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An interview with Yulia Akhulkova – games enthusiast and localizer

A passion turned into a career

Any story worth reading is intimately tied with passion, and Yulia’s story is certainly no exception.  As a child growing up in Russia, Yulia would often escape the day-to-day realities and would venture into the magical world of video games. For Yulia, video gaming represented a certain level of enchantment – a temporary freedom from childhood angst. 

Some of Yulia’s favorite games include Counter-Strike, GTA, NFS, Truck Drivers (official English title: “King of the Road”), Quake, and Etherlords. During her school years, Yulia’s favorite indie action-adventure was Darkened Skye, and it remains her favorite even today.

This passion for the gaming world carried over into Yulia’s adult life. In addition to working as Nimdzi’s data scientist and helping to craft pieces of content focusing on technology, Yulia also heads the localization department at International Translation & Informatics Ltd. 

So, without further ado, let’s race on over to the interview!

Our interview

Could you elaborate a little on your background in game localization?

As a child growing up in Russia, I often had to play localized versions of video games. Being so young, I certainly didn’t question the correctness of the localization – I was just happy it existed!

Now (and since 2011) I work full time in a localization company in which one-third revenue comes from games localization. Some of the titles ITI has worked on include Rise of the Tomb Raider, Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight, Alan Wake, and Star Wars Battlefront. On a daily basis, we deal with English to Russian, Ukrainian for the localization stage, and up to 15 languages for linguistic testing of mobile games.

What are some of the typical tasks for a game localizer?

There are many. For example, there is a need for a continuous localization cycle and constant tiny updates that need to be localized on a daily basis. There is also need for linguistic testing (mobile games are similar to a big IT company website localization – screenshots are dispatched for daily verification, bugs are reported in JIRA, and so on). Many different aspects need to be localized within one project (for example, even if we localize web content about trucks or terminology about elves, on the very same day we may get a marketing or legal text to translate in both cases).

For game localization, we sometimes have to localize text without the ability to even see the screenshots of the environment (not to mention the inability to play the game itself). Games often contain “alive” content – there are characters with their own features and oddities that need to be conveyed. 

If you were to break down a video game localizer’s tasks, what percentage would be individual tasks, and what percentage requires collaboration?

More or less every task is a collaborative effort. Localization specialists at the publisher’s side need to communicate in advance with a dev team, a design team, and plan their processes and documentation together in order to agree how and when they’re going to do things.

At the language vendor side, linguists usually communicate with at least their project manager, or, in an ideal case, with each other as well. It may be arranged through the query platforms, bug trackers, and so on. The idea is that the experience and feedback of one team may be really helpful to another team, so transparency in communication is a key.

Can you elaborate on the linguistic testing process?

We are constantly doing linguistic testing. We verify in-game texts (translation accuracy, consistency, style, and layout) and overall game performance, like correct response of game elements to user inputs. Testing is performed on emulated game builds and in accordance with a strict plan. Testers make screenshots of game screens with bugs on them and log bugs in an online repository.

But during this multilingual testing, we don’t test the graphics quality, animation, game balance, or player engagement. For evaluation of such metrics, some clients can afford inviting focus groups to actually play the game. Their gaming experience is observed, recorded, and analyzed. Studios evaluate how gamers are playing, if and when they face any difficulties in the game, and what the root cause was to stop playing. However, personally I’ve never done something like that.

What do you look for when recruiting specialists in localization?

I often hear that there’s a shortage of good talents on the market. My opinion is controversial – there’s plenty. Especially for our native Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian target languages, there’s no problem to find a talented translator. For instance, Translatorscafe. Proz, Linkedin, or even Facebook communities may help to find matching foreign teams.

Especially if you have a solid assessment and training system, on-boarding language vendors and individual linguists works smoothly enough. The problem may be in finding an exceptional talent, whom you can trust and hire for the in-house work. In our company, we have been successfully managing remote teams for years. So the main challenge in terms of HR is to find a balance between what our clients pay us and what the exceptional talent costs. 

What advice can you offer video game developers when it comes to evaluating localization?

Gather feedback from gamers. Pay attention to the comments and rates in app stores and in the Steam community. Enable a simple and quick way for a user to leave actual feedback which will then be easily accessible and transparent for you. If you want some specific feedback, you can also create in-game surveys for the audience, but you need to make a survey worth completing for a user (maybe give them some in-game currency per reply).

Use translation industry standard practices such as third-party review of a sample translation, QA metrics, in-house QA checkers (QA built-in CAT, Xbench, Verifika, ContentQuo, LTB, etc), and linguistic testing. And don’t forget ground zero of every evaluation of a language you don’t speak –check whether or not the job your vendor delivered is MT!

What are some of the challenges you face in the game localization space?

I get a bit disenchanted by the essence of a localization specialist’s job itself, mainly because of the enormous number of online critics for games localization in general. Looks like fans and gamers just like to criticize everything, from terminology choices to actual voice talent picked for dubbing. Remember that in Russia, where I’m from, dubbing prevails in media l10n.

But then I remind myself of that little girl I once was, super-inspired by the escape the gaming world could give her from a grim and painful reality. And that is how I once again resume believing in the relevancy of a localization specialist’s work. So, I try to use negative online notes (devoted mainly to projects of other localization companies) to learn from them.

My takeaway here is simple – despite the fact that some consumers from around the globe may hate game localization, even saying that it is ruining their gaming experience, it is still needed. And if you do it with a gamer’s passion, you’ll succeed.

Which factors minimize the risk of localization failure and maximize the chances of success?

I’d recommend utilizing a business model of spending money wisely – in particular, spending more upfront on qualified people. This way you’re actually minimizing your risks. On the contrary, you’re taking a great risk if, let’s say, for a voice-over stage you’re going to grab some cheap random Vasya from the street. Or maybe not so random, you may decide to hire a son of your mother’s friend and make this person perform dubbing as if he was a real actor.

Also, do not try to cut engineering costs. Gamers will kill you figuratively speaking, for a bad dubbing even if the translation itself is objectively not bad. They’ll laugh hard and anathematize you as a publisher if the voice-over turns out to go live with blunders. And it will not matter that the translator’s heart also bleeds for the godlessly bungled phrases, for the creation of which he had stayed overnight. Unfortunately, I’ve faced such examples when the main business idea for a studio was that the publisher needed to save on the engineering stage.

In the end, by not using the right people, or by trying to cut costs wherever possible, you’re spending and losing even more.

Censorship is a sensitive subject. Some gamers prefer to keep everything in the original form, including the language even if they feel the localization process comprises the original version. However, others fear that by not localizing, they could incur financial loss or risk being sued. How do you feel about both of these arguments?

This really makes me laugh. It is true that due to the censorship, the authentic feel may be lost, but you cannot blame the localization specialists for this. Only a part of the prejudice against localization is actually caused by real translation failure such as the inability to adequately convey puns or cultural characteristics.

The main frustration of a gamer is usually caused by real censorship issues. On the Russian market for instance, this frustration will likely be due to the inability to translate swear words. So, it unfortunately may happen in a game when the brutal tough character simply cannot express his thoughts in as straightforward a manner as he does in the initial game. He may be perceived as speaking like a gallant, or even like a childish man.

Slang is another pain point as it may differ from culture to culture. However, even within the same culture there may be a different understanding about what is considered slang. We once had ongoing debates between the third-party review team and the translation team on the level of slang that the specific teenager character could use. The reviewers were adamant that the character should be somewhat inarticulate and unable to use complex words and structures, relying heavily on slang words. The translation team on the other hand, tried their best to defend that character and prove that not every teenager is talking only in slang. Some youth can be actually educated well enough to communicate adequately, you know!

How strong is the global market for localized games? 

For mobile games, there are figures and statistic available, for instance, at AllcorrectFor mobile, PC, and esports games per region, you can download quarterly updated key numbers from newzooNewzoo also shares numbers that illustrate the top 100 games markets ranked on their revenue estimates for 2018​ as of October, 2018.

As for localization, there may be a greater demand in the regions where the market is big while the language level is low. PC games on Steam focus on FIGS, CJK, and major Slavic languages. For PC games, Nimdzi has so far gathered interactive statistics on localization of 26,345 games.​ On the portal available exclusively for Nimdzi partners, you can filter and find games by language supported or missing. If you would like to know more about this project or specific languages, please contact Konstantin Dranch.

Yulia’s suggestions for game localization best practices

First, the DOs:

1. Know the market:

Familiarize yourself with the markets you plan to target and discuss in advance, the languages you plan to localize. If you don’t have a budget and/or the capacity to do your own research, at least consider the experience of others. There are a lot of publications on this topic:

Gamasutra authors specify that if a game has such content as rules, dialogues, or anything that is a part of UX, you cannot reach Asian customers unless you support local languages.

Allcorrect, a game localization company, provides detailed insights on localization ROI:

2. Collaborate:

Create a collaboration between the authors and the dev team to discuss phrasing. Consider that the English source, for instance, is like a constructor whereas other languages are not. Use variables where possible. It will help a lot.

3. Localize more than just “words”:

This is very important in game localization. Work closely with the  localization team to provide them as much context as possible. Images, symbols, etc… need to be “carefully” localized to minimize the risk of offending certain cultures.

4. Discuss encoding with your development team:

Apply correct encoding and pay attention to umlauts and Cyrillic symbols. A known type of distortion is related to the fact that the target encoding may not contain the characters available in the original encoding. In this case, the missing characters can simply be thrown out or replaced with either substitute characters (like a question mark) or similar characters from ASCII. 

5. Consider the difference between LTR and RTL languages:

Think in advance about whether or not you plan to mirror your interface.

Now for the DON’Ts:

  1. 1. Don’t hard-code:

    When hard-coding is applied, you increase the risk of serious complications during the localization process. Actually, speaking of coding, you may want to check out this old but good article – 12 Commandments of software localization.

2. Don’t cut corners by investing in inexperienced translators:

Hire those who specialize in game localization. The job of a game localizer involves not only creativity and sharp linguistic skills, but also a high-level of language sense and intuition. Don’t task your friends or coworkers who seem to know the language, and certainly don’t simply rely on MT. Yes, the latter saves money, but you are taking a huge risk in translation errors which lead to a poor-quality product.

3. Don’t overlook dialects and spoken accents:

The more believable the characters are, the greater the chance that the game will receive favorable ratings. So, in order to strengthen the character’s credibility, developers need to pay special attention to regional dialects, jargon, slang, and accents. However, keep in mind that even though strong accents can work for the right audience and/or for minor characters, they don’t always work. 1UP provides some more insights and useful tips on this matter.

4. Don’t over-localize

An overly liberal use of localization can be damaging to the story. Perhaps a perfect example is when Ramen Noodles were changed to hamburgers in a localized version. As a result, the initial game story suffered. Such an approach may turn out to be harmful because the canon may get removed from the big picture or conflicted with its localization. 

5. Don’t forget the golden rule:

Test, Test, Test before release!

Yulia’s closing thoughts

We always have something to learn in this amazing and constantly changing world of localization. So, the job of a localization specialist never gets boring!

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