Difficulty vs. Productivity vs. Rates, or Why Game Translators Should Charge More

Video games are not exactly one of the best-paying fields of the translation industry. Many developers like to work with a single vendor for their multilingual localization needs, which means much of the work gets done through agencies, competing hard on prices. Another major factor is the perception that video game localization is easy as long as you love games and can speak two languages. It actually is a double problem, because 1. Clients use this as an argument to negotiate prices (“Hey, it’s easy and it’s a GAME, it won’t even feel like work!”) and 2. Lots of game enthusiasts try to jump on-board with no knowledge of translation and its industry, thus increasing competition and driving rates down.

Thinking of this, two questions came to my mind:

– Is game localization really that easy compared to other specializations?

– To what extent is the (perceived) difficulty of a translation project relevant when it comes to pricing?

Is Game Localization Easy?

First of all, I would like to clarify one thing: I don’t think there’s such a thing as an easy translation. My philosophy is that, if a translation projects feels easy, you’re probably not aiming high enough. Now, if your goal is to produce a translation that will generally be considered “good enough”, games are probably not the hardest material to translate.

Most video games are aimed at a general audience. Young/casual gamers should be able to take their controller and enjoy playing without the need to open a dictionary every five minutes. Even for specialized games like, say, racing simulations, while you do see technical jargon some people may not be familiar with, you never really reach the degree of complexity you get in technical documentation or patents.

In that respect, game localization can be seen as a relatively easy field to enter. You don’t need 12 years of medical studies to understand what a game is about. You don’t need to be an aerospace engineer to get what’s going on.

Variables, lack of context and character limits? You learn how to deal with them pretty quickly. All it takes is time… quite a bit of it, actually. Time, as in “Time is money”. That’s exactly where the problem stands.

Productivity and Rates

When your freelance business takes off and your schedule starts filling up, it doesn’t take long until you realize that rates alone don’t mean much. What really matters is how much you earn per time unit (hour, day or whatever unit you like). This is one aspect of game localization people often fail to see: games may not be the hardest type of text to translate, but boy, does the process take time!

All games have their own universes, atmospheres and codes. As a translator, you can’t just jump between them like you would do for two printers from different manufacturers, for example. You need to adapt to the characteristics of each game, and that’s time you can’t really shorten if you care about quality.

Then, different things will get on your way as you go on with your translation. Lack of context is one terribly common issue with game localization. You will often need to send long lists of queries to your client to figure out what such or such item is, who someone is talking about in a sentence, whether a character is a male of female, etc. Preparing these queries is very time consuming, and you may only receive the answers far down the road, if ever.

Other things, like character limitations, can take an awful lot of your time, especially if you can’t find a proper solution and need to send yet another client query.

In other specializations, if you can’t find the translation for a technical word, you do your own research and memorize the term once and for all. Since you don’t need to look up that word again, you gain productivity with time. On the other hand, for video games, you need to repeat the familiarization/querying process every time around, which means your margin for productivity improvement is rather limited.

Game Translators: Charge More!

Speaking from personal experience, I can say my productivity is way better than it was when I started my life as a translator. However, games have always been trailing behind on that improvement curve. I translate games faster today because I got familiar with the whole process, but this improvement is not anywhere near as significant as it has been for some other of my specializations, such as user manuals for computer hardware (printers, projectors, etc.). It’s not a problem that appears very clearly when you start out and everything is new to you, but with time it becomes obvious that game localization just takes more time than “technical fields” at a comparable level of experience.

In the end, game translators lose twice: once when they negotiate rates, because clients think games are easy to translate, and once because experience doesn’t help quite as much as in other fields. Remember: hourly rate = rate * hourly productivity. So if you accept half the per-word rate of, say, a legal translator and translate half as fast, you are making 4 times less money per hour.

A good general rule, not only for games but for translation in general, is to set per-word prices that will allow you to reach the hourly rate of your choice. The rest shouldn’t be relevant. Remember that the next time you quote for a project!