The style guide: three hours to set the pace

A practical example of how it's possible to draft a style guide for a translation project quickly and easily

To illustrate how we prepare our style guides I will use Venetica as an example, a title we translated in 2008 for Jinglebell Communication and who have been so kind to give us the necessary authorizations. Thank you Alessandra and Giorgio!

Here is our style guide. Let’s say we just received a quick mail from the Project Manager telling us that the translation is about the start. "We are preparing the files, will get back to you asap!"

The first 30 minutes

In the past, I would have just waited for official information to arrive.

Not anymore, I learnt that the harsh way.

I really needed some context for a story-driven motorbike title I was working on, made a lot of questions… and none went answered. Frustrated, I turned to Facebook in order to change my mind ( you do too, don’t lie ).

And there was a journalist friend of mine, talking about a recent paid trip to the desert, where he was offered the chance to drive around in motorbikes and PLAY MY GAME.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, kindly remember that even if a developer is giving you a lot of information about a game (and for Venetica we were quite spoiled), it is probably giving just as much (if not more) to the press. And you cannot blame them: press sells the game and you don’t.

Your search doesn’t need to be that sophisticated. Here are just a couple of leads;

-Just type the game title on Google and see if there is already an official website. -Find out the developer’s and publisher’s name and browse their websites. -Look for or (+"Game title" +"press release") even(+"Game title" +"interview") -Text?! This is web 2.0! Let’s check you YouTube (+"Game title" +preview), (+"Game title" +trailer)

-Is somebody willing to show us the whole game? Yes indeed! (+"Game title" +"Let’s play")

Yep, I’m talking about online press. Some will say that this kind of online reference is not official and thus worthless. This may well have been the case in the past, when most of what you would find was either amateur articles or forum posts. Not anymore. Online magazines are increasingly taking the role reserved to their paper counterparts, and can now boast the same level of professionalism and support from publishers. And free motorbike trips with game testing sessions (still burns).

It’s amazing how many quality information you can gather in less than 30 minutes. Sure, we are cheating a bit because our friend Venetica was published a while ago and online content had time to layer on, but in my experience is very rare to find a project that doesn’t provide at least some good leads online.

Looking at what we found, we can file it either as PR (official website, press release, trailer) or as critique and journalism (previews, interviews)

Both are interesting for us. The former shows how the title wants to be seen (think about the trailer, very cinematic with exoticism, action and violence - that last shout still gives me goosebumps) The latter shows how it is seen by the rest of the industry. Sometimes the PR side tends to muddle waters, a good magazine will give you a more balanced view (Similar titles? Strong points? Major player or underdog?)

The best of both words? The interviews. On one side the producers distilling what the game is about with few crystal clear words, on the other journalists grilling them to see beyond the hype.

One hour

Let’s draft what we found in two brief paragraphs.

Story and setting

An evil necromancer was able to trick Death and now strives for universal power. Only the daughter of death, whose existence was a secret until now, has the power to defeat the necromancer and restore the balance. Knowing nothing of her destiny at first, Scarlett has to learn about her special powers and become a mighty warrior, strong enough to defeat the greatest threat to the world of the living. -(We chose a woman character) "to make this story interesting also for girls and that’s why we chose a more believable figure instead of a typical Amazon" -"As the daughter of death, Scarlet is unusual and in addition to this she becomes a tragic but also very powerful figure as a result of the terrible things that happen to her at the beginning of the game" -The game is set in 16th century Venice, based on elements of the real one but twisted to make it more epic, fantastic and unique.

Gameplay

It’s a linear Role Playing Game, where the main character and its story are mostly pre-defined. Comparisons have been made with the Fable series, while other elements (the accent on exploration, the "world of the dead" mechanic) seem to place it together with action-adventure titles like Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver -"A medieval and imaginative Venice is perfectly suited to being the centrepiece of a role play game. There is so much to discover, you can swim through numerous canals, climb onto roofs and descend into dark catacombs…"

-Venetica takes players to the here and now of its fantastic game world, making Scarlett explore Venice’s streets, canals, houses and even the roof tops. As the daughter of Death, she also has the ability to enter the Twilight World: the world of the dead. Here, she communicates with the dead and gets access to a number of unique gameplay elements. To achieve this, Scarlett needs to learn and train for special, supernatural skills and abilities – of which she initially doesn’t even know exist…

-Here and there, the dead help Scarlett to accomplish her missions by giving her hints: There are two ghosts, for example, who help Scarlett to find special items by revealing hidden doors or showing her helpful hints that will allow her to pick locks successfully. Scarlett meets these guys early in the game, when they still are alive. She helps them, but can’t avert that both will be killed later in the game.

-Many additional skills and abilities allow Scarlett to make even more use of the Twilight World, for instance by summoning creatures or by giving her unusual insights in both the worlds of the Living and the Dead. So, the Twilight World offers a full load of innovative gameplay features to Action RPG gamers.

To sum up: we now know that Venetica is set in a medieval Venice BUT with a fantastic twist, that we have a sexy lead character BUT it’s not your standard amazon, that we have RPG elements BUT the accent is mostly on action with a linear story. It may not be perfect, but we have a much clearer idea of the game!

Two hours: General

Yay! The Project Manager wrote and sent us the files to translate! We can now fill & confirm the remaining fields

Before we start, one quick note. One of the best sides of working in a new field like game localization is that everyone has a slightly different approach. Ours stems from a simple remark. A book is like a solo act, where words have to sustain the whole experience. Games are more like an orchestra, where the experience is conveyed by many means, from interaction to visuals, from character postures to music. Some titles told epic stories without using almost no dialogue. Some might even argue that good interaction can craft a good experience without any structured story. That’s why we pay so much attention to the roles of the text: to fit in an orchestra, the first thing you should know is when to let the others play.

Platform: PS3, Xbox360 and PC.

It’s clearly written on the official site and trailer and now it’s confirmed. On the obvious side, we need to keep the official terminology at hand. On the less obvious side, it means that this is a console title at heart, probably aiming for a more generalist audience than, let’s say, a text-only play-by-mail rpg running on linux.

Pegi: 16

That’s an aspect that gets often overlooked, but that has a huge impact on the style that you are allowed to use. We will get into the details in a separate article, but for now let’s keep in mind that we should be free to use the following, if needed.

- Mild swearing and/or offensive language
- Words or activities that amount to obvious sexual innuendo or explicit sexual descriptions or images or sexual posturing
- Glamorisation of crime
- Depictions of the use of illegal drugs
- Encouragement of the use of tobacco or alcohol
- Sexual expletives or blasphemy

But we are not allowed to use the following

- Sexual expletives or blasphemy
- Glamorisation of the use of illegal drugs
- Depictions of sexual violence or threats (including rape)

Format

In-game, Timed subtitles, Manuals / web

In our opinion, all this should be as clear and consistent as humanly possible. Why? Because it’s the skeleton out game stands on. Think about Monopoly. It’s always "Chance" and "Get out of jail free". It doesn’t become a "Fortune" card or "Opportunity" card for variety, nor it takes a funny Mexican accent or makes cheeky remarks about your crimes. This kind of repetitiveness is good, as it makes the message faster and faster to read, until the player can decode it without almost leaving the flow of gameplay. Another example? Think about dice. They are so clear and minimalist that using them becomes second nature. In our opinion, that’s how a good ingame text should feel.

Subtitles.

They can be non-timed or timed.

Non-timed subtitles have become very specific to Japanese games, RPG in particular. There is no real audio, except maybe some funny random gibberish, and the whole dialogue appears as text with the player pressing a button to pass to the following line. It’s the form that gives the most freedom. If the context allows it and the client agrees, you can substantially write down anything you want.

Timed subtitles . Without going into the advanced techniques of movie subtitles (with rules that fix the number of words to the time in seconds they stay on screen) it’s good to keep the translation length around +/- 20% of the original. Not too short or players might wonder what went missing, not too long or they might struggle to read it in time. Remember that the original audio will always be present. Players might get confused if you change the sentence structure too much, and might giggle if you temper with the context in very obvious ways (i.e. translating "fuck off" with "I beg to differ")

Dubbing . On one hand, the limits of the timed subtitles are even more stringent. You should stick to the original structure and strive to stay within +/- 10% of the original length to allow dubbers to match the timing. On the other hand, the flow of the speech becomes much more important. Try to read the text several times until it flows very well. Also, with good actors and a clear character chart with tones and mannerisms you can get amazing results.

Manuals, Web . We are now out of the game and in the field of comments and explanations. While the instruction part should be clear and precise, using the exact terminology for the elements it refers to, the rest can be more free and entertaining, if the source allows it. I even came across some manuals that made good humored fun of the game itself!

Lengh limits: Standard

The client didn’t give us specific length limits, so we’ll try and stay between +/- 20% of the source text in order to get some good subtitles. As a self imposed limit, we are obviously free to depart from it whenever we need, but it’s good to have a guideline. If the limit comes from the client, it’s always better to ask if it is possible to ignore it if it affects quality. If the answer is no, the only solution is to reword or use shortenings.

Three hours: Style and Simplifications

Rules: Standard

Some clients might have specific grammar and style rules. None specified here, so we’ll go with our standard house rules

Legacy: No

Had this been Venetica 2 or 3, we might have had a corpus of legacy translations and terminology to match. We will deal with this in a later article, but free tools make this process very easy. Old in-game text, manuals, websites… anything that can be aligned on an Excel spreadsheet can be reused in a matter of minutes. However, we can still give a look to what similar titles did. More and more games are published online and their manuals can be freely downloaded in both their English and localized versions. For example Steam (the leading PC marketplace) gives us Tomb Raider Underworld in English and Italian, while Xbox LIVE has Fable 2 (EN, IT). Like in this case, this kind of research can be a bit hit and miss and Tomb Rider might be not that relevant, but it doesn’t hurt checking. As a side note, do not align manuals to use them as TM, as this will surely go against copyrights. One thing is studying online documents, another is hoarding them to do derivate works!

Adaptation: No

Some publishers are keen to see the product adapted to the target audience, with local references and even regional accents. No request came in that sense.

Swearing: No If swearing is allowed by the rating, it doesn’t mean that it should be used! By a quick check in the source, no swearing can be found besides the odd "bastard".

Miscellaneous: Try to add some Venice flavour The city of Venice has a powerful imagery throughout the world, but nowhere stronger as in Italy. While developers made it clear this is a fictional version of the city, some effort should be done to use terms that relate to it. Nothing folkloristic, but simply calling the streets "calle" and the districts "sestiere" should be a nice touch for Italian players.

Simplifications

As much as we would like to always work in ideal conditions, with developers ready to answer, lax deadlines and mountains of context, some projects just don’t allow it. In those cases, we prefer a scalable approach, that concentrates time and resources on what is vital and leaves the door open for cosmetic improvements later on.

Query: Yes Sometimes the client is in such a rush that it’s impossible to submit any question. No matter your doubt, you’re on your own. Hardly ideal, but as soon as this is agreed, the translation can be put into "safe mode", using more generic wordings in order to avoid potential issues. (i.e. translating "Kill the enemy" with forms with no clear subject like "Uccidiamo il nemico" or "Uccidere il nemico" so the string can be you for both singular and plural subjects). Luckily, this is not the case here.

Polite forms: No Latin languages, like Italian, have specific verbal forms to be used in formal contexts. To make an example, if a farmer speaks to the Queen (or even a student speaks to a teacher) a separate verbal form should be used. It’s an important stylistic element, and it would be natural to implement it in the translation. However, technical reasons make it very difficult. As games are mostly written in English, the code doesn’t take this into account. As an example, idle chatter, passing comments and such are often put in a common pool and randomly shared across characters. In the example above, the farmer might say the equivalent of "May you Highness have a most delectable evening" in its personal high-register list of strings and then jump to the equivalent of "Yo, what’s up" simply because we switched to the pool of common strings. This without considering the possibility that wrong character names, mixed strings and other common problems push us into the wrong verbal form even in the standard, linear dialogues. So, to sum up, polite forms are a beautiful stylistic effect that requires a lot of attention (or it might fall on its face with blatant mistakes). In this case, we chose not to use them.

Simple past: Yes Again, this relates mostly to Italian. Our language hasn’t got a clearly defined line where present perfect ends and simple past begins. It is mostly subjective and regional. Some switch to simple past five minutes after the event, some others never do. As often dialogues appear in different documents managed by multiple translators, this may lead to random changes of tense.

In this case, we thought the fairy tale tone of the story called for this tense, and chose to use it for all events that happened before the birth of the protagonist.

Differentiate player by gender: No Well, more correctly this is not applicable. In games without a clear avatar (puzzle games, racing titles, musical) dialogue might refer to the player directly. As doing so in latin languages tends to automatically flag the player as a male or female, it might be worth deciding to default to masculine (for Big Jim’s Blast Driver Adventure), feminine (for Barbie’s Pink Dream of Magic) or to carefully craft a neutral version, even if it may lead to some awkward wordings (for Let’s Play Together Family Fun Fun). Games with an avatar could allow you to choose its gender. This is especially common for MMORPG and usually some sort of tagging is in place in order to allow the game to display one version or another based on the gender of the character. Another, more drastic option is for the game to drop the gender choosing option altogether, as I saw in a past project of mine! Venetica game gives you a pre-defined character, a woman called Scarlet, so we can safely go for feminine in dialogues and stay neutral in the interface. And the style guide is over! We are ready to prepare the glossary. For a quick recap, you can browse and download its final version here.


Alain Dellepiane

Alain Dellepiane @gloc247 01 May 2011
Alain is the founder of team GLOC. Want to read more about localization? You should probably try this blog's Best of, which has a dozen of the best articles ready to read. (View all posts by Alain ➜)

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