On September 13th 2020 I held a talk for the Japan Association of Translators (JAT) online conference PROJECT. Each talk focused on a different sub-genre of Japanese English translation. Literary, medical, legal, interpreting, how to use CAT tools, and entertainment. Entertainment was my jam and the talk I did was…
“How Do I Get into Video Game Localization?”
All Routes Lead to Games
If you’re a JAT member then you can see a recording of the event here.
The following is a summary of that talk.
This is an introduction to video game localization. It’s an introduction for people interested in a career in games as well as those who are just curious about the industry as a whole. With lots of examples of people already in game loc and how they got there.
WHAT IS GAME LOCALIZATION?
One of the biggest misconceptions I see from people not familiar with the industry is that “localization is liberal translation.”
Which is sort of true, because the term “localization” has become a way to refer to “not direct translation,” but game localization itself is a little more complicated than that.
Game localization looks more like this:
It’s a massive interconnecting flow and collaborative effort between a number of people with different skill-sets. Some of these people may never interact directly, such as the sound department with the translators, but they’re ALL working together.
Game localization is the act of taking a game from one country and making it available to people in other countries! People who work in game localization could be in-house (for a game company or a localization/translation company) or freelance, and work in a variety of fields such as editing, quality assurance, marketing, etc.
As you can see, translation itself is only a part of a much larger picture.
In fact even within the translation bubble there’s:
- Creative game text translation
- Technical bug report translation
- Legal contracts translation
- Meeting interpretation
- Internal communications translation
So there’s a wide variety of different types of translation – it’s NOT just game translation.
Of course, how this flow is structured varies between companies and projects – some tasks may be handled internally within a company, while others are handled by external vendors. This is just an example of some of the roles and work involved in game localization.
THE ROLES FOR THESE POSITIONS CAN BE BROKEN DOWN LIKE THIS.
This diagram really glosses over a lot of what people actually do.
But I want to show you is that each role within game localization requires different skills. And even people who work within the same role have different strengths.
If there’s one thing I’m going to hammer into you today, it’s…
NO TWO ROUTES ARE THE SAME
…the fact that no two people in game localization are the same. Which means that no two people enter the industry in the same way.
Let’s looks at some examples.
Daniel is a Japanese – English translator that has worked on titles such as Dragon Quest 11 and Phantasy Star Online 2. He did not go to Japan just after university, he went to China for a year before moving back to the UK for five years, was a teacher at an Eikaiwa for five years, THEN became a video game translator and editor.
Gavin taught karate and then English in Japan for two years before he got an in-house job as a technical translator. He then went freelance as a technical translator and used this opportunity to network the games industry and took translation tests for a year before he was given his first game translation gig. Then he became a freelance game translator.
Sarah worked as an English editor and proofreader before she made the jump to Japan and worked briefly as a teacher before moving to medical and legal translation proofreading. She was there for a year before getting her break working in-house for a video game company that makes games for women.
One of the things she said was she thought she needed a Master’s degree in translation and JLPT N1 Japanese.
YOU NEED A MASTERS DEGREE — FALSE!
A lot of people think you need a Master’s degree to get into video game localization or translation, but that’s NOT true.
Just like the aforementioned translators, you do not need a masters degree to become a translator or to work in game localization.
IN FACT, many people perfect their craft through trial and error, learning from others, and perseverance. Like any profession, the more you do it the better you get.
YOU CAN ALSO learn useful skills, including translation and interpreting skills through non-degree courses.
I’m not saying an MA isn’t useful. It can be, but you don’t need one.
ONE SIDE NOTE: If you want to work in Japan you do at least need an undergraduate degree. This can be in any subject though.
If you do decided you want to pursue higher education I highly recommend you do some research into programs available: what they offer and past student’s experiences. You might even find evening classes and certificate program for adults rather than a Master’s degrees.
Don’t just jump into a program blind because the University is prestigious. You should find a program that matches what you’re looking for.
(I made the mistake of picking an MA program that did not actually teach me how to translate or survive in the industry. You can read more about this here.)
Sometimes online courses on edX or Coursera will work just as well for teaching you the skills you want to learn at a fraction of the price of an MA! (Skills like creative writing, copywriting, project and time management, etc.)
You can also read a lot of books on translation skills and translation business. Click here for my booklist for Japanese – English translators.
Now I’d like to introduce you to Jessica. Jessica is an extremely successful game localizer who’s been working with games for over 13 years. But her Japanese is “low to intermediate at best”.
She offers the extremely valuable skill of editor. A role where Japanese is never a top priority.
YOU NEED TO KNOW JAPANESE TO WORK IN GAMES — FALSE!
I’ve met lots of people who think you need to know Japanese to get into video games but this is FALSE.
Look at the graph below. All the people I’ve highlighted in blue don’t need Japanese language abilities. Of course, depending on the situation, it can be useful. But if it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of a career in Japanese game localization.
Editors, LQA, Marketing, programming, etc. have their own desired skills. Japanese may be preferable – depending on the company – but if you’re just starting and you don’t have Japanese language ability it’s not the end of the world. Japanese language is a skill you can pick up over time.
In fact, that’s exactly what Josiah did!
After moving between jobs and careers he worked as an ALT on JET for four years. He studied intensively while working and jumped from JLPT N4 to N1 in just two years.
Then he practiced translation and freelanced a little before moving in-house as a Localization Director at Capcom. (He asked me to mention how his two years intensive study was at the detriment of everything else in his life and doesn’t recommend it.)
But the point I want to make is skills such as Japanese, project management, editing, translation, etc. can all be learned as you go through your career.
Don’t let “I’m not good enough at ___” hold you back. If anything you never stop learning in this industry!
YOU NEED TO LIVE IN JAPAN TO WORK IN GAMES — FALSE!
Many of the people I’ve introduced who work in game localization are currently based in Japan, but I’d like to dispel one last misconception – which is that YOU DON’T NEED TO LIVE IN JAPAN to get into video game localization.
Jenny, for example, worked in retail for a few years before moving into localization via LQA. Which means she worked in Localization Quality Assurance
A Localization Tester or Game Tester is an incredibly vital part of the game industry. Linguistic testers are similar to game testers but they focus on how the language sounds in the context of the game. Like an editor crossed with a game tester. They have to be on the ball for hours on end, being able to spot tiny mistakes and issues in games.
But the point I want to make here is that people like Jenny, or even Jessica, who I mentioned before, got into game localization WHILE NOT LIVING IN JAPAN.
VIDEO GAME LOCALIZATION IS A GLOBAL INDUSTRY. Most of the major video game developers have offices in countries all around the world and they hire from a variety of countries.
Most game localizers also work freelance, which allows them to have a career anywhere in the world.
THE CATCH 22 – IDENTIFY WHAT YOU NEED
As we’ve seen from this tiny example – NO TWO ROUTES ARE EVER THE SAME.
This makes it incredibly difficult to give people looking to break into the industry solid advice! However there are a few things you can do to give yourself a better idea for where to go.
When you start out with a career in localization or translation (or any career really) you’re faced with the Catch 22 of:
“I need experience to get a job. But no one will give me a job so I don’t have experience.”
I think this is why many people think you need a Master’s degree. – An MA may be good for getting your foot in the door but you still need experience! (Which makes it a very expensive foot.)
So back to this Catch 22 issue. How can you gain experience? Well, first you need to identify what kind of experience you need. AKA the kind of skills you need.
As I mentioned, different jobs within video game localization all require different skills.
What I did when I started was found job listings for my dream jobs and wrote down everything they listed, then I made a note of how I could achieve those skills.
One of my goals, for example, was to work for Nintendo in Seattle. I don’t have my original list but here’s a summary of one of their recent job listings.
I then expanded my notes with what skills I DID have and what I needed to improve. These then turned into my long-term career goals.
So I made this to-do list based on the above job listing, along with how I learn these skills.
THIS IS JUST AN EXAMPLE!
You should look at your own dream jobs and make your own list with your own goals.
When I started planning my career I took from a number of job listings so I had a different list that included things like “learn programming”. But I never actually studied programming and I never needed it for the path I ended up taking.
Because you see…
LIFE NEVER GOES THE WAY YOU EXPECT
You never know what’s going to happen.
I find it helpful to plan, and set myself long-term career goals, with short term goals to achieve. However, life will often throw you curve balls and you never know what will happen or where you’ll end up.
Take Meru for example – She knew she wanted to be a Japanese English translator from a very young age. She got a BA and MA in Japanese Studies and moved to Japan to work at an investment company. Then she worked freelance in the evenings to gain translation skills. but eventually quit to do translation full time.
She said she never had a plan on how to become a translator, she just knew she wanted to be one.
However, life as a game translator wasn’t what she had expected and after seeing a lot of exploitation and bad translations within the industry she decided to start up her own video game localization business.
Now she runs her own company, LoveLab, which localizes and publishes games in Japan and the West. She’s pretty much a translator, editor, publisher, marketer, lawyer.
Another example is Maisy, who followed her partner to University but dropped out and changed to study Japanese. She knew she wanted to work as a game translator and with that in mind she slowly worked toward getting to Japan, improving her Japanese, and even though she got a job as an associate producer for a game company she eventually changed to be a mobile game translator and now translates board games.
Both Meru and Maisy kind of planned where they wanted to be and worked to get there, but didn’t end up there in the way they had expected – and that’s not a bad thing. THAT’S OK!
I think it’s important to give yourself goals, work on improving the skills required to get your food in the door, but don’t be surprised if you end up elsewhere.
You may aim to be a translator or editor, but you might end up as a project manager or programmer.
My original goal was to work for Nintendo or Pokémon as a translator. But now I’m a Localization Director, which is a fancy was of saying project manager, which I think I’m much better suited to than translator.
As you go through your career you might find yourself better suited for things you weren’t expecting.
ALEXANDER O. SMITH
One last person I would like to tell you about is Alexander, a veteran in the game localization industry. He’s famous for his work on the Final Fantasy series, but nowadays he’s not translating but writing for video games. He’s involved in the design and original English text including games like Ori and the Will of the Wisp.
A career in game localization can take you on a bit of a rollercoaster. Only it’s one where you never know where you’re going to end up.
I’ve met editors who became translators, translators who became game producers, project managers who moved into legal, and a lawyer who spends half his time translating media articles about video games.
Really, NO TWO ROUTES ARE EVER THE SAME
BUT THEY ALL LEAD TO VIDEO GAMES (IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT)