Game Localization Horror Stories
Localization| 30 Oct 2022
The nights are longer, the weather colder, and spooks and specters come to life. And what is more perfect for these dark autumnal nights than a good set of horror stories?
But these aren’t just any horror stories, these are localization horror stories—terrifying tales from video game translators which, I can assure you, are all true.
Translators often work without ever seeing the final game. They need to rely on reference files with context, logic in story and file management, and concise notes provided by the game developer. Without these navigating a game localization is like stumbling through the wood with a blindfold.
But things could be worse…
What’s worse than getting no context or translation memories at all? Getting a machine translated translation memory full of mistakes and being told you must respect them anyway because it’s the client’s decision.
I felt like I was playing Minesweeper instead of localizing game content. I could not actually translate the way I liked, I just had to rigorously replicate mistakes from the mandatory TMs with no false steps. Don’t even think about rendering a localized version that sounds natural, we just do it this way! And to top it all, no suggestions accepted.
It was the first time I was glad an NDA protected my name from showing up. I hated the final version with all my heart. It sounded so unnatural, and it was full of punctuation and grammar mistakes. Things we would never say in any variety of our language! But it was what the client had asked for.
If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The solution? I’m never accepting these assignments again!
Good game localization, just like good game writing, is an art. We put our heart and sounds into a project. But what if, even despite our best efforts, it’s not enough?
Early in my career, I spent weeks on end working on the localization of a game that I first thought was not for me but became more and more immersive the longer I worked on it. I even met up in person with my coworker so we could nail down terminology and talk about all the brilliant puns we wanted to put in. We got to play the beta build too, and we couldn’t wait to see our cleverly thought-out lines on screen. The script was FANTASTIC when we handed it in.
But the deal between the client and the game developers fell through shortly after, and the localization was canceled entirely. Our work was forgotten. All our mind-boggling creativity, gone. All our infinitely funny puns, gone.
I still think about it sometimes. The marvelous script that had been created by two bright minds on endless autumn and winter nights. How it’s just floating in the ether somewhere right now. Or maybe it just landed in the recycle bin on someone’s desktop after all.
When no context is given, it’s often up to the translator to wade through the swamp of a game script to pick out what’s happening in the story and with the characters based on the script alone.
Which is made even more difficult when the text you’re working from isn’t in order, and isn’t finished.
I’m working on a horror game that comes out around next year (still working on it today), but it’s a horror game in more ways than one.
The game is made of 99% dialog, with multiple choices. But the source script isn’t finished. A challenge when you need to make conversations flow and make sense.
The game loop adds an extra challenge. First, you have all the possible dialogue choices of the main character for different branches. Then, you have all the answers from Character B. And then, you have all the (long) answers from your character.
When this loop is over, the text moves to another loop. This would be fine if the loops we work from are in order, but the next loop could happen before or after the one you just did…or at any other random moment of the game!
To top this off, we are translating unfinished scripts and have to CTRL+F almost every segment to find context, if possible. We need context but any questions we ask take forever for the devs to answer…
As freelance translators we are often at the behest of project managers. They are, on the whole, lovely people who are professional, punctual, and make working on a project utterly enjoyable.
But there’s always that one rotten apple who always manages to spoil the bunch…
Back in the days, I was working for one of those bottom feeding LSPs, which formally forbade translators and editors from talking to each other without a PM present (lol). Unlucky for them, I already knew most of their teams through previous projects from other clients.
This happened a few days before Christmas, and I was in the middle of a packed shopping mall when I got a message from your typical overbearing PM: “Lucile, are you here??? There is an issue with file XYZ!!!”. The issue was something rather minor, maybe a missing punctuation sign somewhere, I don’t quite recall. I reply that I’m not at home but I can check in like an hour. She replies that’s not acceptable, yadda yadda, and I need to check now.
I repeat that I can’t because I’m not home, but I happen to know who the editor is and he can easily log on the agency’s MemoQ server and fix it. In an attempt to save her some headache, I even asked him myself. Turns out this was a critical mistake: she started screaming at me in all caps, saying that I broke their NDA (???) and that she’s already so stressed because the client is in a hurry and I am making her life hell, basically having a complete meltdown. I started sweating bullets and asked her in the politest way I could muster to calm down. To this day, this is the closest I had ever been to just quitting on the spot.
Long story short, the editor ended up fixing the error in a matter of seconds, the client was happy… But my Christmas mood was ruined for a good week afterwards. Needless to say, I quit this LSP a couple of weeks later and blocked that PM on all platforms.
You would think in-house translators have it easier. They don’t…
(Not) Best Policies
I work for a game company and we handle all the localization ourselves. This can be great, but also a nightmare with the right (wrong?) conditions.
There’s this game we were working on that got a content update and had this specific title that we felt didn’t fit in the localization when we finished translating the story, so we decided to change it. Problem is, my company has this method regarding localization of content updates/dlc, etc. that is a bit unorthodox. We get batches with achievements, stage details, items, system messages and the sort BEFORE we get the actual content/story of the update, so we must translate these batches with pretty much no context. This means that we didn’t know by then that the title didn’t fit the update, so it was translated literally/without many changes.
Long story short, to change all instances this old title appeared, I spent at least 3 HOURS in an excel page compiling all of them so that the devs could fix them. 3 hours of painstakingly copying and pasting all the different variations of many achievements and system messages. It kinda made me give up on making any changes like that ever again, which is a shame cause more often than not “first translations” without context can be vastly improved on after playing the game/getting that context.
To sum up: the company doesn’t have the best localization policy, which in turn makes things difficult for translators/directly affects the quality of the localization (shocking, right?)
If there’s one thing no one wants, it’s someone gone rogue. A game is made by a team, and that includes localization. Someone going rogue can potentially lead to disaster.
I joined a team very close to the end of a project during their LQA (localization QA) period. It was a great experience as a translator as I learned a lot of the back-end techniques, including what to do, aaand what not to do.
While playing the game, comparing the text to the script, making sure each string of text was in the game I began to notice something weird. The game had been translated and edited but the English was riddled with weird grammar mistakes.
The strangest thing of all was this random combinations of letters in one of the item descriptions that wasn’t in the original text. Upon further digging me and my colleagues found out this random assortment of letters reference a YouTuber who was a big fan of the series! Upon even more digging, we found out it was the lead project manager, a non-native whose English was high-school level at best, had been “editing” the English without permission and had added this reference to his favorite YouTuber in and was feeding the YouTuber information about the game.
We ended up editing over 1000 strings back into correct English and scouring the game for anything else this person had touched. It took us an extra month to fix his mistakes.
“The client is always right…”, they say, “…in matters of taste.” Which is why it’s sometimes best to leave it to the professionals.
I run a boutique game localization agency and take great pride in the work we do. I was horrified and heartbroken to find a game my team had worked hard on was riddled with errors after release.
How did this happen?! We worked with the client on this localization and they seemed happy with the work!
However, it turned out this client had, without telling us, sent some sections of the work to a “QA” agency who had no knowledge of the context of the work as a whole, and had then introduced mistakes.
To make matters worse, the client had also added some small sections to the text and then used machine translation for this new text. Without thinking about how this flowed with the rest of the text, how it would read to their foreign players, and again, without asking us.
However, the work ultimately went out under our (the original translation team’s) names, making it seem like we’d produced shoddy work. I was mortified.
Dear reader. Don’t forget that the localization team—the translators, editors, localization testers, and project managers—are all part of the team. Their goal is to create a good product for the audience as much as it is yours. So be sure to treat them like part of the team and work together, lest your game turns into a horror story too.
These true horror stories were kindly provided by our community members. Thank you to everyone who contributed.
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