Game Translation: Insights from a Freelance Translator
I am a translator and game translation/localization specialist (from English and Spanish to European Portuguese).
I worked for 6 years as an in-house translator in a Portuguese technical translation company, where I specialized in Medical translation. However, in late 2020, I decided to become a full-time freelancer and work on my true passion: game localization. Since my journey as a freelancer began, I have localized several AAA, mid-tier, and indie games for mobile, PC, and consoles. The content translated includes UI strings, marketing campaigns, dialogues, scripts, and store descriptions.
Game Translation and Localization
Translation is the conversion of a text’s content from one language (source) to another (target). It focuses on staying true to the original text and closing the language gap.
On the other hand, localization is the process of translating and adapting a product to a specific foreign market. Game localization involves not only translation but also editing/proofreading, linguistic quality assurance, and testing. In some markets, it can also involve adaptation due to the country’s laws (censoring religion, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
A good localization significantly improves sales and downloads, attracts new customers, and increases the overall perception of the product. According to Nimdzi Insights’ research, “The games industry is projected to increase to USD 196 billion by 2022.”
A Translator’s Journey
Becoming a translator was a clear decision for me back in college due to my love for languages and linguistics. Since I was an avid gamer and the localization market was starting to grow in Portugal, studying translation would be an excellent opportunity to work in this industry.
However, this was not what happened when I finished my translation degree. Even though I managed to find work in a Portuguese translation company relatively easily, I never worked in game localization during this time. 6 years later, I decided to quit and become a freelance translator.
In-house translation usually provides more stability due to the fixed work schedule and salary. But on the other hand, you get less fulfillment ’cause you can’t choose the projects that are assigned to you or the people you work with.
Freelancers, on the other hand, are their own bosses. They are free to choose their clients, rates, projects, along with where and when they want to work.
This freedom, however, also means that the future is always uncertain, with “feast and famine” cycles being very recurrent.
In my experience, the main difference between the two routines is hierarchy.
In a translation company, I was simply responsible for translating and reviewing the projects negotiated between the Project Managers and the clients.
As a freelancer, I have to manage my own projects and accounting, troubleshoot any IT issues, market my services, and be a lot more proactive.
Both options are equally challenging and fun, but specializing in game localization would never have been possible when I was working in-house.
Game Translation Challenges
Game localization is very different from the medical and technical texts I translated in-house. In fact, I think it is one of the hardest domains to translate. Why is that?
There are hundreds of genres available in the market: Adventure, RPG, Sports, Racing, High Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Rogue-like, MOBA, etc. This means that each game is unique and may require different skill sets.
For instance, Role-playing games (RPG) are very complex and long, with tons of item descriptions, user interfaces, and dialogues to localize. They often require transcreation and creativity. If the game is set in a medieval setting, it’s possible that archaic dialogue might be used in the narrative.
MOBAs use specific terms (gank, flank, tank, AFK, GG) that can be very hard to understand and localize if the translator is not a gamer. In the Portuguese market, gamers usually keep these terms in English, even when they have a proper translation. Therefore, it’s important to keep the target culture in mind and proceed accordingly.
Video games usually have small user interfaces, which means that sentences and words must be as short and precise as possible, just like in subtitling. Unless it’s a story-driven game, the shorter, the better.
Knowing about character limits beforehand can be very useful.
Some games have characters of different ages, genders, backgrounds, and speech patterns (formal or informal treatment, with specific accents, etc.) that need to be replicated in the localization.
The use of profanity, for example, will affect a game’s PEGI rating. When localizing these games, it’s very important to ask the client for as many details as possible.
Context is, by far, a localizer’s worst nightmare and, unfortunately, it’s very common for translators to receive Excel files with lists of words without any context.
The golden rule for any good translation is to not guess anything, but ask.
For instance, the word “Free” can mean “to cost nothing,” “empty or unoccupied,” or even “to set someone free.” The only way of knowing is by asking the client to explain or provide more context.
Things I Love About Game Localization
I was always drawn to video games from an early age, especially RPG ones. To me, gaming is like reading a book where you can control everything that happens in the narrative.
Video games are fascinating, challenging, and fun, but also a great way to improve our English. Game localization is exactly the same.
The number of different genres in the market means that every day is a surprise: one day, I am translating the adventures of a powerful sorceress in a medieval world; the next one, I am working on a game for kids with rhymes and songs. You never know what you are going to get, and this just adds to the fun!
The gaming market has never been more promising, with thousands of new titles released every month.
In an industry where specialized projects can become repetitive and tedious after a while, game localization is a breath of fresh air that adds a pinch of fun to any translator’s everyday life.
However, it is not a piece of cake, and it definitely requires great transcreation and research skills.
Deciding to specialize in this domain has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, and seeing my work on the TV (or mobile) screen is extremely rewarding!
This article is authored by Mariana Pereira.