Game Translation

Haven’t been posting much lately, really busy with work. Been getting a lot more work from gaming companies (some big titles too) which made me think I would post a bit about being a translator, and more specifically about video game-related translation.

To start with, for those who don’t know, I’m a freelance translator living in Japan. I’m not exclusively a game translator, I actually tend to specialize in electronics manuals and material, but I do work with a few game companies regularly and work on a few games a year.

I’m not sure what the situation is like in the U.S., I only work with Japanese companies (by circumstance, not choice, feel free to contact me if you’d like to throw work my way), but in the Japanese gaming industry translation is generally handled by either in-house translators hired directly by the gaming companies and working full or part-time at those companies (I count shipping translation work to U.S. subsidiaries in this category), or by freelancers like myself, sometimes directly with freelancers, sometimes through agencies (I do both). Usually companies choose one or the other of these methods and stick with it, but some companies do have in-house translators and also sometimes freelance (it’s been my experience that this is rare, however).

When I first moved to Tokyo, I actually thought I would like to work as an in-house translator at a game company and I applied and interviewed for jobs at two companies. I (fortunately as it turns out, more later) was turned down by both companies. I didn’t really get along with the interviewers at one company, and they didn’t care for me much either, and my opponent for the job at the other company was half-Japanese. Both jobs payed around U.S.$40,000 per year, and had “eh” benefits. A major detractor was that, although the jobs were in game companies which are a bit laxer then “normal” businesses, these were Japanese companies which meant insane hours, no overtime pay, and difficulty using what little vacation time was available, not to mention (although I am, silly phrase really) the awful, horrible, hellish train rides everyday.

Compare this to my situation now, where I make more money (I won’t tell exactly how much, people might be less inclined to clicky my ads and such =P ), work at home, can (theoretically at least) take vacation when and how long I want, and I get paid in proportion to how much I work. Looking back, I’m really glad I didn’t get those jobs.

Mind you, it’s not easy to become a freelance translator… well, that’s not true. It’s not easy to become a successful freelance translator. I lived here 5 years before I was able to do the work well enough, and get enough regular work to support myself, but in the long run it’s much more lucrative than working in-house. Especially since most in-house translators who aren’t Japanese are only on yearly contracts and can suddenly find themselves out of a job pretty easily (I know for a fact one of the jobs I interviewed for was to replace someone who was fired).

Thing is, being a freelance game translator isn’t that lucrative either. I make a lot more money on my other work than I do on game work. Prices tend to vary between companies and jobs, but as an example I make an average of about 10 yen per Japanese character for electronics manuals and such, but game-related translations usually only net me about 5 yen per character. Half the money for the same amount of work. Mind you, the game work tends to be more interesting (not always though).

There are a lot of different types of work involved in game translation, because there are a lot of different things that need translating. In-game dialog and text, game manuals, advertising materials, specifications (I really, really hate these) etc. Most of this work has to be done all at the same time, and deadlines are usually pretty harsh. This means that the work tends to get split amongst different translators. Different companies split the work different ways. Some of these ways make sense, other’s seem totally random and counter-productive. A lot of the companies actually have me translating certain bits of files, but other bits of files need to be translated by other people, and then at the end some other poor schmuck has to go through and make it all seem like the same person and that we are all using the same vocabulary (kind of a pain in the ass if I say “directional pad” and another translator says “arrow pad” and yet another translator calls them “direction buttons”. People reading it might not realize that they are all referring to the same thing).

The way work is carried out is pretty random too. I get work in Word format, txt, html, pdf (hate, Hate, HATE), some companies want a direct word for word translations, some want it to sound like something a native speaker might have written, etc. etc.

Some of the work is interesting (translating “connect the video cable to the video output port on the back of the computer…” and the like in electronics manuals can get tiresome sometimes, I know, surprising, but true!) and some isn’t. Generally stuff that is in-game and has to deal with story or narrative in any way (dialog, text, plot, etc.) is fun, and stuff that is about mechanics or not in-game (instruction manuals, specifications, boxes etc.) is not.

I really like translating dialog, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and fun work tends to get done faster and without feeling quite so painful. I also take a lot more pride in dialog work, because it’s important to the overall feel of the game and I like it when the dialog in the games I play feels genuine and doesn’t suffer from speed-racer syndrome (“Haha! What is that Speed? Haha! Let us go to the race and win for father because I am speed racer, haha!”). Some translators don’t feel that way and half-ass their way through it, some just aren’t very good writers, and some are Japanese translating into English, which is in my opinion pretty much never a good idea.

Oh the stories I could tell you about some of the worst lines in your favorite games if it didn’t mean getting the pants sued off me for violating NDA’s. If I wrote any bad lines, I’m sorry, but I do try to make an effort so that things aren’t shitty. Some people don’t, and unfortunately the final decision makers are generally non-native English speaking Japanese, so you do end up with some crap in there.

As mentioned above though, not all of game translation is fun. The specifications I also mentioned above are nauseatingly boring. I never really thought about how much crap has to be decided for a game before I started doing this work, but there is a lot of it, and even with as anal and detailed as these things have to be to begin with, the Japanese game companies take them well beyond just normally tedious and into a realm where hell sends its bad people. Seriously, Japanese companies are the gods of taking the fun out of anything. Imagine having to translate hundreds of pages of

“At this point, if the player presses the B button they will be taken to the character selection menu. The background of the character selection menu is blue, the title is text (not an image), which can be decorated with a border. The directional pad on the controller moves the selection box, and both P1 and P2 can control their own character selection boxes. P1’s box is blue, P2’s is red. If the character presses the A button… blah blah blah.” (That might be paraphrased just ever so slightly)

This goes on for every minute detail you could possibly think of in the game. I have to translate dozens and dozens of pages on the PAUSE MENU. What all the options are, what they do, whether the cursor will jump back to the top of the screen when it is at the lowest choice on the menu and down is pressed again, and whether it will jump to the bottom from the top-most item if up is pressed again. etc. etc. Horribly, horribly boring. I would translate a computer manual over this crap any day.

Anyway, that’s a really brief look into game translation. I glossed over a lot, and there’s more that can be said, but damned if I can think of it at the moment. If you have any questions or comments let me know in the comments (you don’t need to register to post comments, just provide and email address). I’d be more than happy to answer any questions anyone has about translation and game translation, or any other questions about the game industry for which and answer might be able to be found in my rather limited and specialized knowledge. I won’t answer questions about specifics for the most part though. I can’t talk about games I am working on, or what guy was the biggest dick I had to work for etc. At best that stuff risks me not getting a repeat customer, at worst it gets me sued. Anything else though, fire away.

Speaking of bad translations, you might find these sites funny.


  1. remister
    Posted October 21, 2006 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I want to be your apprentice. Take me to Japan :)

  2. Posted October 22, 2006 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could afford an apprentice, it would make things easier =)

    There’s a lot of time consuming work involved other than translation that pretty much anybody who speaks English can do. Checking and rewriting, layout etc.

  3. remister
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I would be an affordable apprentice.
    I just need room and board.
    And for the pay, just give me what I can get to eat and have a little fun :)

  4. Posted November 6, 2006 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    I’ll keep you in mind when I get around to expanding the business =) Room and board and a little fun are expensive in Tokyo. A pizza costs $30, a night on the town will run into the hundreds without much effort =)

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