How Video Game Localization Works

The Translation Trap

German players probably didn't enjoy "Torin's Passage" as much as others.
German players probably didn't enjoy "Torin's Passage" as much as others.
Mika1h/Wikimedia Commons

Effectively localizing volumes of content under tight deadlines poses serious challenges. The translation process alone is peppered with pitfalls. Often, translators receive nothing more than a spreadsheet of words and phrases, robbed of any context. Working in such a vacuum makes divining the meanings or nuances of basic words difficult, and of culture-specific jokes or figures of speech nearly impossible.

"Even if the localization company cares about creating a quality experience for the player, they aren't always provided with the information needed to produce high-quality localization," Skoog said. "This is worsened by the fact that some developers use localization companies that don't specialize in game localization, so translators may not be gamers at all and may not know terminology used in games."

To throw another variable into the mix, not all character sets are created equal. Asian and Latin alphabets are stored differently by many programs and operating systems. Moreover, Japanese can be written using different character sets, including kanji, hiragana and katakana. Different kanji are pronounced the same, and a single kanji can have different pronunciations depending on context. Without more information, there's no telling how a Japanese name might be pronounced or spelled [source: Hatori and Suzuki].

Even under the best of circumstances, some words defy translation. Entire books have been written about words that exist only in a given culture, the meaning of which would require paragraphs to unpack.

That's a problem in a medium where, because of rigid game design elements like text boxes, changing the length of a sentence might not be an option. To make matters worse, some languages take up more space than others: German runs an average of 30 percent longer than English, which eats up 30 percent more space than Japanese [source: Mangiron].

Dealing with such constraints requires a translator who is not only intimately in tune with the language's modern usage and slang, but who has a knack for creative writing as well [source: Skoog]. Not everyone fits the bill.

"There are many facets that comprise a quality translator," Skoog said. "Although someone may be fluent in two languages as well as a gamer, writing — particularly creative writing — may not be their strong suit."

In rare cases, tricks of language can cause localization to break a game. "Torin's Passage" (1995) included a puzzle in which players had to bring together audio crystals to make a sentence. Because German tends to place the verb at the end of sentences, players in Germany could not complete the task. In the end, the publisher resorted to adding a note in the game box with instructions on how to pass the puzzle [source: Mangiron].

Such examples highlight the need to build flexibility into game engines, and the challenges that await as the industry moves beyond localization toward culturalization.