, menu text, etc. This means that ridiculously long strings of kanji for weapon and armor names that fit easily within the Japanese menus might take some finagling to translate them eloquently into English without going over the limit. There are also variables and wildcards to deal with. Terms like %d and %s represent digits and variables that are going to be placed into the game later depending on things like player input, item number, or party members. And that’s not even taking articles and plurals into consideration! While クファンジャ 』を手に入れました works easily in Japanese, you’d run into a heap of trouble in English if you happened to obtain two Khanjars instead of just one!
Beyond the technical aspects, as many games, especially text heavy games like RPGs, strategy, and simulation games, have at times epic and at other times ridiculous story lines, translating games requires a good deal of creativity on the translator’s part. A game’s characters need to develop along the course of the game, but you only have so much space to try and portray their life’s journey to the player on the other side of the controller. It can help to look for similar types of characters in works of the target language, then find speech patterns or turns of phrases that could help get a character’s personality across in easily understandable ways. Dialects and Japanese phrase endings can also be sticky patches in their own rights. Overusing dialects in English can evoke the wrong types of images or reinforce negative stereotypes, but when used sparingly, they can be effective. Phrase endings are used often in Japanese to quickly give a character life and personality, but they don’t translate well into English. They’re also best when used sparingly, just to give a bit of flavor to a character’s speech without turning them into a running gag.
The final stage of the translator’s localization process is one which most translators should be familiar with—checking. As a game translator, once your work is “finished,” your text is then implemented into the game where it’s tested and debugged. This is where all your hard work staying within the character limits, carefully placing variables, and checking context again and again could pay off, or perhaps slap you in the face. You might also have to watch some of your favorite translated lines get rewritten to fit more naturally into the game’s dialogue boxes. But when it comes down to it, if something seems unnatural to the player, it needs to be changed. Having a good relationship with an editor is key so that you can work together to make decisions that are best for the game as a whole.
Game translation can be a rewarding profession for translators who also have knowledge about and interest in games. And as games in general don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon, it’s an area where there will always be need of experienced, passionate translators who know exactly what it’s like to be on the other side of that controller and get lost in the world of a game. Tim’s presentation was a wonderful look at just what goes on in the world of a game translator and was an important step in bringing game translation back into the limelight of the professional Japanese to English translation society. After all, there will always be a princess waiting in another castle crying for help, barrel rolls to flip, and bases that belong to us, all of which need to be translated.


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