Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What I Do

Every now and again, I am asked just what exactly it is I do for Asmodee (other than demoing their games).

I can't share specific examples, but I can - in broad terms - explain the process.

My role is "localization."  I was, at first, credited as an Editor, but I'm not comfortable with that credit, as I'm not necessarily grammatically correct when I finish.  In fact, while grammatical correctness is a goal of the revision, it's secondary to clarity.

The process is deceptively simple. Originally, I worked only on games which had previously been released in French. These days, most of Asmodee's games (and those which they distribute) seem to be shooting for simultaneous release.

Basically, a translator is given a draft of the rules. They then translate those rules and send them to me, along with images (if possible) of the game.  Usually I am working from a Word document with "track changes" running so they can see what I tweaked.

I read the rules and make sure that they make sense. For my first read-through, I'll not make any changes, I just leave comments that are often answered later in the rules. On my second read-through, I'll clear these comment (if they were answered), and will actually make changes.

I ask questions for clarification, and tweak the wording as appropriate. Sometimes the games will go through multiple cycles. To give you an idea what the rules look like when someone don't localize them first, check out Mall of Horror (if you can find a copy). In the case of Ghost Stories, for example, the game itself (and components) was changing faster than we were getting it translated.  This led to a great deal of confusion and problems with the final translation. In fact, these two games (more than any other) have driven me to ask more and better questions.

In the time I've been doing this, I have become quite familiar with how French can break when it is translated into English.  The easiest example of this is the word "Precision" - when you see "Precision" in the rules for a game that was originally in French, the word that should be there is "Clarification." It took me a few games to figure this out, by the way.

Now, this localization doesn't catch everything. Claustrophobia, for example. The original French rule book said that the Demon player could use certain abilities "once." Somewhere in the translation process, that was changed to "once per game," when, in reality, it should have been "once per Threat Phase" (the equivalent of once per turn). Takenoko has one action available in which you draw two tiles and choose one. The French rulebook then states that you place the remaining two on the bottom of the deck.  The English rulebook says you place them back on top of the deck.  If the translation I receive is wrong, then the suggestions and corrections I provide will also be wrong, which then leads to errata.  And no-one likes errata - not the fans, not the publisher, not the designer, and really not the translator or localizer. I learned recently that they tend to use English as the basis for other translations, too - so if a mistake creeps into the English version, it'll also appear in the German and Spanish versions, compounding the need for accuracy.

I've seen several games that haven't been released yet. In a few cases, these game will never see English-language release. Renaissance, for example. Others go through multiple translations - Helldorado is an excellent example of this. I saw no less than three official translations of that one - and then Asmodee cancelled it and another publisher in the US decided to step up for an English-language release.

Some projects have required group discussions, either via Google Chat or Skype. That way, the conversation can include my wife (who has helped on a number of games, both credited and not) and more than one of the translators if more than one are working on a project.

I know I'm not the only translation localizer in the industry, but I don't know any of the others, so I can't speak as to their process. It's not hugely time-consuming, but it is a necessary step in getting games to market. And I'm often under a time crunch.  Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk, for example, was finished less than a week before GenCon, and they wanted a prototype at the convention.  It involved a 3am Skype call with the translator so we could make sure were on the same page in terms of humor and other nuances.

It's worth noting that humor is difficult to translate int he first place.  Many of the jokes we slipped into the English version of le Donon de Naheulbeuk won't make sense to the French. Some of them won't make sense to the British, either. We tried to make it as universal as possible.

And, before you ask, I don't know when (or if) this one will be released.  It's a fun game, but it's also a weird one and it's based on a French podcast so some of the jokes won't make sense unless you have heard the podcast (or are familiar with it).

It's not a perfect summary, but it explains what it is I'm up to when I have projects in front of me.


  1. Anonymous3:00 AM

    I appreciate you giving the issue of game translation some attention here.

    I agree with most of what you are saying, but this: "I have become quite familiar with how French can break when it is translated into English" can easily be remedied by contracting professional translators.

    A (good) professional translator, will simply not make elementary mistakes like these. They will also be aware of cultural differences (e.g. regarding humour) and the need to gear the translation towards the target audience. And where they are not, they will know it and check back with the designer/publisher/rules writer.

    It is a pity that many are still under the impression that anyone who knows the two languages in question reasonably well can translate.

  2. I both agree and disagree with what you are saying about hiring professionals.

    A large part of the problem is that gaming often uses some very specialized language - I recently had a native English speaker question "turn" vs "round" in a game we were working on. She genuinely didn't understand that there was a difference between the two! Because of this, even professional translators still often need folks like me to revise their translations.

    It's also worth noting that Asmodee does employ professional translators. So do the other publishers with whom I have worked. I don't think it was so when I first started, but I'm honestly not sure (and I've never asked). The people I work with these days are all professionals.