From my experience, the skills every translator needs can be broken down into two categories: translation skills and soft skills. Which precise skills are ideal will vary depending on the field of translation, but this article is specifically focusing on those interested in game translation*.
*Note: Game translation is just a part of overall game localization. Although this focuses specifically on translation there are other opportunities within localization such as editing, localization QA, localization technician, and project management, which these skills can also intersect with.
These articles are for people with advanced language abilities in at least two languages who are thinking about a career in video game translation.
Part 1 looks at hard skills that are useful for game translation, while part 2 looks at the soft skills which are important for building a career in game localization.
Part 1: Translation Skills
You can tell when someone hasn’t done their research. Whether it’s double checking the meaning of a specific word in the target language, looking up IP specific legacy terminology or commonly used game terminology, or looking into the historical or cultural context of a phrase or situation, you cannot translate from the source text without research.
Many aspiring translators seem to think professionals just know everything without needing dictionaries or search engines, but that’s not true. Every professional uses dictionaries, search engines, glossaries, and reference documents.
Research is key to knowing what’s going on in the source text and the most appropriate wording for it in the target text.
In fact, many translation tests will test your research skills by asking you to translate something with obscure information.
The best way to hone this skill is through practice. When you translate, imagine you’re going to pass your translation onto someone who has no idea about the source language or the subject/context you’re translating. Add comments and links to support the reasoning behind your translation.
This is a good habit to get into in general because it helps make editors lives easier if they know the reasoning and references behind certain translation choices.
Game translation isn’t all creative, a large portion of it consists of translating system messages. This means menus, settings and options, tutorials, guides, patch notes, etc. Technical writing styles vary between languages, so knowing how settings and tutorials should read in your target language is very important.
One way to build this skill is to look at those settings, menus and tutorials for games originally written in your target language. How are they written? Do they use active or passive voice? How do they convey important information to the player?
You can then compare them to games that are written in your source language to see the difference in wording. You can also look at games that have been translated, but bear in mind that the quality of the technical writing can vary widely.
The Game UI Database is a fantastic resource for seeing how various games worded their menus and system messages. (Also a great reference when conducting your research!)
Practice by translating a few menus and tutorials yourself to get a feel for it.
Remember, when it comes to technical writing, you need to be consistent in your wording and use of terminology!
Back translation is the act of translating your translation back into the source language. This is used when the meaning of a translation needs to be conveyed to another team member who is not fluent in the target language.
This is a little tricky as you need provide the translation of the words, but also convey the nuance and interpretation of the translation. A direct back translation of the words alone isn’t enough, you need to provide additional explanations for meaning too. (The explanations, of course, need to be in the language you’re back translating into.)
Normally back translations for video games (at least in Japanese) are done in Excel, with the source text, target text (translation), back translation, and comments in different columns.
You can practice this by back translating some of your own translations, then asking a native speaking friend or teacher to check your back translation and explanation. (Obviously don’t use any text that is classified information, i.e., under a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA.)
Creative Writing Skills
This is the biggest skill that everyone associates with game translation. It boils down to being able to write well in the target language—that is, making the text read as if it were never translated in the first place.
Most creative writing is dialogue, so knowing how to create fitting and consistent characterization and tone is important. But creative writing can also come in handy when writing item or quest descriptions, as well as trophies.
To hone this skill read a wide variety of texts in your native language (not translations) and write your own creative work—fan-fiction can be a great way to improve!
There are also lots of books, podcasts, and articles online on creative writing. Here are my favorites that are particularly useful for translators:
The 10% Solution by Ken Rand* – Book on self-editing to improve readability.
Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer* – Book on general creative writing techniques, broken down into 55 easy-to-digest tips including practice exercises for every one!
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript* – Book on writing good dialogue including things to be aware of such as punctuation and dialects.
*These are affiliated links to Amazon.com
Understanding the Language of Games
Different games have their own language. I don’t just mean gameplay, but how they’re written too. Whether consciouly or not, players who play a lot expect certain language from certain types of games. Being aware of the language used in particular games and players expectations is an incredibly handy skill to have.
The trick for translators is the need to be able to recognize natural game language in both the source and target languages. This applies to in-game dialogue, as well as item descriptions and system text.
This is important because you need to have an idea where and how certain system messages might be used. Or the terminology commonly used in a specific genre of game (such as fighting games!) This base knowledge can help when conducting your research because you have a better idea of where to find the information you need.
To improve this skill, you have to do the arduous task of…playing games!
Play mostly in your target language, but playing some in the source language is good too. This way you’ll see how the language differs between the target and source depending on the type of game. Keeping up with industry news in both languages doesn’t hurt either.
This isn’t a skill you can specifically hone, but it’s one reason why in-house companies look for people who play a lot of video games. Having a love for games and knowledge about the industry in general gives you an edge about how they work, which helps when translating them.
Understanding Text IDs & Tags
You don’t need to be able to program to translate games, but some awareness of ID naming structures and how tags work will aid you.
String IDs will often indicate where in the game the text is being used and how it might be used. The string IDs can indicate what order the strings will display in, what character is speaking, whether the text is an item title or description, an ability, an in-game tutorial, etc. You can often guess these based on the context of the text itself, but the string ID can provide extra context.
For example; an ID called something like “Game_ch3_0001_101” might tell you this is from chapter 3 of the game and is no.1 in the order of strings. Or “Game_options_controls_aim03” tells you a string is being used in the options menu. (Devs don’t always include this information.)
Tags, on the other hand, are used within the text. In dialogue or item text you might have color tags (such as, <col_green>) or bold (such as, <bold>) or italics (<italics>). Or settings text might have tags for buttons (such as <shoot>). You normally have to match the tags used in the source text, but some projects will let you use them in other places if it makes sense.
It’s important to be aware that every company will have their own tag and string ID naming system.
If you’ve never worked on a game translation before then I highly suggest you read Best Practices for Game Localization. It’s a document aimed at developers (though not all developers conduct localization this way), but pages 10 and 11 cover how tags can work in a text.
How to Use CAT Tools
The vast majority of game localization service providers and video game companies with localization departments use computer aided translation tools (CAT tools).
The most commonly used in the game industry is probably memoQ. If you have never used memoQ (or any CAT tool) before, here are some useful tutorials:
Memoq Workshop for beginners or Getting started with memoQ – a session for translators – Introduction to memoQ and the basic of the program.
Exclusive memoQ Webinar for Translators – Workshop on additional tools that are useful for translators.
Tutorial – Preparing an XLS file in MemoQ – Preparing files for translation in memoQ.
Some localization companies might use different CAT tools such as memsource, SDL Trados, or even their own in-house program, but they all tend to work in similar ways.
If you’re hired to do a job the company that hires you should provide a license to translate that project. You do not need to buy your own license!
Translation Skills for Games
So there you have it. The core translation skills that every game translator needs are the ability to conduct effective research, technical writing, back translation, creative writing, understanding the language of games, and a knowledge of CAT tools.
As a general rule the best way to get better at these translation skills is to research and practice. Play lots of games, think about how language is used, practice translating whenever you can and get some feedback on your work if possible!
But remember, a good game translator doesn’t just need translation skills, soft skills are equally important. These are skills that can help you find work, build a strong career, and can even improve your translation ability.
Check out part 2 for what soft skills a video game translator needs!
Other articles you might find useful
FAQ for Aspiring Japanese to English Media Translators
What Qualifications Do I Need to Become a Translator?
How to Make Entertainment Translation Entertaining!
Persistent Pitfalls in Media Translation and How to Avoid Them