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Perspectives

What’s in a game translator?

Sarah Calek

Sarah Calek holds a master’s degree in software localization. She has been working as a freelance and in-house translator since 2015, specializing in games, marketing and medical translation from English and Norwegian into German.

Sarah Calek

When I decided that I wanted to work with languages, I was still attending school and I had only a very general idea what exactly I would do with that idea. But I ended up studying Scandinavian languages and software localization (in that order) and more or less stumbled across my first translation jobs — and they were for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

There was actual in-game text, there were marketing articles and developer announcements, video subtitles and help articles. I loved the variety and the fact that there were distinct styles for different contexts to adapt to. All within one game!

So, are game translators just people who like games, or is there more to this specialization? Firstly, let’s take a look at some general points that might play a role in game localization projects: variety, creativity and special requirements.

Variety

Due to the many different genres of tabletop and video games for many different platforms out there, game localization is a very diverse field of work. When looking up “game localization” online, most of the offered pages are about video games. More and more video games are being developed, and thanks to the many online game distribution platforms like Steam, GOG and others, there are many different international distribution channels. Games are everywhere, and there is something for every kind of gamer. For translators working with game texts, this means a lot of potential variety.

Creativity

Every title has (or needs) its own style guide and terminology, and there are new choices and decisions to be made with every new game. For sequels, it is often important to keep the style and terminology of the previous title. But in all cases, creativity (within certain limits) goes a long way to keep players engaged or to avoid them being annoyed or confused. If a game has a lot of text, chances are high that there will be a team of translators working on the project. This makes a kind of “coordinated creativity” necessary. Communication, a well-kept, shared terminology database and translation memory, proofreading and QA can help achieve consistent and immersive results, but it does take a lot of effort and very thorough translators who utilize all available resources.

Technical aspects

Character limitations are probably the first technical aspect that comes to mind. It is often a challenge to find a working compromise between style and character limitation. It is generally not a good idea to use abbreviations, as they can be ambivalent and distracting. One of my favorite examples for abbreviations gone wild is “Schw. Tr. d. Le.en.-W.” from the original The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (released in March 2006). This extremely long abbreviation was the translation for a minor healing potion. Some errors were later fixed through patches, but the game’s reputation was damaged by the initial release.

Due to mobile devices and smartphones, space is still an issue. Game apps for mobile screens have to be legible on many different screen sizes, so it makes sense to set a limit for text. Finding the shortest way to express certain ideas in a natural way is not always an easy task, but it is still better to know exact length restrictions than to fix issues after the fact.

Finding context for strings can also be quite difficult. Many games are not just released in one language, and the localization tends to be a part of the development phase. Translators might get some visual references to help them understand the game, but string IDs and other metadata are also a very valuable source of information. They might, for example, clarify what a single word like “open” refers to and into which grammatical form it should be translated. The same context problem tends to occur with tags within strings: tags are often used as substitutes for items, numbers and names, but this does not work in the same way in all languages. For example, the quest instruction “Find the {0}” is problematic in German, because the article would be different for each of the grammatical genders that the item in the tag might be representing. Covering all possible grammatical genders would result in something like “Finde den/die/das {0}” which would certainly not be an elegant solution.

Most of the above points would certainly also be applicable to other translation specializations, at least to a certain degree. Technical and medical translators work with highly specialized terminology and style regulations; marketing translators often end up transcreating slogans, using their creativity to get a certain idea across. But game translation is a bit of everything, and every game is a microcosm of its own.

Game translators are probably just as diverse as gamers, so it is quite difficult to formulate common requirements that are specific to this group. Linguistic knowledge and good writing skills are always a prerequisite, regardless of the specialty. Translators are judged by the quality of their translations, and no customer would be content with linguistically incorrect or unfitting translations.

Many online job ads look for “enthusiastic gamers,” which sounds like obvious common ground. But good game translators are not just good at translating games they personally like. They are also able to deliver fitting translations for other games because they value games in general and want other players to have a good experience. I am therefore not so sure if liking “games” in itself should be very important. There are just too many different genres and styles of games out there to let the translation even partially depend on whether or not the translators like any given game or not. Even if some extra motivation helped, the game to be localized is in many cases still in development, and there is rarely time or an opportunity to test the game at that stage. But translating it is not the same as playing a game — translators usually only get to see single strings, often not in the order they would appear in-game, but sorted alphabetically by their string IDs. The translators might also see said string IDs, which might help figure out some context, and in some cases there is also some graphical context or even the game in the original language (or a gameplay video) available. This additional material is helpful to figure out in which context certain strings appear in order to find the correct translation, often under time pressure.

As is the case with many projects, time is always an important factor, but the localized game should still feel like the textual components were added into the finished game in a way that feels natural in the new target language as well. A certain meticulousness helps game translators achieve this: There are many segments that seem to be pretty clear at first glance which might have more than one meaning depending on their use within the given game. This is a typical localization issue, and it seems to pop up quite frequently in game localization projects. Another problem in bigger projects is the coordination between many translators. It is important to keep the whole project consistent and to use the same style and wording for different characters and user interface portions. Effective communication and a well-maintained terminology database help achieve consistency. Due to the fact that each new game has different requirements, this process of constant adjustment and adaptation needs to be repeated for every single project.

Last but not least, I would like to point out that while I would not consider being a video game enthusiast a must-have trait, it does certainly help to like games in terms of motivation. But in contrast to gamers, this enthusiasm for games should go beyond titles that appeal to the translator. Ideally, a game translator (who does not work for a certain developer and therefore on a limited number of different games) is a perfectionist no matter what kind of game they work on. This professional attitude seems worth noting because gamers tend to have certain favorite genres or games, and they often have quite strong opinions about their games. Gamers who work as translators can be great translators — if they are also great linguists with a professional take on the matter. After all, every gamer deserves a great experience and the translators are there to remove the language barrier without drawing negative attention to the language change. Positive attention would be great.

So what makes a good game translator? There is a simple core: first of all, a skilled, creative translator with a good eye for details. Secondly, a person who sincerely cares about game(r)s.