Professional Localization For Your Game

Expand your mobile game business to PC and web to reach new players.

What Options Do I Have?

So, you have a game and are getting ready to publish it. There are a lot of necessary steps you can perform yourself, but there’s one thing you’ll definitely need assistance with: localization. There are several different approaches you may consider; they all have different estimated quality, speed, cost, and level of your involvement. Read on to learn more about each.

Free Translations

This is an option many indie developers rely on—with varying results. If you’re releasing your game strictly on PC and are confident it will quickly become popular (or you can’t afford other options), you might trust your community to solve this problem for you. Alternatively, there are communities of semi- and fully professional translators working with games as a hobby. One way or another, it’s possible to find skilled people who will translate your game into other languages for free.

Even though this approach has been successful for many projects, you’re guaranteed neither quality, nor speed, nor — let’s be honest — even completion at all. There are a few tricks to enhance this process, which we plan to examine in a future article.

Freelancers

If you want professional localization and you feel like you have the resources to manage the process yourself, you may want to try working directly with freelancers. This will potentially be cheaper than working with agencies but will also put greater pressure on you. You will need to find and evaluate at least one translator and one editor for each language, control the workflow and deadlines, and handle the paperwork and payments.

We’ve summarized this process below so you can understand the scope of it.

  • Finding freelancers is a relatively simple job. You will need at least one translator and one editor (more on this later), and, potentially, “second choice” replacements in case something happens to your first choices.
  • Vetting translators for a language you don’t speak is much less straightforward. You will need to find people who can objectively evaluate either your candidates’ portfolios or their test tasks. Peer review is the best option here.
  • Coordinating the workflow. It’s up to you to make sure everything goes smoothly. That means the translators must receive the latest source, the editors must receive the translators’ work for review, new batches need to be merged properly and sent out to the correct people, everyone must meet the deadline, etc. This can quickly become a full-time job even for a modestly sized project.

Single-Language Studios

To make things simpler for you, you can employ single-language studios — known in the localization community as SLVs. The benefit to this is that having chosen a reputable local studio, you’re dealing with translators and editors that have been tested and vetted, and you now have a localization manager to assist you with — or, most likely, completely take over — project coordination. You will still be unable to completely remove yourself from the process, though, as you will still be needed for clarifications or technical tasks like supporting new fonts or augmenting your UI to fit longer words and sentences.

The downside is that now you’re not only paying the translators’ rates, but also the managers’ and the companies’ profits, while still having to be actively involved in coordination.

On a positive note, you can expect that people who professionally translate video games into their native language will have much to say about the nuances of said language, where technical aspects of localization are concerned. If you intend to localize your game in only a few languages for the most important regions, this might be a good way to ensure good quality.

That said, very few publishers and developers can afford to dedicate a considerable amount of time and effort to the localization workflow, especially in the months preceding the release. This is why the most popular choice is to employ an MLV studio (see below). The rest of this article should answer your questions and ease your suspicions when dealing with these entities.

Multiple-Language Vendors

Overview

Multiple-Language Vendors (MLVs), or “internationalization” studios, are companies that aim to be your one-stop-shop. They cover a wide variety of languages, either by employing in-house staff, contracting freelancers, or subcontracting languages to other single-language and regional studios (or, usually, by a mix of all three).

While “I want you to translate my game” sounds simple enough, this process consists of several services and involves several groups of professionals. Most MLV studios also provide additional services and have other specialists, aside from translators and editors, who can help you out with fonts (in case you’ve chosen a font that doesn’t support Cyrillic or certain European alphabets), have their own recording studio and talent pool for dubbing and voice-overs, and have artists for localizing text included as images, in-game textures, etc.

While some quality control is usually included, you will often have an option to request additional LQA (Language Quality Assurance) by either the studio’s own QA staff or a partner/subcontractor.

Note: To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to MLVs only; single-language studios often have local partners and extra staff to handle tasks beyond simple localization.

The obvious positive factor to this is that a single entity is responsible for the entire process. You will come to appreciate this, especially if your game is still under development and you’re localizing your content in batches, regularly having to send out new and changed texts, and other resources.

The pros are counterbalanced by the cost. To be able to meet all your needs, multiple-language studios generally subcontract a lot of their workload, if not all of it. This means that you’re indirectly paying the rates of single-language studios or freelancers at a markup, plus the manager’s salary.

And while the MLV might enjoy a bulk discount with their subcontractors or be able to haggle lower rates out of the freelancers, you should still expect to pay more (or at least no less) than you would with any of the previous options. To be able to make an informed choice, you need to know more about who/what you’re dealing with and what you should expect from localization companies.

Taking Care of Your Texts

The complete process of localizing texts is referenced in professional circles as TEP, which stands for Translation — Editing — Proofreading.

  • The translation phase is just that: your source text is translated by a single person or a team into the target language(s). For the purposes of estimating the delivery schedule, you can expect this process to go no slower than one thousand words per person per working day.
  • The translation is then reviewed by an editor. At this point, all kinds of issues are being fixed — translation mistakes, continuity/consistency problems, rough style, etc. This process begins after the translators have delivered all or part of their work, and is understandably faster.
  • After the text is reviewed and improved, the proofreader makes sure there are no spelling mistakes, typos, punctuation marks out of place, etc. Sometimes this is done by the editor (or even by the translator) by taking a fresh look at the texts and running spell check functions in the translation software.

The bulk of your final bill will be covering TEP for the languages you requested. Keep in mind that every language is priced differently: less common European languages (e.g. Swedish, Finnish) may cost you twice as much as more popular languages (e.g. Russian). Companies may provide you with rates for each individual step, but more commonly, the rates are aggregated into one cost. Even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean that you can’t negotiate a review only for texts which were translated earlier by someone else. This comes in handy in different situations, like in case you changed localization companies during the development cycle, or want to revisit the quality of an earlier game before releasing a sequel.

Management and Communication

As mentioned before, one of the great upsides of using a single vendor for your localization needs is that other people will oversee the entire process.

In the early stages, you should expect to have a manager assigned to your project or company. Certain companies may handle this differently than others. Some will have a separate account manager for legal and financial questions, and another project manager to take care of the actual localization, while others will combine the two; sometimes an actual translator or editor may be your team or project lead.

The potential red flags are being redirected from person to person and having to proactively take care of team communication. If you feel like you need to force answers and actions out of your vendor, then the company probably isn’t very interested in your business, and next time you may want to take it elsewhere.

The manager will take care of coordination and communication related to job assignments, workflows, deadlines, and deliveries, but that’s not everything. It goes without saying that work-related communication within a team is crucial, especially if your project is on the more difficult side and you’re striving for high-quality localization (as you should).      

The team, as we explained above, will consist of at least 2 people per language, and potentially a team lead (or several). They will need to contact you for clarifications and potential changes along the way, so be sure to establish a system for handling team queries, requests, and feedback early on and make sure it’s reasonably quick. A Slack space for you, the manager, and the leading translators for each language is a good option; a cloud-hosted document where people can write their questions and read your answers later is also reasonable. Some companies may have their own solutions that they can share with you, like Q&A engines or work chats. Avoid things like Word documents passed by email via a manager as version control becomes an issue.

Remember, you must be ready for active communication during the localization process. If we had to pick the most important factor which affects quality and depends on you, it’s being there for the translators’ questions.

Smoke Tests, LQA, and Corrections

Of course, you would like to make sure the translation is top-notch. The editors (hopefully) took care of the text to the best of their abilities, and now it’s a question of whether the text appears in your game the way it should, and various words and phrases match their intended context. Unsurprisingly, this calls for Language Quality Assurance or, simply put, language testing.

LQA is less lengthy than full functional testing of your game, but still takes time and effort. As such, you shouldn’t expect it to be a free service on top of TEP. Generally speaking, you might even choose one vendor for localization and a different one for testing purposes, but often the company which you approach for localization will either offer to take care of LQA for an additional cost, or suggest a reliable partner.

That said, some companies, and even some language teams within companies, have such a high level of professional integrity that they agree to provide brief testing of your game (for free or for a symbolic amount) to make sure there are no glaring mistakes, obvious technical issues, etc. This brief testing (known in the QA business as “smoke testing”) is something you should be ready for. Even if you don’t intend to order full LQA, it will be in your best interest to make copies of your localized game available to the teams and also prepare some testing tools in advance. (Testing tools might include saves at different points in the game, profiles with all achievements and all content unlocked, cheat codes, etc.).

However you decide to go about language testing — do it yourself, entrust it to your fans, or contract another company — there is one thing that is absolutely essential to maintaining quality: the corrections based on testing results are to be considered and implemented by the original language teams, preferably by the editors.

Talk to your localization company’s manager about this and make sure you’re both on the same page about how, when, and by whom the corrections are going to be implemented. It may be a free service (or rather, included in the editor’s rates), but the company might bill you for additional time spent on the project — especially if, for example, you were unable to provide UI layouts for your game before the work had started, and now have to change a few lines to fit in your boxes and panels.

Localization Troubleshooting

Speaking of UI, most MLV companies have at least one person who is proficient in adapting the game for multiple languages. This may include UI layouts, fonts, keyboard input, procedurally generated strings, etc. This is especially important if your native language is English, since pretty much every other popular language is more complicated in some crucial aspects. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance with this — and as early as possible. Remember, changing texts later on means having to pay again.

Additionally, most companies (officially or otherwise) have localization engineers among their staff. These are tech-savvy people — occasionally scripters, but almost always experts in file formats, encodings, and localization processes — whose job is to transmute whatever file formats and text structures you bring in for translation into the formats and structures accepted by translation software.

If your game is in the early stages of development, or you feel that you have the resources to improve the way your texts are organized (exported for translation, imported, merged, stored, sorted, etc.), you might be interested in having a conversation with such a specialist — removing technical hurdles benefits all and improves the speed and, at least indirectly, the quality of work. Otherwise, you can count on your vendor’s localization engineers who, unless you deliver your texts in some absurd way, will be able to find a way to make everything work. However, each exchange might (and most likely will) take some additional time to process.

Tasks For Working With Studios

In this section, we’ll go through some things you will need to take care of during your early encounters with the studio. Some of them sound painfully obvious yet are still occasionally missed. Most likely, your potential vendor will take initiative, but, nevertheless, it’s up to you to make sure you get what you’ll be paying for.

Size and Scope

The localization company should (among their first questions for you) inquire about the scope of work needed. If they don’t, it’s in your best interest to provide information about the following:

  • The total amount of words (ideally, in a structured way, i.e. dialogues — X words; ingame — Y words; high-quality stylized literature — Z words, etc.). This will directly affect your expenses and will help the studio with internal scheduling. No localization process should begin before those numbers are out in the open.
  • Voice recording (if applicable). Translating text for future recording requires a different approach. If you make this decision halfway into the project, there’s a very high probability the translators will need to revisit already completed texts — at your expense.
  • Asset localization. Do you have texts inside your textures? Fonts needing additional glyphs? This will have to be taken care of at some point, and it’s better to know this in advance. Even if your MLV doesn’t have their own specialists, the company will most likely have (or quickly find) people they can subcontract this task to. After all, you’re already paying extra, so managing that process is someone else’s job.

Note: If a company seems eager to sign the contract and begin working on your game before you’ve even shared basic information with them, it may be a troubling sign. Perhaps they are just confident enough in the resources and the abilities of their teams, but you should still look closely at their work history and general credentials.  

Rates

Obviously, you want clarity about the money you’re going to pay for the job. This includes how much you’re paying per word for each language, as well as how much any additional work is going to cost you per hour, for each texture or font, etc. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Initial TEP rates are per-word, but this doesn’t mean a 15,000-word game is going to cost you exactly 15,000 x N (the number of words), which leads us to the next point:
  • Discounted repetitions. Many companies provide lower rates for segments which are either repeated completely, or very similar to one another (called “high match” among localization professionals). In this case, if you change a single word in a paragraph, or add a missing comma in a dialogue line, you won’t have to pay full price for it. Note that copying already-translated segments, especially words or UI strings, is bad practice. Even if you’re using the same source text in the same context, it may not be the case in other languages, so let the professionals take a look at it.
  • When it comes to per-hour, per-object, or fixed rates for additional work, make sure both you and your vendor are aware of all the tasks you’ve got planned and the cost of each of them.

Note: Some exceptionally difficult texts — like poetry, alliteration, or texts with secret ciphers in them — may be billed on a per-hour basis or a flat rate.

After you finish this part of negotiations with your vendor, you should have a rough idea of how much you’re about to spend. Still, be wary of scope creep!

Schedules

The first important timeline is your source delivery schedule. If your game is being actively developed, you may not have all the texts ready at the very beginning. Discuss in advance when you intend to return with another batch of text for localization, or additional content needing translation, like promotional trailers, your store page, or forum announcements.

Project coordinators will really appreciate being able to manage studio workload, and you can expect that, in case of scheduling conflicts, your early heads-up will turn the odds in your favor over an unexpected request.

Second is the delivery schedule for localized resources. Being understanding and accommodating is good, but so is having the job done on time. Make sure to establish deadlines for completion of each batch and task, even if you’re in no hurry to receive the results. Make the deadlines as comfortable as you can, but keep an eye on how your vendor keeps them; if the deliveries are late when you can afford it, there’s no guarantee they’ll be on time when you can’t.

Note: Once you have at least a preliminary understanding of the exchange, you can plan to build partially localized versions of your game for early testing. Don’t forget to add some QA to your schedule — at least on your end!

Style Sheet

An important document, which essentially kicks off the localization process, is a “style sheet”. This is a brief description of your project with all its properties which may influence the translators’ work. Many companies have their own templates for this, but, as a rule, you will need to set up some text-related guidelines.

  • The platforms you intend to release your game on. This will affect some platform-specific terms. Believe it or not, “profile” or “controller” may be translated differently, depending on whether the game is being played on Xbox or PlayStation. Expect translators to reach out to you if they can’t translate certain platform-specific terms until you’ve added different fields for each platform.
  • Your target age rating and its strictness. Maybe you intend to release a hard copy and need a PEGI rating, or maybe you just have a target audience in mind and as such have a preference for the kind of language used.
  • Legacy. If your game is a new installment in a series or is somehow linked to existing IPs, it would be wise to inform the teams in advance or even provide them with existing translations for other related work.
  • Peculiarities. If you have some specific style of writing in your game, or your characters speak in a certain way, or your game deals with a specific area of knowledge, bringing this to attention early will not only help the teams with translating your texts, but also with picking the right people for the job.
  • Player and character genders and the way your game handles it. This may sound strange to some native English speakers, but many languages have grammar distinctions, and cannot use the same word forms when describing male and female characters. There are workarounds (essentially, rewriting the texts in a more gender-neutral form), but be prepared for the localization teams to approach you with their suggestions about introducing technical solutions on your end to handle this.

This list is by no means exhaustive. You may see fit to add a basic glossary (character and location names, terms relating to game mechanics or the game world, etc.), guides to speech patterns of your most important characters — whatever you feel is especially important for the translation teams to get right.

What To Expect

Different companies have different policies, but there are universal standards for how to organize your studio. This may be confusing, so here are a few cases you might encounter.

Specialized vs Non-Specialized Vendors

While looking for a vendor, you may notice that, while there are studios and agencies specializing in video game localization, the same services are offered by non-specialized or much broader companies.

Is the latter option inherently inferior? Not necessarily. As we explained above, many companies work with the same translators and reviewers, and if the bulk of your localization tasks come down to TEP, a non-specialized agency can be as good as any other.

If your schedule is somewhat chaotic, but your deadlines are tight, working with a larger agency may even be preferable, since you’ll have a better chance that someone will be available to work on your urgent batch of translations.

Still, if you’re not very experienced in the field of localization or are unsure how to adapt your game for international markets, your needs might be better met by people who work on projects like yours on a daily basis.

Direct Contact vs Contact Via-Manager

Some companies prefer to keep their teams away from prying eyes, while some don’t mind providing you with their contact information or otherwise facilitating direct communication. There are reasons for both choices, and none of them is an obvious red flag.

If you are given the option to communicate directly with the translation teams, you might find yourself overwhelmed by questions and suggestions in real time. Many people who work in video game localization are passionate about games and enjoy being able to talk to the developers directly; others feel the need to share their experience and tell you many things you could have done differently. The upside is that you also get a chance to gain a better understanding of the processes involved and the state of your localization.

If the communication is handled by the manager or via indirect contact (like a Q&A system or a shared cloud-hosted document), you may feel too isolated from the teams. However, it all comes down to whether the system works in practice, i.e. if your questions are being answered in time, your requests are taken care of properly, and you receive feedback and queries from the teams without much delay.

That said, you as a client have every right to favor one or the other. Some might say, though, that having an opportunity you ignore is always better than not having it when you need it.

Other Helpful Hints

There are many other important things to mention. We’ve collected a few of them here.

Localization Examples

If you consider the localization of your game to be especially challenging for a certain reason — be it highly stylized texts, a special brand of humor, or mature controversial themes — try and look up similar games with the same kinds of challenges. You will often find fellow developers easy to contact and eager to help.

Localization Credits

Many games include the localization teams in their credits, and those credits are usually available on YouTube, MobyGames.com, and through other sources. Whether you’re evaluating your own freelancers or want more information about the localization team, you can check what projects the specialists in question took part in or how long they have been working in localization. Logically, it would be a good idea to compile the localization credits for your own game as well.

NDAs

Most respectable companies will be the first to suggest signing an NDA agreement — either as a separate document, or as part of the contract. This is something you should pay special attention to, especially if you provide DRM-free copies of your yet-to-be-released game, or make sensitive materials (like marketing plans or financial information) available to your vendor.

Rates

We’ve talked a lot about business, and yet we haven’t mentioned actual rates. Indeed, they vary a lot from company to company; one may have more contacts or better-than-average rates for one language, while having to charge more for another. That said, here are some rough estimates for translating a game from English:

  • Main European languages (French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.), as well as popular languages such as Russian or Chinese, are going to cost you around €0.10 – €0.15 ($0.11 – $0.17) per word.
  • Rare languages (Finnish, Dutch, Greek, Korean) are going to cost you around €0.15 – €0.20 ($0.17 – $0.22) per word.
  • Adding another variant of language, such as Traditional Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, Canadian French, etc., will usually cost you 30-50% of the original cost — if you can afford the extra time required to convert the base localization after it has been fully completed.
  • Urgent, unannounced requests (see below) can have a considerable markup, depending on how much trouble securing the extra work hours is going to be for your vendor.

Time

While estimating time needed for a (non-urgent) localization, consider this as your worst-case estimation: one thousand words a day per translator, plus one day before the start and two days after the process is finished.

Of course, translators can process more than a thousand words per day, but you want to account for sudden changes of the source, technical issues, sick days, processing Q&A, validating formats and markup, etc.

Companies

We also compiled a short (and by no means complete) list of well-known game localization companies:

Conclusion

To sum it all up: there are multiple ways to have your game localized, and there are nuances to each of them. While we can’t recommend any single option as the most efficient in all cases, most of those who can afford it seek the services of multi-language translation studios and agencies. That doesn’t mean you have to — weigh the cost in time, money, and effort versus the benefit and see what works best for you.

Each localization company differs in the way they operate. Shop for one that meets your needs and don’t hesitate to ask questions related to your own specifics. Different types of projects have different priorities. Use open sources to investigate track records of your potential vendors or check the credits of projects similar to yours to find a company specializing in your type of games.

When considering localization, have a plan to deal with unforeseen difficulties or rely on your vendor to take care of them along with the translation. Listen to the advice of professionals and always make sure you get your money’s worth.

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