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Game localizer Diana Díaz Montón discusses the cultural adaptation of films and online games and provides some current examples.

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Word Games
Christoph Niedermair

Offering localization services for the game and toy industry


Without a doubt, delivering translation and localization services for the game and toy industries is more than child’s play. These days, with billions of dollars in revenue from international sales at stake, companies are becoming more and more aware of the importance of delivering quality localized products to specific markets. With incredible growth rates in segments such as computer and video games (which make more money than the US film industry these days), but also with learning toys, board games and many other products trying to find their ways into playrooms worldwide, the industry is a strong player that demands to receive quality services from translation and localization vendors. While many of the same questions that affect any translation and localization project are also valid for these markets, there are a variety of issues unique to the game and toy industry that need to be addressed.

Apart from all the challenges, however, working for this industry also offers many unique advantages, among them not only financial rewards, but also the pure fun of working in an environment that focuses on exactly that — fun. While working for the toy and game industry might not always be as entertaining as playing the actual games, any vendor offering localization services might want to set its sights on a new client and its end consumers: the toy and game industry and the kid (or adult, for that matter!) eager to try out his or her new game or toy.

Globalization and Internationalization Trends
Apart from the usual current issues such as outsourcing to low-cost countries, there are a few globalization and internationalization trends obvious for the toy industry. A good example for globalization trends is the popular Playmobil® figures. Playmobil is a company headquartered in Germany, while the actual figures are mostly produced in Malta (yes, Malta!) and distributed worldwide.

Now let’s have a look at Playmobil globalization at work. Not only are the products distributed worldwide and the production outsourced to abroad, but the actual products themselves are highly globalized. If you buy a Playmobil police set in Germany, you’ll get the traditional German green and white police car, and the policemen and policewomen are wearing accurate German uniforms (green and brown). For international markets, however, Playmobil opted for a more “international” look (dark-blue and white cars and uniforms) so that police/rescue figures and accessories are available in at least two different versions. When companies focus on their international customer bases that much, it is obvious that they also expect solid translation and localization work of impeccable quality to accompany their products. In order to do so, however, translators and vendors have to realize the unique opportunities and challenges offered by this industry.

Internationalization at full speed — different versions for different markets

The Playroom — a Colorful and Diverse World
The quantity and diversity of different toys and games offered can be mind-boggling. Computer games (from sophisticated strategy, building and empire-creating games with hundreds of thousands of words that need to be localized to first-person shooters), electronic learning toys (from the popular LeapPad products from LeapFrog to talking play kitchens, workshops and language learning products), board games, card games, action figures, construction toys, stuffed toys, dolls and many other product categories all offer unique translation challenges.

In order to localize a computer game, for example, a translator needs to be well versed in software localization per se, since computer game localization involves many of the same tasks and issues that localizers have to deal with during any other localization project, such as working with source code, creating functional and easy-to-use help systems and manuals that are concise, accurate and easily understandable as well as consistent with the actual software. Translating product materials for an action or play figure, on the other hand, might only involve translating packaging or marketing text and working with strictly defined space limits (oh no, not those long German compounds again!), maintaining consistency with existing text when product lines are extended, while still trying to get the message across.

General Aspects of Toy Localization
There are several issues translators and vendors have to keep in mind when working with toy products, some of which are important aspects of working for this industry or for any other client, for that matter.


Playmobil’s home page displays 13 language choices — and toys such as the fire chief’s car and a fire-breathing dragon

Foremost among these is the audience. While it is obvious that the audience is important for any localization project, there is a main difference between many other projects and a project done for the toy industry: When working with toys, you’re working for kids. When localizing a manual for a highly sophisticated business software application, the audience expects a formal style, even though the main purpose of the translation might be to describe a product’s functionality as simply and concisely as possible. When translating for kids, this approach will get you nowhere. Forget the formal form of address; it’s du, tú or toi with toys.

I once worked on an instruction book about the popular Pokémon trading cards game. The book was addressed both to children as well as to their parents (mostly to the parents, since they were the ones who had to actually learn about the world of Pokémon — their kids were already intricately familiar with it!), so it was necessary to switch back and forth between formal and informal address when actual game tips targeted to kids playing the game were described in comparison to introductions into the complexities and philosophies of the game world. When working for a young audience, it is also often important to tone down the tech lingo and use simpler, more concise language. So, please save the complexity for the next defibrillator manual and try to speak clearly and in simple terms when describing the rules of a board game.

Cultural Issues
Another important aspect: cultural issues. Similar to any other translation and localization work, the importance of cultural backgrounds and differences must not be underestimated. I once had the unenviable task of localizing a board game offering “fast action and gross-out humor full of creepy fun.” The game was targeted to 7- to 11-year-old (American!) boys who have a simply uncanny fascination with body functions and featured game figures such as an earwax monster, a vomit fiend, a snot-throwing monster, a monster that coughed up hairballs and other rather colorful characters with one common trait: they were all incredibly disgusting. The client was pretty surprised when I told them that German kids were nowhere near as fascinated with gross-out humor, bodily fluids and different kinds of mucus as US kids were. Thus, even the game’s premise itself might become a roadblock on the way to success in a different market with other cultural values and sensitivities.

Individual countries’ patriotic feelings and cultural differences regarding a country’s military heritage can also be of importance. That’s one reason G.I. Joe and other, newer war toys will never be as big in Europe as they are in the United States. Other qualities such as workmanship, materials used (plastic vs. wood, for example) and even the modes of play (individual play vs. group play) can also be quite different from country to country. Germany, for example, simply is the biggest market for board games for adults. Germans love to get together in the evening with a few friends to hoist a few beers and play a strategy board game. This is one reason why Germany every year is No. 1 in the highest number of new “hardware” games developed and released. In other countries, board games are not nearly as popular among adult players.

Other important cultural issues involve questions of sexuality and violence in games, specifically in computer games. While American youngsters can get their eager hands on all kinds of bloodshed-inducing games, foreign kids often face considerable hurdles such as very strict age restrictions when trying to get the ultimate new game. In Germany, for example, violence restrictions are so severe that some computer games can only be purchased by adults. For any game company, this reduces the potential market considerably, causing companies to try to tone down the violence a bit for the German market in order to receive a lower age rating. If they don’t, they simply cannot be successful on a more restrictive market such as Germany.

Additional cultural issues might involve sexuality, religious beliefs and a multitude of other aspects almost as diverse as the world we live in. German parents clearly are more concerned about this aspect of game play than US parents. Websites such as, where German parents can check out the contents of various games, are vivid proof of that fact.

The Game Universe
While all of these points are common sense approaches that often can also be applied to other types of translation or localization work, there is one aspect that is uniquely applicable to toy and game translation and localization: Whether the work relates to a fantasy role-player computer or board game, a trading card game based on a popular movie or toy model starships, toys and games often create their own worlds, the game or play environment in which the player moves and acts and which is such an important part of any play experience. It is absolutely essential to stay within the boundaries of this play world. No matter how good the overall quality of the localization work performed, if the translation causes the player to leave the play world, the product is not successful.

This is even more the case for licensed products with a cult following, such as products from George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising empire. Imperial Stormtroopers are Imperial Stormtroopers (or imperiale Sturmtruppen in the German version of the movies), so please do not call them “Empire soldiers” or something else, or you might not only invoke the wrath of the Siths, but also of a fan base about as loyal and adamant about “their” world as they come. If the localization process introduces different terms for important, product-specific terminology such as this, the player or gamer can be too distracted by the terminology problem to even want to continue playing the game or pick it up again in the future. The same is true for terms or phrases that just don’t belong within the world of a game, say anachronisms in a historical game or even the wrong form of formal address or certain phrases. So be mindful of the fantasy you are helping to shape. Don’t call a coward in an Old West game a wiener, no matter what.

Issues Due to Product Licensing
One other important aspect of working on toy and/or game projects is related to licensing and licensed products. As is obvious from the Star Wars example, movies, television shows, books and many other media products are nowadays often accompanied by a plethora of merchandise, from computer or video games to action figures, card games, board games, stuffed toys and many others. If a translator is working on a licensed product such as the ones mentioned, it is essential to stick to the terminology and mind frame set by the original, which often already has been localized for the respective target market.

When I recently worked on a trading card game based on the famous Harry Potter book series, for example, it was absolutely essential to use the correct German terms from the books for persons, objects, locations, creatures, spells and other product-specific language. In some language versions of the books, even proper names of persons were localized, not to mention place names and so on, so when doing localization work for licensed products, the same names have to be used in order not to confuse the customer and create consistency within the wide range of Harry Potter-themed products. In order to do so, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the source product. In this example, one would go through the books and create glossaries and lists with product-specific terminology. Under these circumstances, it’s not creativity that’s asked for, but rather remaining consistent with somebody else’s solutions for linguistic problems.

A LeapPad (left) is the basis for a prototype Afghan Family Health Book (right)

Issues Unique to Certain Products

There are also some issues that are definitely unique to the individual product. A prime example would be a learning toy such as the popular LeapPad. This product is essentially a foldout computer (although that’s not really visible to the young readers targeted as its potential users — it has no keyboard or screen, for example). The “software” is bought separately in the form of a cartridge and a spiral-bound book. The book is inserted into the LeapPad, and the child uses an attached pen to activate objects on the individual page that he or she has opened (to make a lion roar or an orchestra play, for example) as well as to touch sentences or individual words on the page. The words or sentences then are read out loud or even spelled out. The individual “software” for a certain page (or the two opened pages, to be more precise) is started when an object such as a green circle is first activated on the page. The software strings for this individual set of pages are loaded into the computer, and the objects on the pages come to life.

Obviously, a complex product such as this poses many challenges, not only of a technical nature, but also culturally and linguistically. Words and letters are pronounced and spelled out differently in different languages. The pages in the localized version of the book might not be big enough when text expansion is an issue. Some of the information might be too obvious or easy for certain cultures or too hard and obscure for others (think of a book about the history of baseball for European audiences or about soccer for American ones), among numerous other challenges.

This is just one example among many sophisticated and highly complex products on the market. The learning-toy sector alone is constantly growing and consists of a multitude of manufacturers, product types and individual products.

The same could be said for the hugely successful computer and video game industries. For products of such complexity, a joint effort of developers, translators, engineers and technical staff as well as marketing and sales personnel is necessary in order to achieve successful localization results.

While translation and localization work for the toy and game industry obviously poses various challenges to the language professional, one aspect that must not be neglected, however, is the fun and excitement projects for this sector can offer as well. Due to the immense diversity of products and subject matters, translators will not get bored. The differences between a Pokémon card game and a World War II combat computer game are as huge as can be, while language professionals get to know (and must get to know) different subject areas, time periods or even fantasy worlds. And then there is one factor that is probably more important than any other: the mere joy of visiting a toy or computer store in your country of origin and seeing the eyes of a kid light up when he or she gets a toy or game item for which you offered translation or localization services. Your latest terminal emulator localization project definitely can’t beat that!

Reprinted from MultiLingual magazine (2006, #74 Volume 16 Issue 6) with permission from Multilingual Computing, Inc.,

Christoph Niedermair is a freelance English-to-German translator specializing in software localization and game and toy translation.