Game Localization? Are You Kidding?

Not so long ago, the leaders of SBT Localization have had a conversation with representatives of the publishing business in Ukraine. Their unfair thoughts about game translators hurt us deeply.

The main theses were:

  • collective translation just can’t be good, even if it’s made by well-coordinated team;
  • games are for kids, books are for serious translators.

Later, our leader Sophia Shul shared her thoughts on this matter.


“Games are for kids” “Work upon games? You’re kidding?” “Game translating? What can be easier!”… Games are something casual…

Oh, really?

It’s absolutely unfair to say that games are only entertainment that fits for children. Well, it is an entertainment, but entertainments can be of different levels. For example, football is an entertainment, too. However, no one would say that professional footballers merely play with a ball. Or, have you ever tried to rebuke a football fan for watching a match? Why waste his time for a match, if he doesn’t play anyway? Have you noticed – “play”? This is a game! Films are the same thing. Actors play their roles, don’t they? They play dolls, battle, family, adventures… Some are playing, and others are watching their play, and saying it is amazing. And books? Just think of books that aren’t for classes, for learning, and you’ll see they are just writer’s fantasy, sometimes mixed with history and real events. And how all of this can be more serious than videogames?

Games as an Art Form

Have you ever thought that a modern videogame can be a mix of a book, a movie, design art, and lots of other things? Especially saying about role-playing games.

Games can offer lots of reading (short stories, poetry, songs, scientific articles, manuals, memoirs). Making some games requires actors, whose moves, and even look, become the basic for characters. And voicing? It’s surely not so easy to make voices, to say the text with proper tone and intonation… And how much time is needed to create the whole world? You can’t just find a fitting landscape or building, and a green screen can’t give you all you need. The whole world – the ground, rivers and seas, settlements, beings, clothes, any silly item – everything has to be thought through, drawn, and created with special programmes… Game developers must feel themselves Gods in the Time of World creation. 🙂 And then to create some plot. Motivation for playing. Main quests and secondary quests. Dialogues…

Some videogames are like movies, in which you can control the main charater, although it is much more interesting because you may choose what to do, where to go, and  have an influence on some events.

Of course, every game has its scale, it may require more or less of specific work; there are simple games and quite complicated games; there are games suit for children, and there are games for adults… That’s right, there are games for adults, and they are rating accordingly. For example, mahjong, 3 in a row, puzzles or hidden objects may have may have an unlimited number of users. Caring for pets, adventure of famous cartoon characters or emotionally easy turn-based strategies are more aimed at kids and teens. However, there are games that are almost equal to any action film, for example Blues&Bullets, Far Cry, Fallout, Deus Ex etc, or even horror film (Silent Hill, Resident Evil).

Now let’s think about game translation

What’s so special in game translation anyway? Nothing. At first sight…

Context (*changed for English readers)

Replicas often are scattered, and, without context, translators can hardly understand the true sense of the replica. Translators do not see the scene of the action, and therefore it is difficult to guess who is talking and to whom (that’s not a book to go back several pages, read and find out, or a movie that can be viewed to get a situation), and under what circumstances. It’s good, if replicas, inscriptions, names of items, creatures, etc. are sorted. And if not?

Here is one of such situatoins: Belt – an item in the inventory, and a character’s name. How to know where is the item Belt, and where is a man named Belt?

Or: Pale — is it “white in colour” or “a wooden stake”? You’re wrong! This is the name of a territory. And, consequently, it is necessary to search through the wiki pages of that world and think up for the proper name (you’re lucky if you can find web sites devoted to that game and its world … but not if the game is completely fresh).

Another: scroll – is it “a roll of parchment” or “cause to move”? Both! But it is impossible to guess which is what.

Case and genus (*changed for English readers)

This problem stems from the previous one (especially if the translation is from English). If it is unclear who speaks and to whom, Ukrainian translators can’t be sure what ending should use in verbs – female or male? In result you may get ridiculous men characters talking of themselves like women, or women talking like men.

In English, Russian and some other non-Slavic languages nouns don’t have Vocative case (English language has no cases, except Possessive case), and so if a player is happy that he can choose a name for his character himself, then this happiness turns into a curse of the Ukrainian grammar, because he has to use the name as it is, without any cases. And a translator has to break his brain on paraphrasing sentences (for it should not be like, “This is Petryk team”, but at least: “This is Petryk and his team”).

Game terminology (*changed for English readers)

In games (science fiction and fantasy at most) there always are unique terms for items, nature phenomena, inventions, races etc. And no dictionary can help with that. Making a simple transliteration, when the word is not some kind of abracadabra, but has certain content, is a crime to my mind. And ettercap, silt strider, werewolf, bristleback, and imp sound way better for a player that pavuchydlo, chalapun, vovkulaka, shchetynospyn, and bisyk.

Sometimes, game developers add some phrases or words to the game that may have hidden content or links to some famous works, real people, events, and more. “Easter eggs” in other words. It is desirable to recognize the “Easter eggs”, find and fit in the translation.

It’s good, if the developers give translators access to the game, so that they could test the translated text in game and correct the inappropriateness. Unfortunately, this luck is rare.

Those are only the main problems…

So this is how it is… Game translating is certainly not as easy as translating books or manuals

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Game Localization? Are You Kidding?
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