It is a question that constantly weighs on the game translator’s shoulders: Should I localize or translate this? When should I stick to the source text and when would localization be too much? Or should I even leave it untranslated?

What is localization?

Translation is the rendering of a text into another language.
Localization, often abbreviated L10n, is the cultural adaptation of a text to a specific market or tailoring a product for a specific audience.
Whenever people talk about game translation, they technically mean game localization, but these terms are generally used interchangeably when it comes to adapting games in order to bring them to foreign markets.
A big part of translating a game means localizing its content. So rather than translating words and sentences, linguistic localizers translate the intent behind those words so that the effect on the target audience is as close to the original as possible.

Why does localization matter?

Localization matters because cultures differ.
It matters because Americans marry their loved ones in white and bury them in black, while in in India, traditional weddings are colorful and funerals are attended in white attire.

 The Indian bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.
The Indian bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.
 The western bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.
The western bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.
We localize because no one wants to calculate how many more kilometers they have to race when they will understand it right away if we just show them the distance in miles. We localize so that the player can connect with the game and never has to hit the pause button wondering what she’s reading.
In a cooking game you would have to remeasure your wheat flour from American cups and tablespoons into grams so that European chefs-to-be can follow the recipe. Localization could also mean renaming the main character “George” into “Jorge”, so that the Spanish speaker can identify better with him. And of course the Jorge in the Chilean version addresses his NPC friends with vos, while the Spanish Jorge is perfectly comfortable with tú.
However, localization can go far beyond words. In order to give the game a local feel, items might be removed or added. For example, in Japan it‘s customary to remove your shoes when entering someone‘s house and put on a pair slippers. When you use a Japanese restroom, you take off those slippers—and you put on another pair of slippers, the bathroom slippers.
While in many western cultures it‘s nothing unusual to take off your shoes at home, they will hardly identify with wearing different slippers to use a bathroom, so features like these might be removed for western or added for Japanese audiences. Games can even have different difficulty levels in other countries.
Games are not the only medium where content gets localized. Pixar, for example, doesn’t only adjust in-game graphics, but also cultural aspects like food and sports. In the movie Inside Out, the character Bing Bong points at the letters D-A-N-G-E-R from left to right explaining that this is a shortcut. Not only were these letters translated into other languages, but in some countries the character will even point from right to left to accommodate right-to-left languages such as Hebrew. This is localization.
 European and Japanese localization of  Inside Out . Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
European and Japanese localization of Inside Out. Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
When the toddler Riley in the same movie dislikes broccoli in the American version but turns up her nose at bell peppers on Japanese screens, Pixar shows that they have done thorough research on what kids do and do not like in different countries—and localized accordingly.

The localizer is the insider

Localization often comes up as a heated discussion in context with censorship, especially when in-game content is changed and features removed. In the end, the developer has the final word on how much they want to have localized in their game, and changing in-game features is not a decision they make lightly.
But as the ones with insider knowledge regarding culture in our country, we game localizers help make such decisions. We explain to the US developer how Spanish players are expected to feel and react when they see main villain is a dictator named Franco, and why we need to change that name. We tell our Japanese client how swastikas and nazi references are definitely not funny in Germany. We help them understand what goes and doesn’t go, because we are the ones that should know.

We tell our Korean clients how the German USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, the German computer game ratings body) ups the rating—or places games on the Index—if they display strong graphic violence, and how the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates games with sexual content. Some will say that passing on such information is not part of the translator’s job, but I say it is. These ratings are important because a game with a wrong rating can get past players the developer has envisioned as a potential buyer, and the US indie developer might not even realize that games could be rated differently in Europe.

To translate or to localize?

Extreme localization is rare and usually unnecessary, especially if we localize games between similar cultures, such as English into FIGS (French, Italian, German, and Spanish). Most of the time localization of a game consists of changing names of places and characters, and adjusting some kind of number. But these basic bits still leave a lot of room for the question: to localize, to translate, or to leave as is?
We might wonder if the player will have a better gaming experience if we translate this character named Maria to Marie or the village name Speckhörnchenhausen into something that gamers will be able to pronounce.
Should we turn a corndog into a bratwurst? Will a French audience understand this reference to former US president Jimmy Carter? If you’re an American, ask yourself if you’d recognize a reference to Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, France’s president during Carter’s term. Which of the original references will our target gamers understand? The translator has to make a ton of decisions and often decides to play it safe by localizing, even if a smart reference gets lost.
Game localizers have a lot of freedom when it comes to changing text. But one thing we definitely have to make sure of: the text must fit what happens on the screen. We cannot localize a sandwich into a curry if there are graphics that don’t resemble a curry. In that case, the developer will have to change the graphics, but this is not as easy a job as writing a word into a textfile, so this needs to be weighed against how important such a change is. And of course, the developer has to actually change the graphics.

 Katie Tiedrich, genius creator of  Awkward Zombie , making fun of the western localization of  Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney .
Katie Tiedrich, genius creator of Awkward Zombie, making fun of the western localization of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Should the game take part in my country, or will moving Tokyo to Frankfurt ruin the gaming experience, maybe for any possible future sequel of the game series? In my opinion, localization goes a bit too far sometimes. While I don’t want to constantly look up stuff because I don’t get a reference, I still want to feel the culture of the game I play.

A question we localizers need to constantly ask ourselves is: How does this text make me feel and how can I spark the same feeling in my translation?

A question we localizers need to constantly ask ourselves is: How does this text make me feel and how can I spark the same feeling in my translation?

If you were the player, how would you like to experience this part of the game? Would you have a better experience if you localized this phrase, or does the game shout out for displaying its cultural aspect?

What game assets are localized?

Many parts in a game should be localized. Others are a matter of personal preference. Here are some examples of the most common items which are often localized within a video game, either by the translator or the developer:

Game developers sometimes change video game blood into green (or remove the blood altogether). This is pretty commonly done in Germany to play down the perception of violence, and possibly get a lower age rating.

If any currency (real or invented) is mentioned, it might have to be adjusted to fit the target country. For example, I always turn the abbreviation g for gold into G in German because g is the abbreviation for grams.

Date & time
07.09.2020 vs. 09.07.2020—This date can mean either 7th September or 9th July, depending whether it is displayed for a US, UK or another audience)
7 pm vs. 19:00—In Germany we count our hours to 24.

Floor levels
Some countries count the ground floor as the first floor while others count it as the second. For example, in the US the 1st floor is the ground floor. In Germany the first floor is usually called ground floor (Erdgeschoss) and we start using numbers in what Americans would call the 2nd floor, which for us is the 1st floor (1. Stock). (As a side note, we can also use the word Etage where numbers work like in the US.)

Form of address
In the United States, even the bank clerk will call you by your first name. In Germany, this would be regarded as pretty rude and strangers are addressed with the formal Sie. In Medieval–inspired games, we also do Ihrzen and Euchzen.

References to historic people, buildings, or events are changed to items the intended audience will be able to identify.

Christmas, Birthdays, Carnival, Thanksgiving, or New Year don’t have the same relevance or existence everywhere. In Italy for example, people celebrate their name day (IT: onomastico) with the same importance that most cultures celebrate birthdays.

Not every culture has the same kind of humor, and jokes might therefore need to be replaced by something that conveys the meaning more effectively. For example, while Germans are not opposed to dirty jokes or can even still take the long–outdated jokes about blond women (DE: Blondinenwitze), you will probably get arrested joking about sex on a bus in Saudi Arabia.

Language-related text and puns
Imagine the main character takes a trip to Italy and says:
“I arrived in Venice today, and everyone calls me cazzo. That’s not my name!”
If you translate into Italian, you will have to get creative and come up with entirely different content, because Italian gamers will not buy that the character suddenly forgot Italian and doesn’t understand that cazzo means dick (though it’s also an expression of anger or annoyance, like the English fuck).

Pounds vs. kilograms
Cups and ounces vs. grams and milliliters
Feet vs. meters
Gamers don’t want to continuously calculate to make sure they understand how cold 40° Fahrenheit or how hot 40° Celsius are. If you’ve ever tried to bake a cake on another continent, using a recipe from home, you will understand the importance of it all.

Names of characters and creatures can be localized to gain the intended effect, giving the game a more local flair, or reflect a play on words. An American Paul might become a Pablo in Spain.

How does a winner look like in your country? 1st vs. 1. vs. #1, or something entirely different?

A real-world city or country might be changed if it fits with the in-game graphics and intended feel. For example, the game takes originally takes place in Denmark. However, only the game text but no game graphics (such as food or landscape) give this away. The game could therefore easily take place in another country to give it a more local feel. But we also change fake places, and might turn a town name into something that flows with our language and fits the setting somehow—be it a literal translation or not.

Pop–culture references
References to entertainment, food, politics, slang, sports, or technology are often better off being localized. If there was a reference to Kenyan politics or music in a game, chances are high that the effect would be completely lost on a European audience. Unless the game is about Africa, I would localize such references.

Summer and winter on the two sides of the equator are swapped. While Australians are enjoying their surfing season, those north of the equator are cuddled up in hats and jackets. When a simulation game displays sun in December, this probably won’t be believable for my German players. As a localizer, you should keep your eyes open for dates or other content that might have to be adjusted so that everything makes sense.

Sensitive cultural or illegal issues
This especially involves religious and historic topics, but also anything that might be forbidden, such as pornography, alcohol, and drugs.
In Wolfenstein 2, the developers made some drastic changes for the German version. Of course all the swastikas were removed. But the makers also removed Hitler’s iconic mustache, and instead of Mein Führer his subjects called him Mein Kanzler. We Germans just don’t like nazi references.

Some tips for game localizers:

  • As a rule of thumb, anything that would not have the intended effect if merely translated should be localized, particularly where it improves gaming experience and comprehension.
  • Anything that might be offensive to the target audience, such as sexual content or geographic references (“wrongly” displayed maps), should probably be localized, if the original intention is not to offend.
  • Know the laws and your target culture and learn what’s acceptable and unacceptable for your target audience.
  • Put yourself in the player’s shoes: how would you feel reading this?
  • When changing the the meaning of anything, (e.g. food, game setting), make sure it does not appear as a visible item in-game, so don’t just change a hamburger into a schnitzel if there is a graphic looking like a hamburger. Always match what happens on screen.

This post originally appeared on 1UPTRANSLATIONS