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“All your base are belong to us” – the art of game localisation

Revised: May 2021

As the gaming industry has established its grip on an ever-growing global market, the translation industry has found a niche in providing game localisation services.

Game localisation essentially means the audiovisual translation of video games for different languages and cultures. It’s much more than just straight translation though – it’s about adapting the game to make it relevant to its players in terms of specific cultural references, humour and terminology.

It’s a growing discipline within the translation industry, and has become recognised as quite an art, not least through infamously amusing and much shared examples of translation failure in the early days, like these:

“All your base are belong to us” (Zero Wing)
“A Winner Is You” (Pro Wrestling)
“Conglaturation!!! You have completed a great game. And prooved the justice of our culture. Now go and rest our heroes!” (Ghostbusters)

High quality localisation is essential to a game’s international success and the gaming industry’s expansion into new markets. Most games are still developed in English or Japanese, but these days the larger titles are also brought out in many other target languages, including Spanish, German, French, Italian and Korean.

In 2019, these five languages plus Japanese, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, and Polish were named as the 10 most popular languages in game translation. With game developers seeing Asia’s high population and purchasing power as promising, it’s no surprise that languages like Japanese and Korean are growing in popularity. 

The best localisers understand not only the nuances of different languages, but also the conventions and building blocks of video games. Their job is to recreate the experience of the original game, but within a different cultural context.

On screen text (OST) localisation is the visual part of the process. There are many challenges specific to this, such as the space available on screen – different languages will take up more or less space depending on the number and length of words used.

Matinée’s video engineer, Ben Tuck, explains some of the design issues involved: “The challenge is to have a translation with all the important elements and correct wording, but to try to match how the original text appeared. For instance, there may be an animated title slate, an instructional graphic that the text is constrained to, or the styling of the text may be important to the immersion.

Ben Tuck
Matinée Multilingual Animation and Video Production Engineer

“Sometimes we have the creative freedom to adjust the constraints, but we still have to keep the overall aesthetic of the piece. We can’t suddenly have an OST illustration that takes up half the screen in a serif font when the original was in sans serif, for example.”

Will there always be a need for game localisation?

Increasingly, the larger companies are developing games in multiple languages, simultaneously. In October Nintendo broke new ground by releasing Pokémon X and Pokémon Y at the same time and in seven different languages (English, Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Korean), all available to all players.

But there are difficulties for smaller companies who might wish to do the same – including the cost of translation, and the practicalities of small teams being able to make changes in multiple languages throughout the development process.

“The indie game developer can now produce games easily from his home computer for tablet and phone markets,” says Ben Tuck. “These are the ones that, at first release, may not be able to afford multiple languages. Their localisation of the game will only come if sales do well and countries demand it.”

For any localisation or translation needs, our expert team here at Matinée Multilingual will be able to help. We’ve got over 30 years’ experience in the industry, and can offer services in offer 80 languages, so why not get in touch with us today?

Call us on +44 (0) 118 958 4934

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