It is a question that constantly weighs on the game translator’s shoulders: Should I localize or translate this? When should I stick to the source text and when would localization be too much? Or should I even leave it untranslated?

What is localization?

Translation is the rendering of a text into another language.

Localization, often abbreviated L10n, is the cultural adaptation of a text to a specific market or tailoring a product for a specific audience.

Whenever people talk about game translation, they technically mean game localization, but these terms are generally used interchangeably when it comes to adapting games in order to bring them to foreign markets.

A big part of translating a game means localizing its content. So rather than translating words and sentences, linguistic localizers translate the intent behind those words so that the effect on the target audience is as close to the original as possible.

Why does localization matter?

Localization matters because cultures differ.

It matters because Americans marry their loved ones in white and bury them in black, while in in India, traditional weddings are colorful and funerals are attended in white attire.

 The Indian bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.

The Indian bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.

 The western bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.

The western bride. Image courtesy of pxhere.

We localize because no one wants to calculate how many more kilometers they have to race when they will understand it right away if we just show them the distance in miles. We localize so that the player can connect with the game and never has to hit the pause button wondering what she’s reading.

In a cooking game you would have to remeasure your wheat flour from American cups and tablespoons into grams so that European chefs-to-be can follow the recipe. Localization could also mean renaming the main character “George” into “Jorge”, so that the Spanish speaker can identify better with him. And of course the Jorge in the Chilean version addresses his NPC friends with vos, while the Spanish Jorge is perfectly comfortable with tú.

However, localization can go far beyond words. In order to give the game a local feel, items might be removed or added. For example, in Japan it‘s customary to remove your shoes when entering someone‘s house and put on a pair slippers. When you use a Japanese restroom, you take off those slippers—and you put on another pair of slippers, the bathroom slippers.

While in many western cultures it‘s nothing unusual to take off your shoes at home, they will hardly identify with wearing different slippers to use a bathroom, so features like these might be removed for western or added for Japanese audiences. Games can even have different difficulty levels in other countries.

Games are not the only medium where content gets localized. Pixar, for example, doesn’t only adjust in-game graphics, but also cultural aspects like food and sports. In the movie Inside Out, the character Bing Bong points at the letters D-A-N-G-E-R from left to right explaining that this is a shortcut. Not only were these letters translated into other languages, but in some countries the character will even point from right to left to accommodate right-to-left languages such as Hebrew. This is localization.

 European and Japanese localization of  Inside Out . Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

European and Japanese localization of Inside Out. Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

When the toddler Riley in the same movie dislikes broccoli in the American version but turns up her nose at bell peppers on Japanese screens, Pixar shows that they have done thorough research on what kids do and do not like in different countries—and localized accordingly.

The localizer is the insider

Localization often comes up as a heated discussion in context with censorship, especially when in-game content is changed and features removed. In the end, the developer has the final word on how much they want to have localized in their game, and changing in-game features is not a decision they make lightly.

But as the ones with insider knowledge regarding culture in our country, we game localizers help make such decisions. We explain to the US developer how Spanish players are expected to feel and react when they see main villain is a dictator named Franco, and why we need to change that name. We tell our Japanese client how swastikas and nazi references are definitely not funny in Germany. We help them understand what goes and doesn’t go, because we are the ones that should know.


We tell our Korean clients how the German USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, the German computer game ratings body) ups the rating—or places games on the Index—if they display strong graphic violence, and how the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates games with sexual content. Some will say that passing on such information is not part of the translator’s job, but I say it is. These ratings are important because a game with a wrong rating can get past players the developer has envisioned as a potential buyer, and the US indie developer might not even realize that games could be rated differently in Europe.

To translate or to localize?

Extreme localization is rare and usually unnecessary, especially if we localize games between similar cultures, such as English into FIGS (French, Italian, German, and Spanish). Most of the time localization of a game consists of changing names of places and characters, and adjusting some kind of number. But these basic bits still leave a lot of room for the question: to localize, to translate, or to leave as is?

We might wonder if the player will have a better gaming experience if we translate this character named Maria to Marie or the village name Speckhörnchenhausen into something that gamers will be able to pronounce.

Should we turn a corndog into a bratwurst? Will a French audience understand this reference to former US president Jimmy Carter? If you’re an American, ask yourself if you’d recognize a reference to Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, France’s president during Carter’s term. Which of the original references will our target gamers understand? The translator has to make a ton of decisions and often decides to play it safe by localizing, even if a smart reference gets lost.

Game localizers have a lot of freedom when it comes to changing text. But one thing we definitely have to make sure of: the text must fit what happens on the screen. We cannot localize a sandwich into a curry if there are graphics that don’t resemble a curry. In that case, the developer will have to change the graphics, but this is not as easy a job as writing a word into a textfile, so this needs to be weighed against how important such a change is. And of course, the developer has to actually change the graphics.

 Katie Tiedrich, genius creator of  Awkward Zombie , making fun of the western localization of  Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney .

Katie Tiedrich, genius creator of Awkward Zombie, making fun of the western localization of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Should the game take part in my country, or will moving Tokyo to Frankfurt ruin the gaming experience, maybe for any possible future sequel of the game series? In my opinion, localization goes a bit too far sometimes. While I don’t want to constantly look up stuff because I don’t get a reference, I still want to feel the culture of the game I play.

A question we localizers need to constantly ask ourselves is: How does this text make me feel and how can I spark the same feeling in my translation?

A question we localizers need to constantly ask ourselves is: How does this text make me feel and how can I spark the same feeling in my translation?

If you were the player, how would you like to experience this part of the game? Would you have a better experience if you localized this phrase, or does the game shout out for displaying its cultural aspect?

What game assets are localized?

Many parts in a game should be localized. Others are a matter of personal preference. Here are some examples of the most common items which are often localized within a video game, either by the translator or the developer:

Game developers sometimes change video game blood into green (or remove the blood altogether). This is pretty commonly done in Germany to play down the perception of violence, and possibly get a lower age rating.

If any currency (real or invented) is mentioned, it might have to be adjusted to fit the target country. For example, I always turn the abbreviation g for gold into G in German because g is the abbreviation for grams.

Date & time
07.09.2020 vs. 09.07.2020—This date can mean either 7th September or 9th July, depending whether it is displayed for a US, UK or another audience)
7 pm vs. 19:00—In Germany we count our hours to 24.

Floor levels
Some countries count the ground floor as the first floor while others count it as the second. For example, in the US the 1st floor is the ground floor. In Germany the first floor is usually called ground floor (Erdgeschoss) and we start using numbers in what Americans would call the 2nd floor, which for us is the 1st floor (1. Stock). (As a side note, we can also use the word Etage where numbers work like in the US.)

Form of address
In the United States, even the bank clerk will call you by your first name. In Germany, this would be regarded as pretty rude and strangers are addressed with the formal Sie. In Medieval–inspired games, we also do Ihrzen and Euchzen.

References to historic people, buildings, or events are changed to items the intended audience will be able to identify.

Christmas, Birthdays, Carnival, Thanksgiving, or New Year don’t have the same relevance or existence everywhere. In Italy for example, people celebrate their name day (IT: onomastico) with the same importance that most cultures celebrate birthdays.

Not every culture has the same kind of humor, and jokes might therefore need to be replaced by something that conveys the meaning more effectively. For example, while Germans are not opposed to dirty jokes or can even still take the long–outdated jokes about blond women (DE: Blondinenwitze), you will probably get arrested joking about sex on a bus in Saudi Arabia.

Language-related text and puns
Imagine the main character takes a trip to Italy and says:
“I arrived in Venice today, and everyone calls me cazzo. That’s not my name!”
If you translate into Italian, you will have to get creative and come up with entirely different content, because Italian gamers will not buy that the character suddenly forgot Italian and doesn’t understand that cazzo means dick (though it’s also an expression of anger or annoyance, like the English fuck).

Pounds vs. kilograms
Cups and ounces vs. grams and milliliters
Feet vs. meters
Gamers don’t want to continuously calculate to make sure they understand how cold 40° Fahrenheit or how hot 40° Celsius are. If you’ve ever tried to bake a cake on another continent, using a recipe from home, you will understand the importance of it all.

Names of characters and creatures can be localized to gain the intended effect, giving the game a more local flair, or reflect a play on words. An American Paul might become a Pablo in Spain.

How does a winner look like in your country? 1st vs. 1. vs. #1, or something entirely different?

A real-world city or country might be changed if it fits with the in-game graphics and intended feel. For example, the game takes originally takes place in Denmark. However, only the game text but no game graphics (such as food or landscape) give this away. The game could therefore easily take place in another country to give it a more local feel. But we also change fake places, and might turn a town name into something that flows with our language and fits the setting somehow—be it a literal translation or not.

Pop–culture references
References to entertainment, food, politics, slang, sports, or technology are often better off being localized. If there was a reference to Kenyan politics or music in a game, chances are high that the effect would be completely lost on a European audience. Unless the game is about Africa, I would localize such references.

Summer and winter on the two sides of the equator are swapped. While Australians are enjoying their surfing season, those north of the equator are cuddled up in hats and jackets. When a simulation game displays sun in December, this probably won’t be believable for my German players. As a localizer, you should keep your eyes open for dates or other content that might have to be adjusted so that everything makes sense.

Sensitive cultural or illegal issues
This especially involves religious and historic topics, but also anything that might be forbidden, such as pornography, alcohol, and drugs.
In Wolfenstein 2, the developers made some drastic changes for the German version. Of course all the swastikas were removed. But the makers also removed Hitler’s iconic mustache, and instead of Mein Führer his subjects called him Mein Kanzler. We Germans just don’t like nazi references.

Some tips for game localizers:

  • As a rule of thumb, anything that would not have the intended effect if merely translated should be localized, particularly where it improves gaming experience and comprehension.
  • Anything that might be offensive to the target audience, such as sexual content or geographic references (“wrongly” displayed maps), should probably be localized, if the original intention is not to offend.
  • Know the laws and your target culture and learn what’s acceptable and unacceptable for your target audience.
  • Put yourself in the player’s shoes: how would you feel reading this?
  • When changing the the meaning of anything, (e.g. food, game setting), make sure it does not appear as a visible item in-game, so don’t just change a hamburger into a schnitzel if there is a graphic looking like a hamburger. Always match what happens on screen.

This post originally appeared on 1UPTRANSLATIONS

Interview with Terminologist Henrik Nilsson

Henrik Nilsson, born in 1970, has been working as a terminologist at the Swedish Centre for Terminology (Terminologicentrum TNC) since 1997. At the centre, he worked with Eurodicautom and he participated in one of the working groups during the development of the IATE database of the European Commission, a software he later evaluated within the national project preparing a national terminological infrastructure in Sweden (named TISS). Within TNC, he has taken part in various terminology projects and he directs the joint group for life sciences terminology and a termbank for the planning and building sector. He has also been responsible for marketing activities and was the web editor of TNC’s website. He has been responsible for the contents and marketing of the national termbank, Rikstermbanken. He also teaches terminology to various groups (students at universities, employees at various private companies and public authorities) and he often presents papers at national and international conferences (EAFT Summit, TKE, LSP). He has contributed articles to the Handbook of Terminology (vol. 1) and Terminology in Everyday Life, both published by Benjamins. He has been part of the board of the EAFT for many years and is currently its President. He holds a diploma in Communication Science, English and French and he is also a trained English teacher. Since 2018, he has been working as a terminologist for the newly started C.A.G Next, part of the C.A.G group.

1. Why is terminology so important in the field of translation? Why is it also important in our daily life?

We all come into contact with terminology at certain times and in certain situations, and when we do, we need to know how to deal with it. And we should not dread it – there is so much to discover and learn from experts in various fields, and this is also true when it comes to their use of language. That terminology is important for translation has been shown in surveys where translators estimate that a substantial amount of their working time is spent doing terminology work. When you add more than one language, the situation becomes more complex, and there are many aspects of terminology and translation that are yet to be studied. A structured approach to handling terminology is not only a problem-solving tool which helps translators find the right equivalent – terminology management can also be thought of as a method and a way of thinking which I believe is beneficial in many contexts for translators, both in their professional capacity and in their everyday life.

2. In the past you have spoken about the responsibility of the translator working as a terminologist. What responsibility do you think the terminologist bears?

I find the idea of “terminological responsibility” very interesting to think about. Of course, this entails self-reflection on the role of the terminologist and the contribution this profession can make to solving issues and facilitating consensus in a group. The profession of terminologist can be divided into several types which affect the responsibility: if a terminologist is also an expert in the field in question, the corresponding responsibility would be similar to that of another expert – to contribute and listen to other opinions with the aim of achieving a joint goal. But in other cases, and perhaps more commonly, the terminologist would not be a domain expert and so the responsibility would include being well-prepared (having at least attempted to study the domain in question to some extent) but also to use the terminological mind and method to see the structure and ask the questions needed. Furthermore, the terminologist should know what method to use in what context, be able to co-operate with related professions, constantly follow developments in the theory and practice of terminology, and know what sources to use and when. And finally, always be prepared to spread the word about terminology wherever this is still unknown territory!

3. From your experience of teaching terminology: how does one teach terminology? Is it difficult to convince professional linguists – translators or interpreters – that it is important?

The didactics of terminology is also an interesting area which should be discussed more. Overall, the subject of terminology should be much more prominent at universities, preferably as an obligatory module at the start of all university studies. In my experience, some aspects of terminology actually come more naturally to non-linguists, especially to professionals used to thinking in hierarchies and logical structures. Translators and interpreters are often the only professional groups who, in many countries, get some terminology training and normally they quickly see the use and are easy to “convince”. However, there can at times be too much focus on the linguistic side compared to the cognitive, conceptual side of the work. There are also other professional groups, often with a background in IT, who have started working with some aspects of terminology, e.g. system and enterprise architects, demands analysts and health informatics specialists – and this tendency will also affect how the subject of terminology is and will be taught.

4. In 2016, the European Association for Terminology (EAFT) celebrated its 20th anniversary. In your own opinion, how has its approach to terminology changed over these twenty years?

Some topics are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago – I tend to reuse more and more older material (even from the 1800s!) since it is still relevant and well worded. But as in many other areas, we have also seen a development in terminology which has turned it into something more technical, more text-oriented and more cognitive and ontological in nature than before, which is in itself a very interesting development. The general aim of the EAFT, of gathering organizations and individuals, and promoting the area of terminology at all levels of society in Europe, has remained the same, and the Brussels Declaration is still valid and relevant. The Association has also taken a stance and protested against the closing of terminology programmes, and we also try to embrace other developments, e.g. the use of social media which means quicker and more direct contacts with members and “terminology lovers”.

5. Can you give us some details about your role as the president of EAFT and as a member of the Swedish Centre for Terminology (Terminologicentrum TNC)?

I feel very European and very Scandinavian at the same time, which I think can be a good thing. To me, the role of the EAFT President is to create a functioning board and to be a missionary on the European level, visiting institutions and constantly doing promoting and lobbying activities. On the national level, at TNC, I have been one of several terminologists, from whom I learned a lot during some 20 years. I have been lucky to have a very varied line of work covering terminology teaching, smaller and bigger projects, termbank management, terminology planning, research, translation and documentation.

6. You mentioned that the TNC is 75 years old. Where do you see EAFT in 55 years? Where do you hope to see terminology go in that time?

Currently, we are seeing some negative developments, with the closing or reorganization of many institutions, and some major terminological events are not happening as frequently as before, so in 55 years I hope the EAFT will be as strong as ever, functioning as a truly European platform, joining together organizations and individuals working in terminology. I do hope that the SIGs (special interest groups) will return so that there will also be some hands-on work and exchange of experiences, especially related to research and teaching. It all comes down to the persistence of those working in and with the organization, and in my experience, terminologists are those kinds of people.

7. You can proudly call yourself one of the creators of the original IATE. What were the main ideals and goals for its creation? Do you think they have been fulfilled?

I wouldn’t call myself a creator, but I hope that I helped a little bit in its creation. I was in the workflow group together with many skilled people, and I remember that there were many varied demands on this joint endeavour. Looking at the result, I feel it has succeeded. Of course, technology has developed in the meantime, creating new possibilities, not really imaginable at the time. Then again, a termbank is never finished, and I think the IATE team are well under way to adapt to new creative ideas and developments.

8. Could you tell us a little bit about the collaboration between EAFT and IATE?

The collaboration has been intensified with TermCoord and we have had several interesting contributions related to IATE at the Summits. One aim is to provide something useful for all the translators and terminologists, especially within the EU. And considering that IATE is still the biggest European terminological resource, we try to find opportunities to inform people about it and its development. I have also had the opportunity to give seminars and courses at the EU institutions and I especially remember my “Red and Green seminar” devoted to IATE, where all the participants got voting cards, which they used to answer questions related to IATE.

9. Every year, EAFT grants an award for the Best Thesis on Terminology. Can you tell us more about this initiative and how it is helping to spread terminology awareness?

There are two International Terminology Awards (ITAs): the International Award for Distinguished Achievement in Terminology (MA level) and the International Award for Outstanding Achievement in Terminology Research and Development (PhD level). These awards are given to researchers in line with the mission of EAFT, which is: “the promotion of and support for research in terminology and related issues; contributions to the education and training of people working with terminology in all capacities, and the formal recognition of academic and vocational terminological training courses at the European and national levels.”

10. From 14th to 15th November 2016, EAFT (in collaboration with TermCoord), organised the VIII European Terminology Summit ‘Visions and Revisions’ in Luxembourg. Can you tell us how successful you think the event was and what were the results that came from the summit?

Overall, I think the idea of self-reflection and looking backwards and forwards was a good choice. Collaborating with TermCoord at the very heart of Europe made the event stronger and when I think about it, I feel proud and happy. There were many interesting contributions and the mood was positive – especially during a conference dinner where everyone squeezed into a little Greek restaurant. We also realized that the Brussels Declaration is still valid. I constantly think about the Summit’s structure, and how it can be developed and given a new twist, and I think the introduction of a laid-back discussion with the previous Presidents was a fun idea in 2016 – as was the PechaKucha-session we did in 2014. The Summit shows the extent of EAFT and terminology, and everything that can be achieved with relatively little means, and a lot of hard work by dedicated people. For one Summit, we did a yoyo which shows that you also need a sense of humour!

Interviewer: Anna Wawrzonkowska

Former trainee at TermCoord, DG TRAD at the European Parliament

Italian and Linguistics at the University of Oxford, Oriel College

This post originally appeared on Termcoord