How Video Game Localization Works

"Zero Wing" translators totally nailed it.
"Zero Wing" translators totally nailed it.
Groxius/Villains Wikia

A foreign film's reception often depends a great deal upon the quality of its translation. If its script is rendered too literally or if the dub fails to match the "flap" of the actors' lips — as in early kung fu movies — the sublime can quickly devolve into the ridiculous.

A similar problem plagued early attempts to bring Japanese games to America and gave the Internet one of its earliest memes, "All Your Base are Belong to Us." A sub-par adaptation of the side-scrolling arcade shooter "Zero Wing" gifted our pop-cultural lexicon with such immortal phrases as, "Somebody set up us the bomb," "You have no chance to survive make your time" and "For great justice."

Consider it a paradigm case of "you get what you pay for."

"Towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Japanese companies started to develop and export more games, translating them into English," said Carme Mangiron, co-author of "Game Localization: Translating for the Global Digital Entertainment Industry."

"The translations were usually done by the developers, who were not proficient in English, and this led to many mistakes and funny sentences that have become memes."

In those early days, when games consisted mainly of text or simple graphics, game companies could get by with a basic translation of the words on the screen, box or documentation. But as games grew more complex and immersive, a need for more than just a "box-and-docs" translation emerged. By the late 1990s, game companies realized that they needed a way to push past the subs and dubs that left foreign films still feeling foreign and find an approach that would make players feel at home, as if the company had made the game with them in mind.

This localization process began with more nuanced translations, but it soon came to encompass subtler issues such as cultural norms, historical sensitivities and local tastes. Depending on the need, localization could entail changing entire scenes, voiceovers, visuals, character designs, plot lines or music. Today, growing demand is taking the industry further in this direction, toward a more all-embracing approach that some call culturalization.

"It's about translating experience," says Mangiron. "If a game is properly localized, users should not notice that they are playing a localized version."

Video game localization has grown with the industry and pays for itself in its return on investment (ROI). Yet game localization remains something of an afterthought and, in many ways, has become a victim of its own success.