Or why Google Translate isn’t your
go-to game localization partner


machine translation in localization


Cover design: Artem Nedrya
It’s not a secret that many indie devs have little to no budget. Often they’ll putter around on their project in their free time, with some hope that their game might eventually see a green light and perhaps make a small additional income. But what if they offered their game to a broader, international audience? Wouldn’t that help sales figures? Probably yes as it’s an easy equation. However, most indie devs taking the global route overlook a crucial component of this equation: Localization. And with localization comes the cost.
The easy way out of this obviously is using Google Translate or whatever your machine-translation service of choice is. But while recent years did see an increase in these machines’ sophistication, most notably thanks to AI and machine learning, there’s still much to learn for a machine to be on par with a human translator (probably only technological singularity will allow machines to reach this state).

The machine’s long road to perfection

What these machines still lack today is an understanding of context. Granted, the longer a given string of words is, the more linguistic context these machines have, increasing the likelihood that they will get the meaning right. But what if you feed a machine just a single word to translate? All it can do is, simply put, look it up in a dictionary—a domain-specific dictionary for games perhaps, if one’s handy. However, as opposed to a human who, ideally, might possess a basic understanding of the target language, it lacks the global knowledge needed to be able to locate this word’s place in a non-linguistic context. Let’s take the word credits as an example. You’ll likely find it with very different meanings in any given game: It could refer to some sort of in-game currency, be a synonym for lives/attempts or function as a menu option that will bring up the list of contributors. When not given any context, “credits” is a tough one even for a human translator, but a machine would also have to consider additional meanings like “loans” or “reputation”—and just pick one of these in the end. Adding to this, there are also a lot of so-called false friends a machine-translation engine is hardly able to cope with when lacking context.
It should be easy to imagine the implications this might have on a player’s experience. Yet, here are a few tangible, real-life examples of attempts to machine-translate in-game text from English into German. Some of the following had originally been provided to lighten the translator’s workload as they supposedly would have required some editing only. But more often than not, the translator had to start from scratch.

Moving spaceships lawfully while blasting steamy tunes

Let’s start with a few settings options. When configuring controls, one of the games in question shows images of different controllers so you can directly see which button does what. Now you could select Xbox One as an option for which controller to show, but Google Translate doesn’t seem to be aware of this console’s existence. Which explains why the option in German turned out as Xbox Eins. While this is an easy one for the player to guess right, things get more complicated in the music settings. The game allows you to use your own tunes from Steam Music, but the machine obviously hadn’t heard of this either and rendered it as Dampfmusik. Dampf does mean steam in German, but steam and Steam isn’t the same thing.
Turks make up a majority of foreign nationals in Germany. So let’s imagine a player in Germany who also speaks Turkish gets frustrated with the machine-translated gibberish and wants to switch the game’s language to Turkish, hoping they’ll be able to make more sense of it. Where you’ll find Turkey in the location settings of the English version, you are presented with Truthahn in the more or less German UI. A Truthahn is a turkey, as in the plumed Thanksgiving meal. But at least in this context, it doesn’t have anything to do with the country (though there is an etymological connection). This could only get funnier if, after changing the setting, the game would gobble at you.
It doesn’t stop there though: Want to turn on friendly collisions of players’ spaceships? You can do that in English, but the machine-translated German UI only allows you to switch on amicable collisions. Sounds way more friendly, doesn’t it? Or how about changing the resolution? In German, you may only change the solution. And while at some point, the game explains how to strafe right, it doesn’t tell you how to move sideways in German (which is how you’d literally put it in that language). Instead, something went completely wrong: Perhaps due to the formal similarity to “strafe right”, Google Translate came up with Strafrecht—meaning criminal law.

Adding some weird typos to the mix

As if this confusion wasn’t enough, another game completely fails to explain the very basics of its gameplay and the player’s task. And there wasn’t a human translator around to help fix the issues as the developer didn’t bother investing in proper localization.
The game is rather simple: You move a little guy around, collecting fruit that will explode to destroy enemies. There are a few twists to this concept as every now and then, you have to avoid both the fruit and enemies while surviving as long as possible. The machine-translated instructions, however, tell you to Vermeide Obst überleben, so lange wie möglich. While completely ungrammatical, you could easily read this as Avoid [to] survive fruit, as long as possible. So it takes little imagination to read this instruction the opposite way to the one intended by the author. In some levels, you’ll get bonus points for lightly touching enemies, granting you a so-called danger bonus. The main problem here is that this term had been translated inconsistently: While the instructions read Hol dir Gefahr Boni (“Get danger bonuses”), which is alright except for Gefahrboni incorrectly being written in two words, in-game you’ll come across another term Gefahenzulge. Which would be a highly idiomatic translation, had it been spelled properly without randomly omitting letters (the correct spelling is Gefahrenzulage). But having a different term for those bonuses now could make you wonder if there are two types of bonuses. Or bnses?

Only for testing and amusement purposes

Finally, if German is not your strong suit, there’s one intriguing experiment where Google Translate was tasked with localizing Final Fantasy IV from Japanese into English—a language pair much, much less related to one another than English and German, yielding some peculiar results, to say the least. Find out what an enema has to say about wearing basketballs.
If you, as an aspiring indie dev, want to spare you the blushes and instead reap the fruit of going global, you are well-advised to employ human translators. At least until AI will have taken over their work in a distant future—but by then, it might have taken over every other job too, including that of making games.