Guest post: Game localization

Here we are, as promised, with this week’s guest, Paula Ianelli, a well-qualified professional game localizer, who has translated some well-known games into Brazilian Portuguese – and pretty well, people say (people say, because I’m not very fond of games, so I couldn’t say really). She once told me how game localization works and I was amazed by all the steps involved, and thought it would be interesting if more people could also learn more about it. So here she is!

Welcome, Paula!

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Translating Games? That Must Be Piece of Cake!

Whoa, whoa, cowboy. Hold your horses right there.

Game localization surely sounds appealing if you’re into playing, but it poses several challenges we also face when translating a text from many other areas – it is translation after all! That shows in the teams that localize games into different languages: a crushing majority of linguists are highly skilled, experienced professionals who are full-time translators and/or have an academic background in the field.

‘But what can be so challenging about it?’ – you might ask. Well, to begin with, the whole localization process encompasses several different steps that might or might not involve the localization team, but which surely impact our performance. Contrary to popular belief, a game is localized during its production, not after it’s completion, so everything is intertwined. Also, this is not a one-on-one type of thing between translator and end client. We’re talking about hundreds of people, from the first person who had the idea to create that game to screenwriters, producers, designers, engineers, soundtrackers, marketing teams, actors, project managers, translators, proofreaders, testers and so on, up to the last staff member of a printing company which is running the cover one week before the launch date. It might sound a bit dramatic, but this complex network really has a direct impact on how we work and what our target audience will see at the receiving end.

The steps of game localization can be broken down in another topic though. Today we’ll focus on the most common challenges game localizers face. The first one is a translators’ favorite:

Context (or should we say lack thereof?)

Context may be very tricky in game localization. First of all, once again contrary to what one might think, translators do not translate while playing the game, so usually there is no visual context. That means we work with texts, as most translators do, but here is the catch: sometimes, they are not linear at all.

This may happen for a few different reasons. For confidentiality purposes, a few clients believe it is a good idea to mix up sentences of several different batches or texts to prevent a whole scene from leaking. There may also be updates with random words, and it is up to the translator to guess – or ask – what the context is. Another very frequent practice is non-linear batches: we may translate the last stage of a game right at the beginning of a project, when we actually have not had time to understand what is going on.

Here is a quick example: in The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie are talking to Tess. The latter leaves the scene and the dialogue below takes place:

Ellie: ‘When is she coming back?’
Joel: ‘Later.’

Pretty straightforward, right? The translation, however, was quite puzzling:

Ellie: ‘Quando ela vai voltar?
Joel: ‘Até mais.

If you understand Brazilian Portuguese, you know this is simply a matter of context. In other situations, ‘Later’ could be a greeting, therefore translated as ‘Até mais.’ We can make an educated guess that this translator received this line of text without its context, can’t we?

That takes us to another issue we constantly face: 

Players depend on your translation

Since games are based not only on stories but also on tasks and instructions, the way a game is translated directly affects a player’s performance. Let’s say a character needs to find an item that leads him in the right direction and the instructions read:

‘Find a compass and return to the island.’

All Brazilian Portuguese translators in the room know where this is going, right? If the translation tells the audience to find a compasso, players will be endlessly looking for a different object. Boy, will they be pissed! That’s one of the reasons why game localizers need to be so careful: in addition to the task of creating a new text that is true to its original, carries good rhythm, short enough to fit the screen, perfect grammar and spelling, appealing, etc., we also have to make sure instructions are super clear and the whole story is cohesive throughout the game.

And there are a lot of players

As mobile platforms and social media grow both in developed and developing countries, the amount of gamers throughout the world increases every day – and Brazil is a major market.

On one hand, that means demand for game localization is at its all-time high. On the other hand, that also means we have a bunch of gamers who grew up used to playing without subtitles – and probably understand English by now – who are closely watching our every step.

Don’t get me wrong, they are nice people. But they don’t always love change, you know? And they’ve grown accustomed to choosing the multiplayer option, not the multijogador version. We can discuss whether or not we should translate that kind of term another time, but the thing is that game localizers are constantly faced with the challenge of finding convincing translations for very specific terminology that has been kept in English for over 20 years and it takes time and effort to find good solutions and to get people used to them.

Ok. Is that all?

Not really. We’ve just reflected about three major challenges game localization translators face, but there are many other minor difficulties that are worth mentioning:

  • When translating a game, we usually work in teams with several translators/proofreaders, which makes it very hard to standardize terms and styles;
  • We need to be very computer savvy in order to work with different CAT tools both online and offline, and there are usually our beloved tags in the text, so you can’t be too careful;
  • Deadlines are usually very tight, because after translation there is still proofreading, quality assurance, testing, captioning, etc., and everybody wants to make sure the game already includes its subtitles on launch date.

We are also expected to be very versatile: I might be translating a game full of slang and curse words on Monday, a puzzle for 5-9 year old girls on Tuesday and an epic medieval story on Wednesday – but it goes without saying that this is actually one of the biggest pleasures of working in this area!

All in all, game localization is a wonderful field if you are a professional translator who loves games and is interested in a very fulfilling challenge. Just think twice before translating your favorite games: spoilers, spoilers everywhere!

Thanks a lot for kindly accepting my invitation, Paula! It was a real pleasure featuring such a great professional on my blog! 🙂

Are you also a game localizer? Would like to add something? If not, you can always comment and give us feedback. 🙂

About the author
Paula Ianelli

Paula Ianelli G. Luiz is an ATA-certified translator and interpreter who has always been a gamer. She has a B.A. in Translation Studies from UNESP and a certificate in Conference Interpreting from PUC. Paula works from English and Spanish into Brazilian Portuguese, and she has translated several AAA games for current and next-generation consoles, social media and mobile platforms.

6 thoughts on “Guest post: Game localization

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  5. Hello Paula, I found your post on the challenges game localizers face highly intriguing! In my response, I wanted to delve into treatment of “context” like a Nancy-Drew-esque mystery in the localization industry. The inherent nature of localization, in classifying translatable texts as “info-objects” that are later divided into “text fragments” makes it tricky for the translator/linguist to unfold the purpose of a successive chain of actions (Pym). This boils down to the treatment of “translation” as a “problem to be solved, rather than a creative process on-par with other semiotic levels” (Pym). However, game localization scholars, like Carme Mangiron, believe the way to reverse this treatment of context within translation lies in the transfer of responsibility of creative engagement from producer to translator (Mangiron, O’Hagan). Typically, producers call the shots on contextual elements and action it through workflows. But a refocus towards the translator would allow them to give their input to producers at the time of conception, i


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