Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The cultural dimension in games localisation

As translators and interpreters know, it is very important to bridge the gap between cultures. In certain disciplines, the meaning and the effect that the text has on the reader is far more important than the words. This is especially true of localisation, which has been defined as the “adaptation of a product, application or document content to meet the language, cultural and other requirements of a specific target market” (Ishida & Miller: 2005).

In the specific field of games localisation, this adaptation goes well beyond the words. As we all know, different cultures perceive things in different ways so, if a product is to be successful, it’s important to make sure that it adapts to the target markets, as the picture below amusingly shows. In fact, at least 50% of the revenue in games comes from localised versions (Chandler: 2006), which shows why localisation efforts should not be underestimated.

A while ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a very interesting presentation by Melissa Clark-Reynolds, Founder and CEO of MiniMonos, a company which provides a virtual world for children in which they can create a monkey avatar, socialise with other monkeys and play minigames. She spoke of how sometimes they release minigames adapted to their local markets. One interesting example was a minigame which involved monkey poo, as can be seen in the following pictures.


This type of minigame would have never worked in the Australian or New Zealand markets, for instance, where children are not as obsessed with their digestive system as they are in the UK. Despite speaking the same language, the cultures in these countries are different and being able to adapt to British “tastes” (if we can call it that in this case!) proved an extremely effective strategy, making this one of the most successful minigames for the company in the UK.

Another company in the world of online gaming, Zynga, famously decided to enter the Chinese market a couple of years ago. They rebuilt the game Farmville and, although the Chinese version is quite similar to the original Farmville, there are some changes that reflect the preferences of this target market. For instance, some changes were made to the colour palette and the plots of farmland are larger than in the original version.  And some new crops were also introduced, as can be seen in the picture below:


These crops, like the ginseng or the Caterpillar fungus, reflect the kind of crops that would grow in the region.
All this has huge implications for the games localiser, who must not only be a master of the written word, but also become a language consultant, and provide advice to clients when they come across something that could cause a potential issue in the target market.

Some time ago, I was working on a Japanese game for a portable device. The title included a minigame in which the characters had to compete to finish a big bowl filled with some type of alcoholic drink. The first one to finish it won the game, and the characters were depicted quite obviously drunk, and then complaining about having a headache the morning after. I had been told that the age rating of the game was 3+, so I immediately identified a problem and warned the client that a drinking minigame was going to be problematic in the target market, especially for such a young audience. All the translators discussed the problem as a team and we developed an idea to turn the drink into some sort of sugary potion and change the text so that the characters got a sugar rush instead, as children often get when having too many sweets. That saved the client a lot of time and money by not having to edit the game, and they were very grateful.

Other times, this cultural dimension can appear in the form of cultural references within the games themselves. For instance, in World of Warcraft there is a trinket called the Six Demon Bag, and its description text reads “Blasts enemies with the power of wind, fire, that kind of thing!”. This is a reference to the movie Big Trouble in Little China, in which Egg Shen’s describes the contents of his Six Demon Bag using the same words. In these cases, it’s important for the localiser firstly to identify the reference, and secondly, to look for the equivalent, that is, the official version of the movie in the target market (whether it’s dubbed or subtitled), and use the same wording in order to achieve the same effect that the original version of the game aims for.

Another important cultural aspect is related to characterisation. Many games contain fantasy characters such as orcs, wizards, fairies, but also pirates, gangsters and similar. The localiser will need to be familiarised with the way those creatures or characters speak in the target language and follow the conventions. It could be possible that an equivalent accent might need to be found in the target language to portray certain stereotypes or, lacking that, the use of certain interjections, expressions or pet phrases. Rude language and swearing can be particularly tricky because, whilst the effect on the player has to be maintained, cultural sensibilities also have to be taken into account. Some languages and cultures are more accepting of this type of language than others.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that the content always has to be adapted. Sometimes aspects of the source culture have to be kept in order to maintain a certain local flavour. It wouldn’t make much sense for a game clearly based in New York, where the city is central to the story, to have characters speaking with a very marked regional French accent, for instance. However, both localisers and developers need to be aware of these issues and use their skills and expertise to ensure that the localised product meets all the requirements and needs of the target market if the product is to be successful. After all, this is a business, and the better the quality of the localisation, the higher the potential for revenue.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Translator-client relationships. Part 2: the client.

Following part 1, in which I focused on what translators can do to improve their relationships with their clients, now I would like to explore what those clients can do to make their translator’s life easier and achieve the best possible results.

1.  Information is key
The more information you provide about your project, the easier it will be for the translator to get a feel for it and achieve a product that maintains the spirit of the original. It’s important to clarify the purpose of the text, how and where it will be used and provide some context. In the localisation industry, it’s quite common to work without having seen the product at all, which can cause all sorts of problems, from sentences that can mean different things depending on the context to even gender issues (for instance, is it a male or female character speaking?). So provide as much information as you can and make your translator’s life much easier; in turn, they won’t have to get in touch with you to ask a lot of questions.

2. Communicate, communicate and communicate
Throughout the translation process, it’s important to keep communicating with your translator. Inform them as soon as possible of any changes and pass on any additional information you may have. Similarly, do not ignore any questions that the translator might send you, it’s important to get clarification on those issues in order to achieve the most suitable translation. After all, you are both working together to make this project a success in the target market.

3. Translators are not machines, so don’t treat them as such
If it takes you two months to write a piece, why would you assume it can be translated in two days? Translators are not machines, they don’t have a switch you can press and the text comes out automatically in another language. In fact, translation involves more thinking than it does writing. You have to read carefully the original and assess the purpose of the text (to inform, to sell, to make the reader laugh, etc.) and how the writer has used all the different nuances of the language to achieve that effect. You might have to adapt cultural references, like changing the name of celebrities to names of famous people in the target market, finding an equivalent accent in the target language which carries the same sort of stereotypes (or another strategy that will achieve the desired result), adapt jokes, etc. And sometimes do all this whilst sticking to ridiculous length restrictions! Translation is indeed an art, and as such it takes time.

Also, good translators tend to be quite busy most of the time, so you can’t assume they will drop any other projects they are working on so they can take care of yours immediately. It helps to give a bit of warning if you are close to finishing a project that will need translating.

4. Be aware of language combinations and specialisations
Nobody can know absolutely everything about any subject area in the world. That is why translators tend to specialise in just a few fields (usually 4-5). This allows them to understand that subject area completely and familiarise themselves with the specific terminology and style of writing. As a client, it pays off to be aware of your translators’ specialisations; you will get a much better result quality-wise if you assign the right project to the most suitable translator. Also, the translator will be able to work faster as they won’t have to stop constantly to check for new terminology, so it benefits both parts.

In addition, I know it sounds pretty obvious to say that, if you need a translation say from English into French you should hire a translator that works in that language combination, but many translators are still getting requests for languages they don’t know, so it’s important to pay attention to the languages they do work with. And bear in mind that translators should only work into their native language! That is the only way to ensure that the text will read fluently and naturally and will have the correct style, register and cultural nuances.

5. Treat your translators with respect
As a client, adopt a professional approach towards your translators and value them for what they are: professionals who have studied and trained long and hard to master what they do. Do not treat them as mere accessories to your processes or, worse still, as people who don’t really know what they’re doing but you need to use for whatever reason which you’re unsure of. If you treat them with respect, they will respond in kind. Common courtesy helps establish and maintain a good relationship with your translators: warning them when a project is due to arrive, saying thank you when you receive their files (especially if they’ve gone out of their way to accommodate an urgent request), listening to them when they point out certain issues, etc.

Part of treating your translator with respect also involves queries/doubts and feedback. Quite often, I have had clients complain because we translated X as Y, whereas according to certain online dictionary the translation for that should be Z. Instead of pointing the finger at the translator, check politely with them why that might be. In many cases, there are many different ways of saying the same thing or a word is much more appropriate than another in a certain context. Besides, you shouldn’t trust dictionaries blindly! If the whole translation has received negative feedback, you could have it checked by another translation to establish if there really was a problem with it, or the changes made are simply stylistic and a matter of preference.

6.  A little flexibility goes a long way
This applies to both parts, actually. Translators should be flexible so they can accommodate their clients’ requests, including occasional last minute changes and requests. However, flexibility is also an important quality for the client. For instance, clients should be prepared to listen to their translator and extend the deadline a bit if it’s too tight, or they should also accept suggestions or perhaps even listen to constructive criticism. If a translator points out possible issues with the text or suggests an alternative working method, they’re not trying to undermine the client but quite the opposite; they’re only trying to help in order to achieve improved results which will benefit both parts.

7. That said, don’t make your translator jump through hoops
Yes, flexibility is extremely important for the translator, but at the same time it’s not a good idea to drive them crazy with constant updates and changes to the project, additions, new instructions and the similar. These can be very time-consuming and force the translator to check the whole project again and again in order to apply those changes throughout, increasing the chance of inconsistencies. It is better to plan the project accordingly so no changes are needed in the original once it has been sent for translation. Sometimes this might not be possible, but at least try to keep them to a minimum.

Similarly, even though most translators are quite happy to accommodate the odd urgent request, do not expect them to regularly drop whatever other projects they are doing in order to complete your request immediately.

8. Do not assume cheapest is best (in fact, assume the opposite!)
As I explained at length in this entry here, in translation, as in any other industry, you generally get what you pay for. I understand clients are trying to save some money in this economic climate, but bear in mind that good translators spend a lot of time and money on training, research, technology and improving themselves constantly, so if somebody is promising you to translate your projects at rock-bottom prices you should think about what the reason behind it is. A bad translation is worse than no translation at all, so if you don’t want to risk losing your own customers because they can’t understand the material you have sent them or it’s so bad it’s laughable, make sure you hire the right professional.

9.  Pay on time
This is somewhat related to treating your translators with respect. If you want to have a good relationship with your translator, based on trust and honesty, make sure to pay within the stated payment terms. The translator will feel more appreciated and will be more willing to work with you again. Small delays due to oversights are acceptable every now and again, but don’t use the economic situation or the late payment by your own client as an excuse; when you hire a translator you enter a contractual relationship with them, and them only.

10. Do not assume anybody can translate
I have lost count of the amount of times that, after telling people I am a translator, I have heard “Oh, can you make a living out of that? I speak another language too, maybe I should do the same”. Worse still, I have also heard things like “I’m going to ask my (replace with unidentified friend or family member) to translate my document for me, they did French at college/spent a summer in Spain, etc.” I’ve even had clients doing their own translations into Spanish which I had to fix because they were atrocious! They might have studied Spanish in school, but obviously not long enough to realise they will never sound like a native speaker.

There is a reason why a profession called “translator” exists. You wouldn’t say that anybody can be a doctor or a solicitor, and the same is true of a translator. It requires very specific skills that most people with knowledge of other languages won’t be able to master. It’s not just about writing without spelling and grammar mistakes (which these days seem to be a lot to ask for already!) but also about writing style, creativity, cultural knowledge, technical skills, subject area knowledge... I could go on.

As for automatic translation tools, like Google Translate and such... copy a paragraph written in any language and see how they translate it into your language. Would you really send that to your customers? Enough said.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Translator-client relationships. Part 1: the translator.

In this post I would like to explore the issue of translator-client relationships, focusing on what translators can do to improve these relationships and hopefully become one of their client’s favourite providers, to which they will come back again and again.

1.       Be there
The translation industry is a fast-moving one and it’s important that you reply to project enquiries as soon as possible. Of course, clients should not expect you to be at your desk 24/7, or not to be able to pop out for a bit (after all, that’s one of the reasons why you chose to work for yourself), but sometimes a late response can lose you a project, so make sure you can access your e-mail from your phone if you plan to be away from the desk for a while, or even leave an autoreply message saying when you’ll be back. If a client appreciates your services, they will be willing to wait for a few hours provided the project is not too urgent and they know exactly when you’ll return. Also, as obvious as it sounds, please make sure to answer your phone calls, you wouldn’t believe the amount of translators that are unreachable when you try to ring them!

If you plan to go away on holidays for a few days, it’s best to warn your clients in advance, so they don’t get any surprises when they try to contact you for that all-important project.

2.      Be professional
If you want to be taken seriously, you have to portray a professional image at all times. Acknowledge the receipt of files and confirm you agree to the deadline, provide a quote promptly, keep the client informed on your progress if it’s a long project (but don’t bombard them with e-mails!) and, in the unlikely event that something comes up and you won’t be able to deliver on time, inform your client as soon as possible so they can make the necessary adjustments to their schedule and/or inform the end-client. Show that you care about the project and you take your work seriously and your client will be much more willing to work with you.

Professionalism is about behaviour but also about image. It is advisable to choose a logo, lettering or image that represents you and your services and use that across all your material: website, blog, invoices, business cards, etc. After all, freelance translation is a business and should be portrayed as such.

3.      Don’t try to be everything under the sun
It might be tempting to offer many subject areas and language combinations, as the pool of potential clients will undoubtedly be larger. But we all know that it’s simply not possible to know everything about every single subject matter, so a translator will immediately raise suspicions if they are willing to work in every field. Similarly, it’s very hard to keep up your languages to the level required to do translation work. Even if you only translate into your native language (which you should!), languages have to be practiced regularly not to lose fluency, you have to keep up with linguistic changes, cultural changes and even political changes. You need to know what’s going on in the country whose language you are translating from, so you can identify idioms, cultural references, jokes, etc.

So stick to what you know best and are passionate about and you will be able to produce much better-quality work. If you try to translate a piece you are not comfortable with, the quality will suffer, you’ll probably be caught out and could end up losing the client.

4.      Don’t sell yourself cheap
You should be able to attract clients for what you can do, rather than your prices. Emphasise your unique selling point (USP) and your skills and show that you believe in yourself. Whilst you don’t want to price yourself out of the market, avoid the temptation of lowering your rates as bait. First of all, because it doesn’t say anything positive about you. As I explained here, translators who charge very low rates are either new to the industry or not very good at all. And secondly, because by lowering your rates you are damaging the whole industry and yourself in the long-term. If everybody did the same, the average salary of a freelance translator would decrease rather than increase over the years. Not what you want to hear when you’re starting out, right?

5.       Accept criticism
They say that no news is good news, and in the translation world that is certainly true. Most of the time you won’t hear a thing if the client is happy with your work. However, if for whatever reason that is not the case, you will most likely get a complaint. My advice in this scenario would be to approach the situation with care. Analyse what the problem is and, if you don’t agree with the client’s feedback, explain your choices politely. It happens quite often that the changes are just stylistic or, even worse, sometimes the client does not speak your language but grabs a dictionary and notices the translation of X word is Y, and not Z, which is what you wrote.

But if it turns out that there are mistakes in your work, don’t try to blame anybody else or insist you’re right, just own up, apologise and say it won’t happen again (make sure it doesn’t!). Your client will appreciate your honesty and professional approach, and you will learn from your mistakes and hopefully become a better translator. We are all human and as such we can make mistakes, it’s how you react to them that’s important.

6.      Be helpful, proactive and a problem-solver
In translation, you will encounter many unforeseen problems, from software incompatibilities to terminology questions and problematic cultural references. Before you bombard your client with lots of queries, make sure to do some research by yourself on the Internet, ask some of your colleagues, etc. If you do have to send a query, be as clear as you can, always bearing in mind that the client may not speak your language or, in many cases, any languages at all other than their own!

This also applies to software incompatibilities. If you can’t open a file because of its format, something that happens much more often than we’d like, do your research and find a programme that will help you either open it or convert it into something you can work with. The client will appreciate your initiative and the time you have saved them worrying about this. Besides, if you want to come across as a truly professional translator, you should be pretty technology-savvy anyway, there is no justification for not being able to use properly the programmes you have to work with every day.

And in the case of cultural references, explain exactly what the problem is and suggest a solution. For instance, imagine you are translating a wedding services website and the text refers to picking a location for a civil wedding, like a beach, a garden, etc. Whilst it might sound beautiful, in many countries this is illegal, as civil weddings can only take place in town halls or registry offices. If you spot something like this, you should inform the client immediately and suggest an alternative; for instance, replacing this with content about possible wedding reception locations.

What is important to remember is that, in most cases, you should not contact your client with a problem, but with a solution.

7.      But if in doubt, ask!
That said, if after researching you still haven’t found a solution, do ask. It’s better to ask and provide an accurate translation than fearing bothering the client and, as a result, produce something that’s incorrect. The same applies to software issues: if you have tried everything humanely possible to make it work and you’re still having problems, contact the client before it causes a delay in the project.

Also, do not assume that the source text is always correct, so if something doesn’t seem right to you, chances are there is a problem and the client will be grateful you pointed it out.

8.      Deliver quality at all times
As a translator, this should be a given, but sometimes it is very tempting to accept more work than you can cope with, or to translate something in a subject area that you don’t master because you are a bit short of work. As appealing as it might seem at the time, steer clear of any situations that will impact negatively on the quality of your output, for the reasons stated in point 3. You are only as good as your last piece of work.

9.      Have attention to detail
Sometimes, some of the simplest things can improve greatly your relationship with your client. For instance, adding the language code at the end of the file shows that you know they will probably be working with other languages too and you’re helping them save time by identifying easily which file is which, and avoiding the pesky error message which appears when they try to open two files with the same name at the same time.

Similarly, inform them if you notice a mistake in the original in case they haven’t seen it, and of course don’t reproduce it in your language. Replicate any formatting in the source text in your translation, as you will save your client precious time and it shows that you are computer-literate. Follow instructions to the letter and, as obvious as it sounds, make sure to run a spell check and check for double spaces before delivering! Too many translators forget this fundamental step.

10.  Be a pleasure to deal with
Small touches like asking your client if they had a good weekend, knowing if they have kids or not, or wishing them a good holiday can go a long way and help you maintain lasting working relationships. Think of it this way: would you rather deal with a nice person who’s always got a smile on their face, or a grumpy one who’s always moaning and complaining? It’s the same for your clients, if you are a pleasure to deal with, they will want to continue communicating with you.