Finding My Way Through Game Translation: Karma, Rules, and Irony
by Jason Franzman
Good Karma Strikes (for Once)
My initiation into game translation was a bit of luck, perhaps accompanied by some good karma. In the early 90's, I helped a friend get a position at the translation company in Japan where I was working. I left a couple of years later to pursue my freelance translation career, and he also left some time later to work in the video game industry. We both eventually ended up back in our hometown of Los Angeles; I was still working freelance, and he was working at a Los Angeles-based game company.
One day my friend called to ask if I would be interested in translating a Japanese game to which his company had bought the rights. Call it luck, good karma, or anything you want, but I was excited at the opportunity to break the monotony of translating a seemingly endless stream of computer hardware and software manuals. The subject matter was fun, plus I even got paid to play the game and had my name added to the credits.
Fun? Yep! Easy? Not Even!
So my initiation to the world of game translation began. It was a learning experience, to say the least. I had always enjoyed playing video games, so tasks such as coming up with the right terms to use for the user interface and on-screen messages were relatively easy. For me, the most challenging but still quite enjoyable part of game translation was writing dialogue that sounds natural to a native English speaker's ear.
Over time, I have come up with a number of rules to help me write better dialogue and maintain translation quality. They are all pretty basic and will not be news to other experienced game translators, but I will go over them here, in case they might help those new to the business. Except for the first rule, I have not listed them in any particular order of importance.
The first, which I dub the golden rule, is translating the meaning, not what the text says word for word. Of course, this applies to all professional-level translation. My goal is to produce such natural-sounding translations that players will not even notice they are translations in the first place. One helpful technique is to actually speak dialogue out loud. I think (or at least hope) that my family has gotten used to me staring at my computer and muttering strange lines about magic swords and slaying strange beasts.
The second rule is to ask the client to provide a copy of the game so I can play through it to gain a deeper understanding of the user interface, game controls, characters, and story. This is extremely important for producing a good translation. If the client agrees to pay me to play the game and there is enough time in the schedule, I try to make it through the entire game. Since time is almost always of the essence in our industry, it is important to get the game's strategy guide, and if possible, cheat codes to ensure that I spend more time progressing through the game than looking for that elusive crucial item or fighting that seemingly impossible boss.
The third rule is consistency. Whether it is the unique terms I invent for a game or the way each character speaks, I make every effort to ensure consistency throughout the game. This also goes for maintaining the consistency of terms throughout a series of games. If you are translating a new installment of a series, ask the client to provide all the text from the previous games, so you can use the same terms found there. Good clients will do this automatically, but do not be afraid to ask if they do not. Also, do not be shy about pointing out poorly translated terms from previous games, or you will condemned to using them in your own work.
Show Me the Money
My pet peeve about the game translation industry is the relatively low rates despite the high-profile nature of the product. I could understand how a technical manual translation that will never make it past the eyes of a few Stateside engineers would go for a rate of seven or so yen per word, but not a mass-market product like a video game. Yet the rates for the two types of translation are almost identical. Also, the amount of creative thinking that goes into game translation makes it a slower process than translating your run-of-the-mill software manual. But hey, if I can translate something fun once in a while, I'll take a hit on my productivity.
Of course, when I say low rates, I am talking about agency rates rather than direct client rates. I have found that game companies prefer to channel their translations through agencies, probably due to the extra layer of editing and expertise that competent game-translation agencies add to the mix. As a result, I have not been able to get my foot in the door with respect to direct clients. I'd like to share an amusing story about this.
A couple of years ago, a certain major Japanese game company--which will remain nameless--contacted me to see if we could collaborate on a project that would demand my full attention for many months. They had seen my profile on the JAT Web site (thank you JAT!) and were interested in me because of my background in game translation. After a number of e-mail exchanges, they offered to fly me to Japan for a test and interview, but due to my schedule at the time, that was just not possible. They then asked if I would go for an interview and take a translation test at their LA office instead. I wisely inquired whether we could discuss compensation first, before we took up any more of each other's valuable time. (After many time-consuming disappointments, I learned early on that this is an important step.) They said that was a good idea, so I proceeded to craft a message detailing my desired compensation based on my monthly translation receipts over the past few years. Off the message went, and then came utter silence. A bad case of sticker shock perhaps? In any case, I never heard from them again.
I have since learned from several sources, including a former employee, that the company is notoriously cheap, and turnover there exceedingly high. This shows in the translation quality of some of their games. Despite their rude treatment, I actually ended up working for the company, albeit indirectly. One of my clients, a translation agency, called to say that there was a massive one-million character translation job coming up for the third installment of a popular game series, but I would first have to take a translation test for the end client. Well, to my surprise, the end client ended up being the same notoriously cheap game company! To make a long story short, I got the job and ended up earning more per month than I would have working directly for them at the rate I had quoted! Even more ironic was the fact that they must have ended up paying the translation agency many times more than what they refused to pay me! Ah, the irony of them ending up "paying" for their rudeness was as sweet to me as the evening scent of jasmine wafting through my window as I played and translated their game on those warm summer nights. I guess you could say it was sweet irony for me, bad karma for them.
It is indeed satisfying to know that you have done the best job you could on a translation that has a potential audience in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. It is even better when you get a direct client who will put your name in the game credits! Except for some luck in my early days of game translation, direct clients have not been in the picture for me, unfortunately. Still, I hope to continue adding more games to the "translated-by-me" list, whether from direct clients or agencies. Game translation is a challenging, time-consuming field that seems to me to be greatly underpaid, but hey, someone has to do it, and it might as well be me!