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Ten Things I’ve Learned About Localization Editing

I have worked as a localization editor on a half-dozen or so projects ranging from an MMORPG being imported from Asia to mobile phone games whose code and initial text were developed in eastern Europe. Here are a few things these projects have taught me, both as a writer/editor and as a freelancer.


1. Know What You’re Getting Into

Or more specifically, how much you’re getting into. The client may quote you a number of entries, but the number of entries is only a very rough guide to the amount of work required. Quite apart from the amount of editing the text requires, the number of entries gives you no real idea of the starting word count. Depending on the platform an entry may be as short as 2-3 words or as long as a half-dozen paragraphs.

There’s nothing wrong with being paid by the entry, so long as you know how many words there are in the average entry – if you don’t, you could be letting yourself in for a lot more work than you expect, and a lot more than you quoted for. Always get a word count when you can – or better still, sign a non-disclosure agreement and look at the work before you agree a price. If neither of these is possible, negotiate an hourly rate.


2. Learn to Love Excel

This kind of task is almost always done in Excel rather than Word. Excel is not the friendliest environment for text editing, but it does support automated uploading of text to the game program, and that is why producers prefer it for this purpose.

For reasons that will be made clear later, there is no way around this. Excel – learn it, love it, live with it. The alternative – if there is one – may be some home-brewed text management system, and they are usually far less friendly even than Excel.


3. Establish Word and Character Length Limits

Before starting work, ask the client if there are any limitations on the number of words (or, more usually, the number of characters, including spaces and punctuation) in an entry or type of entry. In general, the smaller the screen on the target platform, the more likely it is that character count will be an issue.

Once you know the maximum character length for an entry, here is a neat trick that will have Excel monitor the character count for you:

  1. Enter the maximum number of characters in a cell to the right of the edited text.
  2. In the next column, enter “=LEN(A1)” where A1 is the cell with the edited text. This column will display the actual character count for the text in cell A1.
  3. In the next column, enter “=IF(B1-C1>0; “OK”; “Too long”)” where B1 is the cell displaying the maximum character count from step 1 and C1 is the cell displaying the actual character count from step 2. This cell will now display “OK” or “Too long” according to the number of characters in cell A1, so you can see at a glance whether you are within the limit.
  4. You can copy these three cells into the entire column and Excel will automatically update row numbers as required.


4. Beware of Codes and Macros

Some of the original text may include codes for paragraph breaks, special characters, fonts, and so forth. Always get a list from the client to avoid deleting them by mistake, so that you can enter them correctly in the edited text, and so you can spot errors. The client may tell you not to worry about this, but you should. Original text may also include macros of various sorts, which will be attached to the spreadsheet cells in which the text appears and will not normally be visible. These can be lost if, for example, you copy the text into Word for editing and then copy it back into Excel.


5. Show Your Work

Unless the client insists otherwise (which may be because of macros) use a new column for the edited/rewritten text, so that the original and edited text can be examined side by side. This will help the client in the event that your editing turns out to be based on a misinterpretation of the meaning of the original. Original text can sometimes be ambiguous. If this is not possible, highlight the cells in which you have changed text by using a different background or text color.


6. Edit, Don’t Write

The product is already made, and the story is set. No matter how much you think you could improve the story, do not rewrite to change story elements, as this can cause problems. Just fix up the text. But see below.


7. Look for Cultural References

A game that is imported from overseas will probably use metaphors from its language and culture of origin, and these may be literally translated. There will almost certainly be other cultural references, included knowingly or otherwise. Here are a couple of examples:

A game developed in Asia may refer to rice cakes instead of rations; this is easy to fix, provided you check it with the client first. There could be art or other ramifications to changing the word without telling anyone.

A game from Russia may have tough guys calling other characters “darling” regardless of gender. This does not imply anything about the speaker’s sexuality, because terms of endearment are often used ironically in the Russian vernacular; instead, it implies a put-down. The phrase will have to be changed for an American audience, to something less ironic and more directly insulting.

If you are lucky (and the text is clean) most of what you don’t understand in the original text will be some kind of cultural reference. Ask at the outset whether you will have access to the overseas writers and/or a locally-based speaker of the original language, so you can clear up any questions or problems quickly.


8. Eschew Exuberant Punctuation

In Asia, particularly, it is common to use multiple sentence ending punctuation marks, especially question marks and exclamation points, to convey emphasis. The text can look like a written version of the archetypal screaming Japanese game show host, and this may not be the desired tone for the game. Check with the client first, but as a rule only use single sentence end punctuation and convey emphasis through word choice and sentence construction.


9. Typos are a Universal Language

At the start of the project, get a definitive list of character, place, and creature names from the client. There is no guarantee that they will be spelled consistently in the original text. If in doubt, query. A dargon may be a mis-spelled dragon, or it may be a completely different creature.


10. Clear Name Changes in Advance

Sometimes a name will have to be changed, either because it is too similar to another name in the game (like the dragon and dargon example above), or because it has a sound or meaning in English that is laughable or runs counter to the game’s intended tone in some other way (for example, a spell that conjures a scalding explosion of steam may be called Wet Bang in the original text). Be aware, too, that the original text may be the work of multiple translators, each with their own way of rendering names into English. The Dark Wood and the Forest of Gloom could be the same place.

Always run suggested changes by the client before making them in the text, as the original names may be tied to art and code entities and those links may be broken if the change goes unnoticed. Also, you may not be the only editor on the job – especially if it is an MMORPG with tens of thousands of lines of text – in which case the client will need to juggle the input of multiple contract editors. The sooner you get your suggestion in, the more likely it is to be the one that sticks.


  1. April 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    A very true observation about cultural references. Ideal situation would be if a translator/editor could become familiar a bit with the cultural background/context of the piece he’s working on.

    When Deadlands RPG was to be published in Poland, a group of translators started with familiarizing themselves with all the western movies they were able to find in a local video rental and then they moved to some literature covering the Wild West. The translation turned out to be superb. Obviously they were given time to do so.

    Speaking of role playing games, are you going to write a bit about them too or your blog will be focused on computer games only?

    • April 5, 2011 at 2:14 pm

      I’m still writing a little for RPGs (currently a super-secret WFRP 3 project and ongoing work on Colonial Gothic), so tabletop roleplaying games will probably come up. It all depends on when a topic suggests itself to me.

  2. Chris B.
    November 5, 2011 at 4:25 am

    What you wrote about cultural references actually left me wondering. Are most of the game localisations you edit translated by non-native speakers?

    The thing that really bugged me when I read you remarks on cultural references was that these shouldn’t be a problem for an editor. At least not if the game had been translated by professionals (no matter if native English speakers or not).

    A person with a minimum of a background in translation/translation studies would know that s/he cannot translate without knowledge about the subject as well as recognize and transfer any cultural references.

    For every professional translator, like mentioned in the comment above, it would seem natural to acquire the missing knowledge by doing research. This could simply involve watching movies or playing other games with a similar setting. However, if the result of a translation agency or other translator still contains cultural references distinct to the source culture I’d say those doing the translation weren’t professionals.

    Especially if a translation agency (and not a small developing studio itself) delivered such a bad quality it would actually be in favor of professional translators as well as yourself to criticize the translation. For as long as no one complains, those agencies will continue offering bad quality at a dumping price.

    • November 5, 2011 at 7:36 am

      I have never been told where the English text originated. Obviously the ideal way is to use translators who are well versed in the destination culture as well as the language, but smaller studios simply can’t afford it. Even larger ones may find it more cost-effective to have the initial translation done by a team member who knows English (and knows the game intimately), and then run the text by a contract editor to smooth out the language.

  3. Chris B.
    November 5, 2011 at 9:41 am

    In an ideal world I still believe it would make sense to question the origin of the text as an editor’s influence on the quality of the product is limited.

    As you wrote, you have to edit and cannot rewrite the story so to some extent the quality of the product is predetermined by the quality of the translation. So even if you are a freelancer I think it would be your right to state a source text is faulty (which also influences the amount of your work).

    Besides I think neither editing nor translation are services to save money on. Compared to the developing costs (storywriting, programming, graphics design etc) the costs of a translation or editing are almost insignificant. But still both services are important factors when it comes to product quality. They could even determine success or failure in a whole market.

    And even in-house translations by laypeople (in terms of language/translation) are often bound to fail. Famous example would be TES: Oblivion. The bad German translation made it into wikipedia and not to mention all those game magazines that gave the game a much less favorable score than the English original would have gotten.

    I found all of your observations really interesting from a translator’s point of view, especially as most of your tips are equally valid for translators. And of course it shows how much translators could facilitate an editor’s life 😉

  1. February 10, 2014 at 12:41 pm

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