Behind the scenes: video game translations

Everyone plays video games. If you’ve ever wondered how they get translated, read on! It’s a highly specialised area and you’ll soon see why.

The video games industry is growing, and companies are always developing new ideas as they battle to make gamers addicted to their products. In fact, we might call this the world’s leading mainstream cultural industry, ahead of film or music. Video games have become one of our favourite hobbies: in Western Europe we have 180 million gamers, out of a total online population of 310 million!

Back to our topic: there are various constraints related to translating video games. To be more specific, it’s called video game localisation, which is a bit more delicate to deal with.

Step by step: video game translations

As always in translation, we work with tight deadlines as we often need to recover the time spent setting up the translation project.

Translations are usually from English as source text, translated beforehand from the Japanese, as most of the popular games come from Japan.

The project starts with translating the on-screen texts and in-game texts. The latter includes the menus, the interface, dialogue pop-ups, error messages, help messages, and in certain cases subtitles for the dialogues. The translation needs to be clear and concise – as the text appears on a screen, we won’t be writing novels when a short sentence does the trick.

The translator needs to juggle with the lack of context and restrictions regarding the number of characters per message. This is mostly applicable to Nintendo DS which doesn’t have the largest of screens!

1Translating the script: getting creative!

The audio script usually arrives after the on-screen texts – or at the same time, in some cases. The translator must then know if the texts will be studio-recorded (dubbed) or if they will be shown as subtitles. Of course, the translator must keep the translation best-fitted to an oral or written style.

The translation of an audio script implies a high degree of creativity. This reflects itself not only in the adaptation of the dialogues, but also in adapting character names, names of places, songs, holidays according to each culture, names of weapons, etc. These names sometimes play on words that should be kept to match the original, if not perfectly then as far as possible.

If there are elements that could be frowned upon or even scandalous in the country where the game is launched, it is the role of the translator to draw the attention to this. Sony could have avoided recalling one of its games, if they had hired a good translator.

One of the final points the translator has to consider, and not the least: the PEGI age ratings. There is a time and a place for cusswords, a game aimed at teenagers is not it.

Final stage: the packaging and user manual

The user manual comes along at the last stage of the project. The translator needs to make sure the instructions make sense and are to the point, and most of all, he or she should be careful with the terminology: that of the build (PS3, Xbox, Wii, DS, PC, etc.) and that of the client (often the publisher of the video game).

Alongside the user manual we also have the BoB (back of box) to translate. The translator needs to think about what slogan would catch the eye of the potential buyer. So here the translator gets into a bit of marketing!

Here’s a nugget: it’s not like you need to love the law to translate a contract, but translators specialised in video game translations are usually gamers themselves! Having that consumer mindset while working on the translation really helps with the outcome of projects like this.