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How Video Game Localization Works

A Day in the Life

Voiceover actor and Texas native Troy Baker has voiced several video game characters.
Voiceover actor and Texas native Troy Baker has voiced several video game characters.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Video game localization requires a group of talented people who can wear many hats. A typical team consists of the following specializations:

  • Translators convert linguistic elements — not only in-game elements, but also documentation like glossaries and style guides. They often work with a team that includes a lead translator, editors and reviewers, who check their work.
  • Artists adapt visual elements to a target age rating or culture, perhaps by adding clothes to characters, or by changing a wedding scene from a white dress to red and yellow for the Chinese market [source: Skoog].
  • Voice actors record dialogue, narrative or sounds.
  • Quality assurance (QA) subgroups perform functional and language testing to avoid bugs or other problems.
  • Project managers/localization coordinators oversee processes, timelines, budgets, etc., for every step of localization. They also act as a bridge and point of contact with the game developer.
  • Marketers consider whether existing promotional campaigns will work or if new regions call for fresh approaches.

Some companies prefer to handle one or more of these areas in-house and contract with a localization company to do the rest.


"Reworking and rewrites take time and cost money, so having a localization professional on staff is incredibly beneficial," Deming said.

As with any creative enterprise, roles overlap. The translator, reviewer or editor might adjust a string for length or ensure it retains its intended meaning and original purpose. If someone has expertise in a particular subject, such as sports, that can come into play as well [source: Skoog]. And so it goes, through multiple passes until the product is good enough — or, presumably, until time and money run out.

Today, hundreds of translation houses compete worldwide, and no single company dominates — although some, such as Keywords International, maintain offices in several countries [source: Deming, Mangiron]. Skoog said she worries that a growing glut of localization companies is driving rates down to unrealistic levels. This "race to the bottom" distorts how developers perceive costs — and causes quality to slide.

"It is easy to quantify cost, but it is not as straightforward to judge quality, especially if a developer doesn't speak one of the target languages and doesn't understand the quality impact an extra cost — such as linguistic QA — has," she explained.

It's a vital distinction. Poor quality can ruin a game's ROI in a region, which can lead game producers to assume that the game is a poor match, rather than seeing that the problem really stems from the bargain-basement quality of the work.

"Game companies are aware that localization is necessary to be successful globally and to maximize their return of investment, but I do not think all of them view it as a priority; for some of them it is more like a necessary evil," Mangiron said.

Author's Note: How Video Game Localization Works

One of my favorite aspects of the translation and localization worlds has to do with the choice of dialect. As a 2011 Wall Street Journal article pointed out, this can amount to a make-or-break decision, particularly in the Arabic-speaking world, where dialects have varying associations in viewer's minds. Egyptian Arabic is associated with comedy, for example, whereas Syrian Arabic is considered better suited to drama.

Not surprisingly, early efforts to dub the American TV show "Law & Order" into Egyptian Arabic didn't go over too well [source: Spindle].

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More Great Links


  • Brown, Paul. "Microsoft Pays Dear for Insults Through Ignorance." The Guardian (UK). Aug. 19, 2004. (April 17, 2016)
  • Conditt, Jessica. "Minecraft Language Update Inadvertently Contained Racial Slur (But It's Fixed Now)." Engadget. Jan. 28, 2012. (April 17, 2016)
  • Deming, Stephanie O'Malley. President of XLOC Inc. Personal correspondence. April 7-13, 2016.
  • Di Marco, Francesca. "Cultural Localization: Orientation and Disorientation in Japanese Video Games." Revista Tradumàtica: Traducció i Tecnologies de la Informació i la Comunicació (Journal of Computer Assisted Translation: Translation and Information and Communications Technology). No. 5. November 2007. (April 17, 2016)
  • Edwards, Kate. "Creating Games for Global Players: Consider Localization & Culturalization." AltDev Student Summit. Nov. 10, 2012. (April 17, 2016)
  • Hatori, Jun and Hisami Suzuki. "Predicting Word Pronunciation in Japanese." In Computational Linguistics and Intelligent Text Processing. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. 2011. (April 17, 2016)
  • Know Your Meme. "All Your Base Are Belong to Us." 2009. (April 17, 2016)
  • Mangiron, Carme. Chair of the Master in Audiovisual Translation program at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and co-author of "Game Localization: Translating for the Global Digital Entertainment Industry." Personal correspondence. April 5-12, 2016.
  • Mueller, Hannah. "The Censorship of German Video Games: The Effects of National Sensitivity to Violence on Entertainment Content." Bachelor of Arts Thesis, Robert D. Clark Honors College, University of Oregon, Eugene. June 2015. (April 17, 2016)
  • Sinclair, Brendan. "Gaming Will Hit $91.5 Billion This Year — Newzoo." April 22, 2015. (April 17, 2016)
  • Sisler, Vit. "Videogame Development in the Middle East: Iran, the Arab World, and Beyond." Gaming Globally: Production, Play and Place. Nina B. Huntemann and Ben Aslinger (Eds.). Palgrave Macmillan. Pages 251-272. 2013. (April 17, 2016)
  • Skoog, Karin. Former game localization marketing specialist at Language Automation Inc. (LAI). Personal correspondence. April 5-13, 2016.
  • Spindle, Bill. "Why Harry Potter's Latest Trick Is to Speak a Syrian Dialect." The Wall Street Journal. July 26, 2011. (April 17, 2016)