Hundreds of new video games are created every year, but unfortunately, most are made by developers who speak a language you don’t. That means unless you learn Japanese, French, Mandarin, and a dozen other languages, you’ll miss out on thousands of awesome game experiences in your lifetime.
That is, unless the developers translate their game into a language you understand, using a painstaking process called localization.
Before the 1990s, if you didn’t speak the language, you simply couldn’t play the game. Some players learned a second language like Japanese, solely so they could play rare unofficial imports. Others took matters into their own hands and made “fan translations” to distribute to other players using dial-in bulletin-board systems (BBS).
Fortunately, game localization has become so affordable that publishers release each game in multiple languages so players around the world can enjoy their creations.
Today I’m speaking with Damien Yoccoz, the founder of Level Up Translation in Basse-Normandie, France. He explains what a translator does, how he got started in the job, and what it takes to succeed as a game localizer.
What do you do each day as a Video Game Translator?
My job as a game translator consists of transposing the original experience of a game into my native language, that is, French. I spend my day typing, researching, thinking a lot, drinking liters of tea and answering e-mails.
I’m also the founder and manager of a multilingual team of professional video game translators, Level Up Translation, which basically doubles the amount of tasks listed above. 🙂
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How did you become a Game Translator and Localizer?
I played video games for the first time when I was four years old (ah, sweet memories of Power Strike, Psycho Fox and Sonic on SEGA Master System), and they pretty much defined my whole professional life.
They also played a major role in my learning of English (along with Metallica!), which might be worth noting for aspiring translators. Localization was indeed not as important in the late 1990s and early 2000s as it is today, and many games just had subtitles, even menus, in English only. Playing them taught me a lot of vocabulary and basically helped me speak English at a more advanced level than what school required from me.
As a result, I followed some English studies at university and took my first steps in the business in 2008 with an internship as a junior editor for the biggest French video games website, jeuxvideo.com, where I was a junior editor on their editorial staff. My job was to upload whole catalogues of retro games (I picked SEGA consoles) to their database, which meant taking screenshots, writing game descriptions and mining information in English for many of them. Basically, good linguistic skills and a good command of English were needed for this job. I will never be able to thank those guys enough for giving me that opportunity as it was really the door opener to my career.
How did you transition from being an editor, to being a game translator?
My translation experience at jeuxvideo.com was enough to land me a position as a game localization QA tester in Québec in 2009, where I worked for a year and a half. Those were truly memorable times, during which I learnt a lot, met really great people from all over the world and got the chance to further develop my linguistic skills as well as a good sense of methodology. Seeing my name in the credits for the first time was also quite something!
After a six-month pause as a horse-riding guide (my second passion after video games), I moved to Malaga, Spain, from almost one day to the other to fill a localization tester position left vacant by a former colleague from Québec. The job was initially for five weeks, but my experience and the methodology I brought to the company allowed me to work there for another good year.
Your localization career has taken you around the world!
Yes! In 2011, I moved to Frankfurt, Germany to fill a similar position at another company that worked exclusively with Nintendo, so the linguistic skills and experience required there were much higher. I started developing the idea of starting a career as a translator around that time and took the leap to become a full-time translator in early 2012.
I sent my application to a French localization agency and passed their test. My first assignment was nothing less than 40,000 words for a MMORPG, which is considered a pretty big task even for a seasoned translator!
The first year was the hardest though. Only 30-40% of my projects were video games-related. It takes a lot of time to develop a network, take translation tests and receive projects, even when you have experience in this domain.
Through constant search for new clients (agencies open and close every day), delivering quality work (some agencies care more than others about that though) and offering great flexibility, I was able to work on countless indie and triple-A projects, and translated nearly two million words in six years.
The next step was the creation of Level Up Translation with a team of trusted seasoned video game translators committed to delivering high-quality game localization. I still work as a translator for my company, but I also handle project management.
What do you love most about the job?
I love my job because it never really gets boring. Every project is different and has its own features that will require a specific treatment, tone and style. Of course, some projects are more interesting than others. Games that leave more room for creativity (fantasy, sci-fi, MMOs) are great fun to work on.
Conveying the meaning and feeling of terms created especially for the world of a game into another language is not an easy task at all, but it’s exhilarating when you nail it. Plus there’s the whole research coming with it that’s always very instructive (and distracting, damn you Wikipedia), so you’re constantly learning.
It’s a young, dynamic and passionate industry where many work processes still have to be developed or improved. You also get to meet truly passionate people, be they translators or indie game developers, when you get the chance to work directly with them. When everyone’s tending towards excellence, there’s some positive emulation that’s really motivating.
What parts of the job aren’t so fun?
My least favorite part of the job is definitely the way some agencies and big publishers treat translators, and the ridiculous rates they offer. It’s okay to work for lower rates when you’re just starting and still have much to learn to deliver excellent work, but as long as experienced translators will accept work for peanuts, there’s no reason agencies would offer more, and that is plain wrong. (0.04EUR per word is not an acceptable rate, no matter the language pair and the experience.)
One thing that’s actually quite crazy about this business is that most agencies tell translators how much they want to pay them. I mean, do you go to the bakery and tell the baker how much you will pay for his bread?! So my advice to future translators is to stand their ground, explain what your rates stand for: experience, quality, flexibility, and specialization, but also all the expenses such as the computer assisted translation (CAT) tools, taxes, and the inherent insecurity of a freelancing job. Never work for peanuts, because it’s bad for everyone. It’s not always easy to keep calm when you receive such indecent offers though. 🙂
Too many agencies also pitch translation jobs with super tight deadlines, and without proper guidelines or the assurance that they’ll answer any questions that arise during translation. Logging queries takes a lot of time, and it’s really frustrating when they don’t respond with answers to your questions that are absolutely necessary to produce accurate translations.
Is that why you started your own company?
It’s precisely that race to the bottom in time and cost that actually led me to create something different with Level Up Translation. I believe in fair rates, reasonable deadlines, and an active participation from the studio to answer translators’ queries and provide reference material. Those are absolutely key in order to deliver high-quality translations. In the end, it’s a win-win for everyone: our translators get the best conditions to produce a great job, which the studio and ultimately gamers will appreciate.
What about the job would people find surprising?
Apart from the possibility to work in pajamas all day when you’re a freelancer, which can admittedly be quite surprising, I think most people think translators can get their hands on the unreleased games as they translate, but nine out of ten times they can’t.
The reason for this is that most games are localized while they are still in development. There’s also the confidentiality issue that’s central in this business. Some developers are reluctant to give too much information about their game, especially when it’s a major title.
Indie studios are much more flexible with this point and some offer context and details to familiarize the localizer with their games. Very few studios though have the budget for a complete a playthrough before starting the translation, which would be the ideal way to proceed.
That’s why translators need as much reference material as possible and answers to their questions. Without context, all your base are belong to us!
What does it take to succeed as a game translator or localizer?
Game localization is fun, but it’s not for everyone. It’s a highly specialized job and even though loving games is a good start, it’s not enough at all. You need to have an interest in all genres, and have a great knowledge of their jargon. It’s an industry that evolves quickly and there’s always new technology or gameplay features that you need to be aware of in order to translate them accurately.
Speaking two languages doesn’t make you a translator any more than having two hands makes you a pianist. In addition to great proficiency in English and Japanese (the main source languages), you also need an absolutely perfect command of your native language as well as a great knowledge of both the culture you’re localizing the game from and the culture you’re localizing it for.
Translating games requires some methodology too. Being a careful proofreader with an eye for detail, sticking to guidelines and deadlines, and always double-checking in case of doubt, are essential.
If you go freelance, then being a fast typer, having your software at your fingertips, being flexible, self-critical and having a team spirit will help greatly. There’s also the pressure that comes with being a freelancer, such as having to manage your invoicing and tax declarations, paying for CAT tools, and dealing with the job’s insecurity (which you can mitigate if you manage your activity like a professional). So you should really think it through before taking the leap. If this is too much to handle, then maybe consider an in-house position.
What advice would you give to someone considering game localization as a career?
The good news is that there are many ways to get into game localization.
You can start with building yourself a portfolio related to games and languages. Doing fan translations, helping indie devs with no budget for localization, blogging about game localization, following webinars and taking online courses about localization are good ways to cut your teeth.
You can look for an entry-level position with a game developer or a localization testing company and climb the ladder from within.
There’s also LocJAM, a game translation contest open to both professionals and amateurs. The competition is sponsored by some major localization companies and offers great hands-on experience, even if you don’t win the contest.
Attending conventions and conferences to network with developers may give you an opportunity to work on the localization of their game.
Ultimately, send applications to localization agencies or studios who are looking for in-house translators and take their tests. Quality standards vary greatly from one company to another, so don’t be afraid to knock at many doors and try again.
What would you recommend for education to start down this career path?
Studying languages is the most obvious way in, but any game design studies can lead you there if you have the right language skills.
Some universities are also starting to offer game localization courses. There’s a great introduction to video game localization on Udemy. We recently wrote a guide How to Become a Game Translator on our blog that also contains various posts dedicated to video game localization best practices.
As to books, there are not many on that topic and some are getting a little outdated, but they can still give some insight:
- The Game Localization Handbook by Heather Maxwell Chandler
- Translation and Localisation in Video Games: Making Entertainment Software Global by Miguel A. Bernal-Merino
My favourite speaker on the topic is former IGDA executive director Kate Edwards. Any speech she delivered on game localization is invaluable.