Video games translation – The quest for context

When tasked with the translation of a game, in the best-case scenario, the translator will receive a build

When tasked with the translation of a game, in the best-case scenario, the translator will receive a build of the game, along with screenshots of the screens that are difficult to reach – like error messages or strings that appear after several hours of gameplay. But what if this is not the case? Will this be problematic? Although game translators almost always sign NDAs, developers are still scared that their game will be copied, so they don’t like to provide builds and screenshots. At least, in my opinion, that’s the only reason that makes sense for not giving them, provided that the game is more or less ready and the text has been implemented. Without a build or screenshots, the translator will have to ask many, many questions to ensure that he or she gets the correct meaning according to the context and knows how much space is available for each translated string. The more experienced the translator, the fewer questions he or she will ask, since the context can often be implied by the surrounding strings and the structure of the file. Of course, knowing the basics of programming languages helps. Sometimes the developers think that it is better to send files that are completely stripped down, without any helpful IDs, but this can actually make the process more complex.

good string ID

Example of helpful ID: the string appears when you click on a poster

 How would you translate the word “oil” without any context, not even the game genre or story? It will certainly not be the same item in Gran Turismo as it is in Cooking Mama. What about “torch”? Characters in modern settings will not use the kind of wooden torch that Link carries in Zelda. Loads of words–homonyms–can have several different meanings: pin, bat, tie, bow, file, club, etc. Besides, the meanings also differ from one language variant to another, here American English and British English.

So… What kind of torch?

Other common issues that stem from a lack of context are the errors in gender, number or form of address. Indeed, the English language generally does not differentiate a lot, so “you” –and a multitude of other words- can be singular or plural, male or female. How to translate a string such as “I’m glad you came”? All the following translations would be valid –look at the verb and at the endings of “content” (glad) and “venu” (came).

“I” is a woman and “You” is a man Je suis contente que tu sois venu.
“I” is a woman and “You” are men Je suis contente que vous soyez venus.
“I” is a man and “You” is a woman Je suis content que tu sois venue.
“I” is a man and “You” are women Je suis content que vous soyez venues.
“I” is a woman and “You” is a woman Je suis contente que tu sois venue.
“I” is a woman and “You” are women Je suis contente que vous soyez venues.
“I” is a man and “You” is a man Je suis content que tu sois venu.
“I” is a man and “You” are men Je suis content que vous soyez venus.

There are actually even more possibilities, as I assumed here that “I” talked in an informal way to “you”, but that won’t be correct in many cases: if the people speaking just met, have a big age gap between them, have a doctor-patient relationship, etc.

If the strings appear in a logical order in the files, the translator can often guess who talks to whom about what and then use the correct gender and number. This is impossible when the developer sorts the strings in alphabetical order, which is always, always a pain for the translators and means that they will ask hundreds of questions.


Please, please don’t sort the strings in alphabetical order

When asking for clarification, it is best if the translator explains briefly why he or she needs more context. No need to go in depth into the grammar of a foreign language with someone who doesn’t have even a basic grasp of the language. A simple explanation such as “Who speaks here? The correct form of ‘accused’ depends on the gender of the speaker” is enough. This will contribute to “client education”. When clients are aware of common localization issues, they can code with these issues in mind, which means that there will be less hassle for everyone involved in the next project.

Translator side Client side
Too much Asks too many questions. Doesn’t try to imply context from string IDs and references. Explains everything as if the translator is stupid. Gives the dictionary definition or Google results for terms.
Gives dozens of pages of references which means the translator will waste time reading everything, looking for relevant info.
Good Checks the game build and screenshots, asks questions to clarify unclear points. Makes educated guesses. Promptly and clearly answers the questions. Gives screenshots and game build. Gives explanations only for relevant things.
Too little Complete silence. Guesses everything. Doesn’t contact the client at all. Doesn’t ask any question. Doesn’t give the game build or screenshots. Doesn’t reply to questions or replies with things like “Just translate it” or “if you don’t know, leave it in English”.



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