How Video Game Localization Works for Rare Language Pairs

In the localization industry, English is known as the lingua franca – the common language, the bridge between all rare language pairs. However, games are played all around the world and need to be localized in many languages. Even though the United States consists of millions of gamers, that much can be said for many Asian countries such as Japan, China and Korea.

Companies that are looking to localize their games in a variety of languages often go for a “pivot” language, the bridge between rare language pairs. Pivot language translation is popular for multilingual projects, especially when English is not the source language. However, managing localization projects that involve a bridge language can get complicated.

Bridging the Gap Between Rare Language Pairs

When it comes to translation there are 2 constant elements – the source language and the target languages, however, when it comes down to rare language pairs a direct translation might not be possible. There are different reasons why this happens. For example, when it comes down to machine translation there is just not enough data to feed the algorithm, but what about human translation? First, you need to find a linguist that specializes in one of the rare languages in question, which is a task on its own, and then they actually need to be a video game specialist. As you can see this can quickly turn into a real issue.

This is where the bridge language comes into play. A recent example can be Elden Ring’s localization into Spanish. You can imagine that Japanese to Spanish is not a popular translation pair, and this is where English comes to save the day. So the actual Spanish localization is translated from English.

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Direct translation is used for a few language pairs and a pivot language for the rest. Such procedure is used all the time for major localization projects that involve many languages and happens everywhere, even outside the video game industry. Languages, besides English, that make for a good bridge language are also French and German.

Are Bridge Languages an Issue?

Many Asian video game developers are shying away from the notion of bridge language when it comes to localization. Even though it is the obvious choice for some of the rare language pairs, the concern is reasonable. Having an in-between step in the translation process only increases the chance of content being lost in translation. Which can be crucial for understanding the story behind the characters and the lore of the game. Let’s talk about some of the major concerns when translating from a pivot language.

Mistranslation of the Pivot Content

One of the most important steps is having a flawless pivot language translation, to begin with. A mistranslation in the pivot language leads to the same mistake being reflected for all other target languages and this is a lot more common than you might think. This is where a proper quality assurance procedure is a must.

Changes in the Source

While this doesn’t happen all the time, it is still pretty common. Video game developers often release updates that make changes or corrections to the already existing content. You can already imagine how much this complicates the process, especially since everyone needs to wait for the changes to be reflected in the bridge language before they begin work in the first place. Minor corrections often go under the radar and might never get processed for the rare language pairs.

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And Of Course – Honorifics

A major challenge when dealing with Asian language translation is the role that honorifics play. Among other linguistic markers, these can be difficult to pick up from one language to another, let alone if part of a multi-step translation. Gender and formality are often features that require fine-tuning after the initial translation.

One such example that we’ve had this year is from the popular Korean video game Lost Ark. In one of their updates the female antagonist Vykas is referred to as “he” throughout the whole storyline, leaving players confused with the actual gender of their enemy. Let’s assume they will use the English translation as a bridge when localizing to other languages. You can see how quickly Vykas can be turned into a male, leaving only Korean players in the know.

It Is Not All Doom and Gloom

video game localization for rare language pairs using pivot languagesDon’t get the wrong idea, using a pivot language has its benefits that should not be overlooked. One of the main ones, as you might have already recognized, is the available linguists suddenly expanding. While rare language pairs can be difficult or downright impossible to find translators for, this is quickly fixed when you add a bridge language such as English into the equation. To top it all off, finding a linguist that actually specializes and has experience in the field becomes that much easier.

Have an Efficient Process in Place

If it has become obvious that a bridge language is required for a given video game localization project due to specific rare language pairs, it is important to make the best out of it and have several factors in mind.

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One thing that we always recommend is glossaries! Such lists always help ensure the integrity of the content is kept throughout the translation process. All and any details that you find relevant should be noted. Gender and formality are also important details that could be missed without additional markers. Ensure the clarity of the context as the pivot language could lack certain linguistic characteristics.

Speaking of the pivot language, while we started the article with English as an example, it might not be the best language for your project, or for the particular rare language pair in question. Consider the similarities and differences that the languages have. When it comes down to an Asian language with lesser resources, then Japanese or Korean could serve as a better bridge between them.

Choose the Best for Your Video Game Localization Project

The bridge language process can be time and cost-effective for localization projects when low-resource rare language pairs are involved. In this article, we are using video game localization as an example, but the method can be applied to any localization project that involves many rare language pairs, regardless of the industry and topic at hand. It is important to have in mind that extra quality control and effort are required to efficiently manage such a project. Make sure to refer to your translation services provider for any questions regarding the process.