What’s a Good Game Translation Anyway

If you are interested in game localization in general, you have probably read one of the numerous articles about poor/farcical translations. As in many industries, you only seem to hear about translators when they screw up. As frustrating as it can be for a professional translator, you will have a hard time finding articles about great game translations.

In general, I think the average-gamer doesn’t have a good understanding of what goes into translating a game. A few years ago, I found a topic on a gamers’ forum about one specific text string in a game, in French. The turn of that sentence was a a little weird indeed, and the poster concluded that the game containing it was poorly localized.

The game in question was Zelda: A Link to the Past on SNES, one of the Nintendo machine’s most notable games, and a very well translated one at that. I’m not sure what was the volume of the source text for this game, but it had to be at least a few thousand words. And these words were beautifully translated. The linguist really managed to put out a well written script with her own style, rather than translate the whole thing literally, as so many people do in the game industry.

Then, for a single, isolated sentence, some people decide the whole work was to throw away. It wasn’t even that bad of a sentence. The phrasing was a little odd, but it still made sense and was grammatically correct.

It’s a shame people focus so much on what’s wrong with translations and forget to see the good in them. For this game in particular, the quality of the French script really added to the game atmosphere, a very important component of action-adventure games. Most people would see this as a job well done by developers and fail to see how important of a part the script was for their experience.

Nowadays, for big productions, you’ve got professionals writing scripts. It’s not so rare anymore to see people from Hollywood contributing to games. But back then, script writing was mostly done by people who were not really interested in it, as they had more important business to do – that is putting the game together and making it functional. At that time, translators really had a chance to take over the “raw” script in place and turn it into something more compelling and memorable. The French version A Link to the Past is all about that, and it really inspires me in my work. When I’m not sure what’s the best way to put a sentence in French, I think of what would be best for gamers, even if it means I have to rewrite the complete sentence from scratch.

Good game localization allows you to enjoy the game as if you were a native speaker playing the original version. A great game localization makes it even more enjoyable. You may call it imperfect, but A Link to the Past definitely belongs to the latter category.