Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of localisation. Entry is free.
We rarely think about localisation until it goes wrong - when a sentence peters out into gibberish and special characters, when a tutorial NPC exhorts you to take an incorrect action (do not attack while its tail's up!), when jokes and cultural references feel flat and forced. But a good localisation is invisible.
That's probably why we take it for granted, complaining about how long it takes and demanding to know why publisher X doesn't bring such-and-such a niche game over. Localisation isn't easy; translation is a creative act as well as a trained skill, and it's a great deal more complicated than find-and-replace on item names on a spreadsheet.
That said, it's not inaccessible: no matter how much or how little you know about the process, if you have a second language under your belt you can enter LocJAM.
Now in its third year, LocJAM is an initiative of the International Game Developers Association's Localization Special Interest Group. Founded in 2007, LocSIG serves as a focus for IGDA professionals involved with "translating, localising, internationalising and in general adapting video games for a global audience".
Anybody can sign up for LocJAM. The idea behind it is simple: you attend a free workshop and collaborate on translating a video game. Later, you submit your work to a jury of professionals from around the world.
"It is definitely quite close to being a writer. Translation is almost never word-for-word, there is always a certain degree of adaptation."
The inaugural LocJAM event spawned seven international workshops and focused on The Republia Times, a short open source work by Papers Please creator Lucas Pope. A programmer cobbled together a localisation interface, and for ten days anybody, anywhere could submit their French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish (European and South American) to LocJAM.
16 of the largest game localisation agencies gave up their time to submit anonymous reviews of the 500 submitted localisations, whittling them down to 34 winners across professional and amateur categories. In 2015, the event returned bigger and better, adding Russian and Brazilian Portuguese to the mix and debuting a new localisation platform for Twine, which could be leveraged for almost any existing Twine game.
The event's aim is to raise the profile of localisation, and so far it seems to have worked. At the Middlebury Institute of International Studies of Monterey in California, two students wandered into Max Troyer's LocJAM 2015 workshop and were inspired to enter the online contest. Olga Melnikoff was crowned a winner in amateur English to Russian translation, and Bruno Rossi took top honours in amateur English to Brazilian Portuguese translation.
Rossi told us his motivation for attending the workshop was fairly whimsical - it was just something different and fun to do. A localisation student, he'd never done any work on games, but had personally experienced many rubbish game localisations.
Melnikoff had never worked on games either, but was enrolled in Troyer's Games Localization class as part of Middlebury's Translation and Localization Management graduate program. Undaunted by the prospect of such a literary translation project (literature is one of her main hobbies), her only worry was the technical side of things. But LocJAM had gone out of its way to make that as easy as possible, and the workshop did the rest.
"I never imagined there was room for innovation in the areas of frying pan handles, and I will never be able to look at ice cream scoops without cracking up."
Both students have backgrounds in translation and localisation, and are native speakers of their translation languages of choice. Rossi has studied English throughout his academic life, including an undergraduate TESOL program and a Master's in localisation. Melnikoff majored in French while obtaining a Russian Bachelor of Arts in teaching French and English. She continues to maintain her French language skills, but soon came to see that most localisation work would require English. In her studies she'd learned how to read and understand but not to communicate; "I barely spoke when I graduated, but I had read tons of books by then, she said. But having lived in the US since 2012, she's on top of it now.
Both students entered as amateurs; although Melnikoff had seven years of freelance translation work under her belt this was her first big literary translation, and as students none of the workshop participants could be considered professionals. Their work immediately caught the eye of the judges.
"Bruno used perfect Portuguese grammar in his text but still managed to make the language in the game sound fun and informal," Davide Solbiati of Synthesis said. "There was only one tiny mistake in his whole translation (a missing quotation mark), but other than that it was really impressive and very well-written."
"Olga’s translation has the most natural sound of all, she took good care of grammar and language, it (for the most part) correlated well to the images," Alexander Loktionov of ITI explained.
With wins under their belts, both students have an impressive line on their CVs should they pursue game localisation. Rossi said he'd love to work in games, and is looking for opportunities, but Melnikoff has concerns about the low pay rates for both literature and video game localisation into Russian. "If they were higher, I would definitely love to be a translator of games," she said. She currently works as a localisation project coordinator, with no opportunity to translate the kind of sources she loves working on.
It's a shame creative localisation is often financially under-valued, because there's no end to the appetite for the finished product.
"There is a huge demand for localised content in Brazil," Solbiati said. "Ever since games have started to get localised for our language, players are generally negatively shocked when some company decides to release their game in Brazil in English with no translated subtitles and menus."
Understandably, even English-speaking Brazilian gamers would rather play in their own language "in order to fully understand the game's context, flow and tone". They're very harsh critics of a bad dub, too; Brazilian law dictates 70% of foreign content on paid TV be dubbed, and 100% on local free-to-air channels, so locals have learned to appreciate quality localisation.
"If the pay rates were higher, I would definitely love to be a translator of games."
Translating for Brazilian Portuguese is challenging, Solbiati said, because Brazil is home to so many accents and regional terms. There may be hundreds of ways to translate a foreign expression, and picking the right one to convey the feeling of the original words while proving understandable across all regions, is a must.
Russia is quite a different market. Loktionov said the demand for game localisations seems to have dipped in recent times, although his studio continues to work on major releases "and well-known titles, including Xbox exclusives". Translating into Russian from English is tricky.
"Word play, jokes, idioms – these are things that are usually difficult to properly convey, without losing the humour but also to make them clear for a Russian native," Loktionov commented.
Nevertheless, localisation is fun. Solbiati recalled an instance where a typo ("Aperte o gatinho" instead of "Aperte of gatilho") almost resulted in a game advising players to "pull the kitten" rather than trigger.
"I never imagined there was room for innovation in the areas of frying pan handles, and I will never be able to look at ice cream scoops without cracking up," Loktionov said. "And, of course, my dear colleagues the translators never seize to amuse me with linguistic pearls that, in all fairness, should not be humanly possible for a native Russian-speaker."
Rossi said he gets a kick out of crafting native-sounding messages in Brazilian Portuguese. "I love it when a translation requires me to be creative," he added.
Melnikoff echoed this sentiment, saying her second BA, in creative writing, has been hugely helpful to her translation career as well as her winning LocJAM entry.
"I love belles-lettres. My dream has always been to become a writer, but I became a translator instead, which turned out to be a very good replacement," she said.
"I really enjoyed it, since it is definitely quite close to being a writer: you would have to adapt the text anyway, try to find the best expressions and equivalents in the target language, perform 'culturalization', etc. This is because translation is almost never word-for-word, but there is always a certain degree of adaptation."
"I still miss these good times when I was a translator," she added, and it sounds like she wouldn't say no to taking on a game translation project if one fell into her lap. "Games are stories – some of them take place in various historic and cultural settings, they have characters that need to be described in the best way possible, so these are very close to translation of books, and I find it really hilarious."
LocJAM 2016 will be announced and detailed later this month. To learn more about the event, including entry conditions and local workshop, visit LocJAM, join the IGDA LocSIG Facebook Group, or follow the team on Twitter.