Translating an experience: Important lessons in video game transcreation


The localization industry today caters to an ever-expanding list of businesses. The players in the industry also seek to make their service readily and comfortably available in target markets across the globe. 

However, one end product stands out from the static features and functions of text documents or applications – video games. How does one translate an experience of audiovisual art? 

In a webinar hosted by the American Translators Association (ATA), industry experts Marina Ilari and Lucio Alcaide shared their best practices and strategies in video game localization. They also shared what knowledge the translator should possess to flourish in this niche of the business. In this thorough guide, we'll go through the lessons and pro tips learned from the linguistic experts. 

Why exact translation won't work in video gaming

The presenters opened the topic by comparing in detail the functionality and purpose of translation, localization, and transcreation. Translation is normally understood as being a very precise way of transferring the source meaning to the target language. However, exact video game translation will often prove unsuccessful in conveying the game’s story and emotion so that it stays true to the original. 

To facilitate a game’s ability to resonate powerfully with its target audience, the speakers said, wherever video games are concerned, the user-oriented practice of localization is employed, it frequently makes use of various non-linguistic adaptations to suit the target audience. 

Localization is used in tandem with transcreation or the reimagining of content. As a result, the original message is adapted and an impact on the audience is created in a way that is appropriate for the target market and culture. This impact, the speakers stressed, should be equal to that created by the original and should not be lost in the localization process.

The roadmap of video game localization

Localizing a video game does not necessarily mean only working on the game itself. Marina Ilari and Lucio Alcaide shared 3 categories that fall under the umbrella of video game localization:

  1. Marketing content. This can include virtually any type of marketing – from a webpage dedicated to the game or a section of the developer company’s site, to content for an online game store and promotional emails or newsletters. Regarding marketing emails, the presenters warned, the translations must be precise and correct from the get-go as the translator will not be able to edit once the emails have been sent.

  2. In-game text. Character and place names, items and weapons, achievements, and the narrative itself.

  3. Cinematics. This covers all dialogues (such as subtitles or text for dubbing) as well as songs or poems. 

Here, the understanding of the target culture plays center stage. To maintain a smooth and natural flow of dialogue, the translator must make note of any jokes, metaphors, cultural aspects and successfully transfer these to the target language. The experts shared several helpful tips:

  • Pro tip #1: Check whether the game in question is based on any existing work, such as literature or a film, and rely on these for context and continuity.

  • Pro tip #2: Songs and rhyme, the presenters revealed, are also a challenge if the client has instructed that rhyme should be preserved. As with translating poetry in literature, the translator has to thoroughly and accurately comprehend the speaker and their intentions, as well as make note of any figures of speech, usage of an older language, and so on.

  • Pro tip #3: To translate or not to translate a title or a character’s name? This must always be checked with the client. Often proper names will have been copyrighted or, on the contrary, may have a specific meaning which might be important to preserve. The translator should ensure they are working closely with any reference or context materials as well as imagery the client might have provided to get the translation right.

  • Pro tip #4: Names of items or places in the game’s world may be descriptive or carry meaning which, if localized, may take away from the gameplay experience. Lucio Alcaide noted that often an item may still be in development, thus the translator may not have enough context available. To aid in such a situation, they might instead choose to refer to the aesthetics of the game, the type or genre of its world setting, what the particular item or weapon is intended for, or what its function is in-game.

  • Pro tip #5: Note any character count limitations if these have been set in the project brief. In-game text often is seen directly on the screen and may have string length limits, which could, in turn, limit the translator’s choices of target expressions.

Talking about in-game achievements, Marina Ilari shared the following brilliant example:

“Imagine you get a string like this one: 'I'm on fire!' It could mean more than one thing. It could mean that you’ve caught on fire, or, as in the case here, it means that you cannot stop winning; that you have a lucky strike. We have to think very carefully about how to translate a string like this one (..) Being creative here is a must.”

Finally, localizing narratives means having a talent for storytelling. Perhaps more importantly, the translator must be able to picture themselves in the player’s role: what is happening on the screen at a given moment? 

As the game is played, any mistranslations will immediately be noticed. This also applies to ensuring consistency in the use of terms throughout the game. The translator should keep the gaming experience at the forefront of their mind as it is the client’s goal to provide enjoyable gameplay to players both in source and target audiences.

Choose your weapon

Approaching a large-scale project such as translating a video game calls not just for a particular skill set that the translator must possess. The ability to employ various localization strategies is also required to successfully create an entertaining end product. 

Literary devices such as alliteration and word compounding are frequently used to preserve the original structures or ways game-related content is created or named even as it is localized. For instance, if a name for an in-game item or character has been made up, it's very likely the translator will have to create a new term in the target language.

Newly coined terminology or phrases may grow in popularity if the game does, having the potential to eventually become part of popular culture. However, any such adaptations or new words have to be approved by the client. Often the translator may need to offer several options for the transcreation of one word or phrase, and the client will make an executive decision as to which suits their product the best.

It is also crucial that the translator stays well-informed about relevant concepts or trending events in the target culture. Lucio Alcaide demonstrated how a League of Legends character Prom Queen Annie had been extremely successfully localized for Latin American audiences as Annie Quinceañera. He advised that in Latin American nations, not everyone is familiar with the Western concept of prom nights. However, Quinceañera, or celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday as the passage into womanhood, on the other hand, is a festivity honored in nearly every household. 

Lastly, should the source material be particularly loaded, the translator may need to navigate the localization process by use of omission or neutralization of the original to make it suitable for the target audience. Again, in-depth knowledge of the target culture, its values, and norms, what is deemed acceptable or offensive, or is legally regulated, is an absolute necessity to produce a comfortable, enjoyable and non-traumatic experience for the target player.

Quality assurance: Ready player one

How does the quality assurance process work for a project such as the localization of a video game? Ilari revealed that it's similar to any regular translation project. As a translator completes their part of the task, a proofreader would normally be assigned to check the target strings against the source and the project brief. This process would ensure aspects such as character limitations are adhered to, or any visual cues match the transcreated text.

The next step is LQA – Linguistic Quality Assurance, which is usually only followed by final testing. In the gaming industry, especially where larger-budget development teams are concerned, LQA is carried out by a monolinguistic target-language speaker, or speakers. They play through the game and report back regarding any mistranslations, confusing directions or names, continuity issues, and even on-screen text which fails to fit within its allocated space. 

Ilari and Alcaide admitted that, despite proofreading, the LQA stage is often exactly where such errors are found. This is where the translations are seen in context in the in-game world. This means an LQA process like this is extremely valuable to ensuring the excellent quality of the final product.

Outside of that, the client should be ready to work closely with the translator and ideally provide the translator with detailed reference and context materials. This can include anything from a game storyline synopsis, conceptual artwork, soundtrack, even access to a game demo version so the translator can test their understanding of the source material from the player’s perspective.

Profession: Translator or full-time gamer?

What must a translator know to excel in video game localization? Both presenters admitted that being a translator and a full-time gamer is not viable. But they agreed that knowledge of the gaming world is very beneficial to a successful career in game localization. 

The translator must be able to understand game mechanics and picture themselves in the player’s shoes. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would the player be seeing or reading on their screen?

  • How would the translations help or hinder them in reaching the goal of the game?

To gain this insight, the translator might try actual gaming or watch gameplay videos online. The latter could ideally be done in the source and the target language. This would potentially expand the knowledge of different strategies for the localization and transcreation process itself.

Additionally, expertise in marketing, as well as literary translation, is highly desirable. As video game localization often entails work on both promotional content for the end product and in-game storylines, the translator should be able to comfortably process both types of material. 

Experience in copywriting and creative writing would come in handy as well. Being a highly creative area of localization, the professional must possess mastery over transforming content, using figures of speech and other literary devices to convey the experience the developers of the game intended to offer the player.

But perhaps the most essential skill of all – in-depth understanding of the target language and culture. Lucio Alcaide underlined that this understanding relates not only to the ability to speak the target language but also comprehend the cultural nuances, history of the target audience or country, its beliefs, and values. 

Even knowledge of local slang and lifestyle concepts may come in handy, especially when working on narratives or dialogues. Any conversation featured in a game should flow naturally, the speakers advise, so the application of cultural understanding comes into play wherever a pun or joke, an instance of wordplay, or a cultural reference must be localized. 

The translator’s task then is to find equivalent or similar references in the target language so that the audience would be able to enjoy the particular element of the game just as well as the original intended. 

Final words

Perhaps, the most important takeaway to keep in mind throughout the video game transcreation process comes from Marina Ilari. She stressed that it's important to ensure a localized video game creates the same impact on the target player as the original has done on the source audience. Ilari concluded the webinar with a final message, reaffirming any linguist’s goal whilst working on a localization project:

“As a translator, you are the gatekeeper of your culture, so make sure that your culture is accurately portrayed and the content is suited to the target market."

On the 19.04.2023. SIA “Language Inspired” has signed an agreement Nr. SKV-L2023/208 with Investment and Development Agency of Latvia (LIAA) within the project “International competitiveness promotion”, which is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.

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