10 main challenges of video game localization

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If you like the video game industry, translating computer games might be your dream. However not everything is as easy as it seems. Today I would like to talk about ten serious challenges in the video game localization process. These can help you get started, and even if you’re a seasoned localizer, you might also find something new (or funny — Vova). I placed these from 10 to 1. Not sure if that’s from the most to the least important. So here we go!

Challenges of video game localization:

  • 10. Always follow your target language intonation

  • 9. Quotes are nasty

  • 8. Swearing is different in every language

  • 7. HTML

  • 6. Placeholders

  • 5. Slang

  • 4. You

  • 3. Brevity

  • 2. Transcreate!

  • 1. Play!

10. Always follow your target language intonation

Do not blindly translate the user interface, especially the instructions. Europeans for example are sweet. And Americans are sweet. And Canadians. They say: "Please remove the disk", "please push the button." But Russian native speakers are grumpy! We never say please unless we really like you. Personally. So in Russian localization there must NOT be those “pleases” from English in the translated text. Just "Push the button." Period. I’m sure your native language also has some differences from English. Unless you’re English, of course. Always note that when localizing, you should localize it for YOUR people, so they would feel it’s their buddy from the neighborhood speaking, not some American (or whatever your source language is).

9. Quotes are nasty

For example, this one, from Shakespeare: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." And I’ll tell you what, there’s no exact analogue of this quote in Russian. If some character at some point says something VERY VERY STRANGE, 99% it’s a quote. Some popular quote. So don’t ruin it. If you run into such thing, first — Google its official translation. Second — consider replacing it with some relevant analogue in your target language.

8. Swearing is different in every language

Different words, different meaning, different MESSAGE. You see? For example Russian language is much more expressive than English. So is the Russian "swearing language." A Russian translator can’t normally translate the word F@#K literally. In English it’s simple — f@#k this, f@#k that, I’m bored, f@#k that. But a Russian native speaker won’t say the same way because it will sound much more expressive. Because this word itself is much more expressive in Russian. Like, oh, we’re totally f@#ked — that’s how it will sound in Russian. Besides it’s strictly forbidden in most places here — don’t forget about your local legislation, too. So use common sense and translate responsibly — the MESSAGE that your character means, not the words itself.


If you are a localizer, you should seriously consider learning some programming languages. No, seriously. At least the HTML mark-up. HTML is simple, honestly. Of course the customer has their own specialists, and it’s their work to do the programming thing. But there are different situations, and if you can fix some missing or corrupted piece of simple code in case someone up there screws up, the customer will see that you can provide a service of high quality. So remember this.

6. Placeholders

Placeholders are actually small pieces of code that are later replaced by some text. They usually look like this: %s, %1$@, but may also look like capitalized words or however else. These should never be translated or altered in any way. If you change or even delete them, then the app, game or website is probably in big trouble. Placeholders are especially hardcore in Russian, German, and the like, which have a large number of cases. Nominative, Genitive, Dative… German has 4. Russian has 6! And you must always build the phrase to include the placeholder's value in the Nominative case. Woo-hoo, extra challenge! Unfortunately, it’s never extra-paid.

5. Slang

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How many of the words above you know in the context of gaming? They're from DOTA, an e-sports tournament game. With multimillion dollar rewards. I once translated and localized articles for a game like this. My editor said: no issues grammatically, but I have honestly no idea what this is all about. You — MUST have an idea. And you must also know which of these terms have a translation in your target language, and which are used as-is (which happens more often).

4. You

If your language has a polite form of address (like in Russian or French, for example), the user must always be addressed to politely. In your opinion, gamers may be childish and stuff, but it doesn't mean they want to be treated like children (unless they are, of course). (Of course this is not about what characters say, it’s just about user interface, instructions, notifications, manuals and so on.)

3. Brevity

"Brevity is the sister of talent" is a Russian proverb, and as you will see, it’s perfectly true in case of video and mobile games. Always remember that the screen and the message boxes are usually small, so keep your translation as short as possible. Without unneeded abbreviations (unless the client has explicitly asked you to), but — as short as possible.

2. Transcreate!

I once translated and localized a videogame, and the game developers introduced a character called a Broken Doll. But I translated that as Forgotten Doll. Because, in Russian, "broken doll" translates as “Slomannaya kukla," and "forgotten doll" — as “zabytaya kukla." The localized version sounds shorter, more dramatical, and more like the horror movie reference (which it actually was). In the end, it turned out she was actually forgotten (storywise), so it was a bullseye.

But some fans that considered themselves cool translators started spamming the community manager about why it was "forgotten," when in English it was "broken"? And that’s why they’re not good translators, but we are. Never translate. Transcreate! This is not a technical instruction, you are not supposed to keep every word intact. You should localize the game so it sounds like it never were in English (or whatever your source language was). And if you need to change some words, do so.

1. Play!

Just be a gamer. If you think “there can be nothing difficult in localizing video games” — you’re wrong. Today, video games are natural works of art, like books or paintings (and a lot of times even better). You can’t translate steam turbine manuals without actually being an engineer. And likewise you just can’t localize games if you are not a gamer. I once had an editor who was much more experienced than myself. But when our agency received a game to translate, and I sent my translation, she fixed my translation of "hit points," which basically means the character's health, as something like "precision attacks." The point is — be a gamer, play games, love games, and I’m sure you will be a great and well-paid localizer one day!

Do you have your own game localization tips to share? Let us know in the comments!