Translation of video games; translation or localisation?

The difference

A basic definition of translation is any process of working with text between two languages, while localisation is the process of adapting a product linguistically and culturally so that it can be successful in other markets. This difference might seem negligible, yet in fact there is an enormous chasm of disparity in specialisation between translating and localising, and so a good translator will not necessarily be an expert localiser and vice versa.

You do not only translate the text of the game

While it is true that both the translator and the localiser need to have thorough knowledge of the languages in which they work and the culture of both countries, the localiser also needs to know the intricacies of the medium in which they work: character limits, working with variables, combining image, sound and text, etc. Furthermore, there is something else that is almost never taken into account which is the fact that a videogame localiser needs to be prepared to deal with any kind of translation; they have to be a ‘total translator’. This is because when we talk about localisation we do not only mean the game itself, as there may also be legal texts which have to be dealt with, licences, user agreements typical of legal translation, comics, ‘making of’ documentaries and even small chunks of literary translation.

As a result of all this, in some ways localisation may end up being rather odd at times. Take the example of a translation of a Japanese RPG (role-playing video game). In this case it would be very unusual to find any references to our local culture since they would be totally out of context and make us lose the thread of the game. However, on the other side of the scales is the case of not understanding a reference when playing because some features have not been tailored to our culture. It may well be in this case that the best solution is to find the middle ground and choose a reference that can be understood yet is not extremely local to ensure it is not out of place in the game.


Each game is different

What is clear is that each game is different, and you need to have the skills required to be able to identify when a game “asks” us to be as faithful as possible to the original or, conversely, “demands” that we adapt it as much as possible. Sometimes it may be the customer themselves who tells us that they do not want the names of the characters (which are puns in themselves) to be translated, or that jokes or gags which if translated literally will not be funny in English should be respected.

To achieve a good localisation balance you need to play a lot and with all sorts of games to understand the industry from the gamer’s point of view. That way once you are steeped in the industry, you will be able to suggest key language changes to the game creator to enhance understanding of their game.

Not everything is black and white in the translation of video games; instead we might say that we are working on a greyscale. And what about you; how do you localise?

Sources: doblaje videojuegos blog, Eurogamer,