Video game localisation is essential if you want to market your title to international audiences. Over the past decade, more developers and publishers have discovered the importance (and rewards) of quality localisation, but also the fact that it is rarely as easy as it first appears.
In this article, we look at some of the biggest challenges you’ll face while localising a video game.
Localisation is a comprehensive strategy that facilitates both the linguistic and technical process of translation. Essentially, it is designed to overcome the biggest challenges in translation and the most difficult aspects of localising a video game include:
- Sounding truly native in every language
- Some things simply don’t translate
- Colourful language: humour, sarcasm, slang, swearing etc.
- Culture, perspective & bias
- Text expansion
- Coding challenges
Now, let’s take a look at these game localisation challenges in more detail.
Languages are complex systems and, even within the same language, there are variances in meaning, word use, interpretation, etc. When you craft a story in one language, filled with the unique lexicon, morphology, culture and other elements, it is difficult to convert all of that into another language and sound truly native.
Arguably, this is the biggest challenge of game localisation and many of the other challenges we are looking at in this article contribute to the difficulties of providing native experiences.
Brevity is the characteristic of saying everything you need to with as few words as possible. This is a skill few writers and speakers ever master in their own language and achieving brevity is even more difficult when content conversion from one language into another happens.
In many cases, the most accurate translation can create longer, more convoluted sentences and in these cases, the decision could be to use a more concise alternative that takes up less screen space or maintains the flow of dialogue.
Clarity is always the priority but, sometimes, brevity is more important than 100% accuracy.
Creative mediums like video games produce a wealth of untranslatable content, especially when you are translating between languages of greater lexical distance. For example, from English into Japanese.
In fact, the Japanese language has a wealth of meaningful phrases that simply don’t exist in English. Komorebi specifically describes the shining of light through leaves while Shibui is an adjective used to describe things, people or actions that have aged well over time.
With no direct translation for these phrases, using more words to convey the same meaning or selecting a suitable alternative is the way to go.
Another characteristic of creative mediums like video games is the depth of colourful language. This can include humour, sarcasm, slang, swearing, metaphors and a wide range of linguistic and storytelling devices used to convey meaning beyond literal definitions.
These are some of the most challenging elements to translate and, in many cases, there is no direct translation. In video game localisation, creative language often requires an equally creative approach to translating the experience.
Pronouns play a key role in society and the practice of gender-neutral (or gender-inclusive) translation is growing in the industry. However, pronouns can cause difficulties for translation irrespective of gender connotations, as you’ll notice in languages like Spanish where the construction of entire sentences is built around the correct use of pronouns (me, you, him, her, us, them, they, etc.), including the conjugation of verbs.
To make matters more complex, there are four ways to say “you” in Spanish: tú, usted, vosotros and ustedes. Here, you have two formal and informal variations for the singular and plural equivalent of “you” in English – and matching the correct pronouns with the appropriate verb pairing is crucial.
If that sounds difficult, you will soon realise it is even harder to translate for languages that barely use pronouns, such as Chinese and Japanese, which make up two of the top four gaming markets in the world.
The most common intonation mistake in gaming translation centres around the use of “please” in prompts. For example, it is common to see prompts like “Please, press [button]” in English and some other languages but adding the translated versions of “please” will sound unnatural in most languages.
In the case of Spanish and most other Romance languages, you would use the formal (polite) version of commands without including any translation for “please”.
Video games are filled with playful language, stylised characters and story arcs that often include subtle cultural references, perspectives and biases. Translating these elements is not only challenging but, in some cases, could cause offence, misinterpretation or confusion if not handled correctly.
For example, references to famous events in European history could miss the mark in Asian countries where familiarity with the same events may be less common.
When you translate text from one language to another, it is common for the translated version to be longer or shorter than the original. Text expansion refers to text getting longer and text contraction refers to translated text being shorter than the original.
In game localisation, text expansion is more problematic because it can break user interfaces and layouts or simply take up too much screen space. The best way to deal with this, is to design and script your game with text expansion in mind, although steps can be taken to solve the problem – e.g. text resizing, alternative translations, etc.
As with all things in coding, there are many ways to insert translated content into a game – but most of them are “wrong”. A file and code structure need to be built around variables that allow your developers to pull in language files, change language settings and add new languages in the future without touching core game files.
In other words, multilingual games should be programmed for translation from the very start so that codes are kept ‘clean’ and changes can be implemented easily.
The best way to overcome the challenges listed in this article is to devise your localisation strategy before the design and development stages begin. This way, a script can be designed early in the process in design interfaces and strategically built in frameworks and other elements, to minimise the aforementioned challenges.
For example, a simpler language can be implemented into original scripts to avoid potentially offensive cultural references as well as simple design interfaces that can handle text expansion.
If you have already started or completed the design and development of your next game title, it is not too late to localise it for foreign-speaking audiences. Call us on +44 (0)20 7324 0950 to speak to our game localisation experts about the right strategy for your project or fill out the form on our contact page.