-“Oh, so you’re a translator! Do you translate novels?” -“No, I specialize in video game translation.” -“Really? Why would videogames need to be translated?” -“Because, you know, not everyone understands English and sometimes they prefer to listen to dialogue in their native language.” -“Dialogue? Are you telling me that videogames SPEAK these days?!”*
This surreal exchange actually happened to me a couple of years ago. Before you ask, the person talking to me was not my grandmother, but a friend of mine in her early thirties. As much as people claim to know everything and anything about videogames, this knowledge normally applies only on a consumer level. Few gamers do much in-depth research into the process by which games are made, and even fewer are curious to investigate localization. When trying to explain to laypeople (including non-gamers) what we do for a living, we encounter all sorts of misconceptions about our line of work. Here are some of the most common ones:
Unfortunately, the answer is an emphatic no. Most of the games we work on are either in the early development stages or not ready to be sent out to be played. Waiting for a game to be completed before we’d start working on its localization would mean several months of delay for European gamers. Remember ten years ago, when people had to wait forever for the latest Final Fantasy to hit Europe? I do. And I was not happy about it. So, in order for publishers to avoid an unhappy consumer base, they work with localization groups to ensure that games are released as close to a simultaneous worldwide launch as possible. As a result, we work on games that we’ve neither seen nor played. We generally avoid playing them once they’re released, because, unfortunately, we know every single plot twist by heart and the surprise has already been spoiled.
(Unless we specifically want to see how the translation meshed with the game, but that’s really not playing anymore!)
Would you put your car in cruise control and take a nap while it drives? Or would you use text-to-speech software to propose to your significant other? These are great tools that can help people in their everyday tasks, but cannot actually replace the nuances of human-steered work. Just as you don’t read novels or sign legal documents that were translated through Google Translate or any other automated translation software, you wouldn’t want to play games that sound artificial to your ears and lack the idiomatic expressions you use in your daily communication. Not to mention those cases where characters and situations need a certain “flavor” to work well — be it a Medieval setting, a sci-fi one, or a criminal subtext.
Though it may initially seem unnatural and unnecessarily complicated, most Japanese games are first translated into English, then this English version is localized into European languages. Japanese-to-Italian professional translators are not nearly as common as English-to-Italian ones and usually charge higher fees. As localization is done earlier and earlier in the development stages of a videogame, capitalizing on the English translation is easier, cheaper and doesn’t slow down the release date in multilingual Europe. Additionally, working on text that has already been “Westernized” allows for a better comprehension and faster turnarounds, since English is a second language for most European business professionals. The flow from an English translation that can be used throughout the vast North American market to Europe is much more streamlined than using translators directly from Japanese.
(In recent years, we did manage a few Japanese to Italian translations, monitoring and guiding experts in that language pair - but volumes are still microscopic compared to EN-IT)
Were the foreign-language translators of films like Taxi Driver , A Clockwork Orange , or American Psycho morally shaken by the content of those films? Probably not; they were just doing their job. Just like there are several genres of movies, there are also several genres of videogames. Our duty as localization professionals is not to judge or censor them, but to translate them to the best of our abilities. We may dislike or disagree with some of the content (or possibly enjoy them, based on the translator’s personal preferences), but we have a professional obligation to give 100% and leave the target audience satisfied with our work. Thanks to the excellent job done by rating boards such as ESRB and PEGI, we don’t have to worry about shielding young gamers from violence and we can focus instead on providing the most appropriate language for the genre we’re working on.