Video Game Translation – Why is it Important?


Video Game Translation - Why is it so Important?

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What began as a niche industry driven by arcade consoles has become one of the largest entertainment sectors in the world. As the gaming industry expands to a global market, video game translation has become increasingly important. Video gaming has become a multi-billion dollar industry, with projections indicating that it will surpass $138 billion in revenue by the end of 2021. Critically, while North America remains a stronghold in video game consumption, the Asian Pacific region boasts the largest share of video gamers due to Japan’s rich tradition of multimedia development

Still, with over 2.8 billion gamers worldwide in 2020 and only 1.5 billion from the Asia Pacific, video gaming is a truly international industry. While the industry’s growing global scope presents significant revenue potential, it also poses a complex challenge for video game companies in the form of localization. Video games appeal to users by promising an immersive, interactive experience in which a digital world conforms to their will. Nothing spoils that promise faster than sloppy localization, which wrenches players out of the experience and renders games borderline unplayable. As a 2006 edition of Edge Magazine put it:

At best, a good translation enables us to enthuse and empathize with the characters we are interacting with, making the alien recognizable and understandable. At worst, it turns an otherwise brilliantly realized game world into a soulless shell of confusion and lost potential.

In other words, if you want your video game to reach its maximum potential, you must prioritize quality localization from the beginning of your development process. Failure to do so can mean alienating half of your global audience, limiting profit potential, and stalling your brand’s growth.

On the other hand, successful localization efforts can transform a niche regional hit into an international phenomenon. To see this in practice, look at almost any Nintendo game. Although the Japanese company’s history is not without missteps, modern Nintendo games boast some of the most impressive video game localization in the industry, leading Nintendo’s characters to become household names across Japan and the US.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a corporate powerhouse to benefit from a globalized approach. At Vistatec, we help companies of all sizes to translate experiences rather than just text, resulting in games that can be enjoyed equally by players of any background.

Why Video Game Translation is So Challenging

At a glance, video game translation does not seem to be more complicated than any other form of translation. However, with the medium comes a range of distinct challenges that require specialized attention. Some of these challenges are technical. For instance, some games have hard-coded text fragments that are limited to a certain length. This is rarely a problem moving from English to Japanese since Japanese takes up approximately half the on-screen space as English. However, moving in reverse from Japanese to English or from English to an even lengthier language like German may force translators to rewrite content to fit.

Other challenges are linguistic in nature. The text used in video games typically changes depending on the player’s choices and actions. To accommodate this variety, scripts are usually written in terms of interchangeable fragments rather than continuous narratives. While this grants writers more narrative flexibility, it also means that a translator often must work with less contextual information than would be ideal. For example, consider a scene where a character is finishing a standard fetch quest. A translator working on this project might receive an English fragment along the lines of: „Thank you for finding it for me!“ Since English lacks specific grammatical structures like gender, this simple phrase can be impossible to translate without context. For instance, is „you“ formal or informal, singular or plural? And does „it“ refer to a masculine or feminine object?  While none of these factors matter in English, they completely change the correct translation in a language like Spanish. Unfortunately, as careful as developers are to provide context, ambiguous fragments like this one often slip through.

Some other challenges that make video game translation especially difficult include:

  • Reliance on Cultural Reference: Video games often lean heavily on specific cultural expectations, whether to orient the player, to make jokes, or to further the narrative. Translators must understand which references will be understood in the target market and which should be translated. Capturing the original game’s spirit while incorporating local references is a difficult balance that can make or break a game’s reception in a new market.
  • Multimedia Elements: Video games often include text as part of the game’s art to improve ambiance and orient players to the environment. Examples include in-game signposts, advertisements, graffiti, artwork, and more. Additionally, soundtracks and background conversations can significantly impact a game’s sense of place. In localization, teams must determine which elements to translate and implement those translations given technological limitations.
  • Massive Scope:  It is not just dialogue translation in a video game—it’s names for characters, weapons, enemies, and locations, as well as quest descriptions, UI elements, and more. Outside of the game itself, marketing materials, inserts, and guides must also be accessible in every target language. Taken together, these elements make translating a game into a single language challenging, let alone localizing for multiple markets.

Because of these constraints, video game developers should prioritize translation from the beginning of the design process, ensuring that all technical and creative processes accommodate later localization efforts. For example, teams should avoid unnecessarily hard-coding anything language-specific. They can also maintain comprehensive documentation to help translators deal with ambiguous fragments.

In the translation process itself, embracing the transcreation philosophy can help optimize the player experience in different backgrounds.

How Transcreation Helps Video Games Reach a Global Audience

Transcreation refers to translating messages and experiences rather than words and sentences. A transcreated message may not be faithful to the exact words and sentence structures used in the original product—the priority, instead, is to retain the style, tone, and intent, while situating these elements in a new cultural context.

Compared to translation, transcreation requires more time, skill, and creativity. Translators must thoroughly understand the original and target cultural contexts to recreate the original voice for a new audience. However, transcreation is worth the effort as it ensures translated content retains the same spirit as the original game.

Some transcreation strategies that help create a more immersive translated experience include:

  • Rewriting jokes to better appeal to different senses of humor
  • Adapting dubbed voices and accents to suggest other character traits
  • Replacing pop-culture references with those that will be better understood
  • Reworking language-based puzzles while retaining the same overall structure and difficulty level

Transcreation also invites translators to add creative jokes or descriptions that were not present in the original. In this way, transcreation can be a more comprehensive reimagining of a video game rather than a mechanical translation.

How Vistatec Embraces Transcreation

Vistatec’s localization experts have created and recreated immersive gaming experiences for well over 20 years. We combine our passion for language with an in-depth understanding of gaming trends to create end-to-end transcreation solutions in over 150 languages. From dialogue to end credits, we reinterpret your game in a way that stays true to your vision while inviting a broad new market to enjoy it.

To learn how our tech-savvy translation team can increase your game’s global reach, contact Vistatec today.