The Basics of Localization
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
*Disclaimer: The words, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the following post are mine and do not reflect those of any company or organization with which I’m affiliated.
I began my current position as a Localization Editor for Square Enix this past April. When I started, I fielded a lot of questions from my friends about what localization was and exactly what I did. I gave them a basic rundown of my job duties and the field in general, but only recently realized that there might be many others out there who are wondering what localization is as well. This is a modified post of the information I provided to my friends, and I hope it’ll be of some use to you as well.
Localization is the process of adapting a foreign translation to make it appropriate for the target audience and intended market. It’s different from translation, which is translating one language into another, but the two are related. Localization involves knowing the intended market’s cultures, customs, way of speaking and language (casual, formal, etc.), and traditions, among many others. Most localization writers and editors were English or Literature majors in college or similar, but this isn’t always the case – I’ll use myself as an example. I was a Psychology major, but that still comes in handy when understanding characters and character development, especially if you’re localizing an RPG (role-playing game). What you really need is an excellent command of the language into which you’re localizing the game. I’m a good writer and have been writing for years, and I’m rather obsessed with perfect spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, so of course localization and I were a perfect match.
In localizing games in the US from a different country – Japan, for instance – they’re usually first translated, then brought over to North American localization teams to adapt to fit the culture. So some things in the original Japanese, like a holiday, might be removed from the English localization because North American audiences might not understand it. Or it might be replaced by another holiday that’s more familiar. This happens with character names, food, jokes, items, and locations, to name a few. However, localizers keep the original messages and overall themes of the games intact.
Video game localization is probably the best-known localization right now, but it’s not the only one that exists. A lot of things which might not fit into the traditional category of localization qualify as well. Localization is also found in anime, though not always referred to as such, where scriptwriters adapt the translation to make sense for Western audiences. Not everything in the original will translate over well enough for the target audience to understand, so scriptwriters have to make sure that the rewrites are authentic. This is occasionally present in the “Sub vs. Dub” arguments that permeate the anime community; some fans want the original to be exactly translated from Japanese, and others want an entirely different adaptation.
Localization isn’t just from Japanese to English, though. Games made in the US also get localized in other countries, usually France, Italy, Germany, and Spain (known as FIGS in the localization field). People who do localization in those countries also need to know the customs and traditions of their home market. A lot of Western companies have teams that do localization from English to Spanish, for instance – Blizzard is one prominent example. There are even more specific localizations that can happen between two languages. For example, a game might be translated from English to Brazilian Portuguese instead of European Portuguese, depending on which one might be more suitable for a specific localization. There’s even American English and British English for those who might be unaware, so words like “lift” in British English are renamed “elevator” in American English. Or “colour” in British English is spelled “color” in American English.
Localization is still an emerging field in the video game industry. It’s relatively small and unknown compared to other aspects of game development such as graphics and music, but there’s actually a wealth of information about localization available online. Additionally, it’s great to see more and more gaming websites covering localization, especially as more games are being translated into different languages and reaching more audiences. When I began my localization career, I made myself a “Localization Information” manual that contains a lot of articles, techniques, and research papers pertaining to the subject. As I discover and uncover more information, I hope to share more of that with you all to give you a better glimpse into why localization is so important in video games and other media today.