Getting Started in Game Localization

Every once in a while, I receive the same question from aspiring newcomers: how does one become a game translator? This is a very broad topic that I’ve briefly covered in the past, but never really deep-dived into – after all, my own experience is far removed from the average newcomer, and my expertise doesn’t necessarily apply outside of the E>FIGS markets. That said, since some of you asked, I might as well give my two cents!

First off, I can’t stress this enough: in this business, no two paths are the same. Many of my colleagues shifted from another games-related field (such as journalism, marketing or community management), others were already established translators who gradually made games their primary field of specialization, and so on – you can find a couple of examples on Jennifer O’Donnell’s blog. Everything you’ll read here is not the one and only way to break into game localization, but it might help you land your first project!

If you don’t know much or anything about translation in general, I highly recommend starting with Corrine McKay’s book, How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. This covers most of the broader topics such as the marketing and self-promotion, specializations, pricing, etc. It also contains tons of excellent advice even for experienced translators, although be aware that it was written from a US-centric perspective.

Getting your first experience

Starting out with a blank slate means your options are endless, but it can also lead to choice paralysis: which areas should you focus on? How do you fill your schedule until you score your first client?

For better or for worse, formal degrees have limited worth in this industry, and most clients will only care about your relevant experience in the field. But it’s a vicious circle: if you’re just starting out, you can’t get experience, and without experience, you can’t get clients, right?

So, here are some options to start grinding for XP:

LocJams

Started in 2014, LocJams are non-profit events whose goal is to promote game localization by offering free, non-commercial games for anyone to translate. Many of the events included online and on-site workshops for teams to collaborate from all over the world. Check out the 5th edition trailer:

The great thing about LocJam games is that the source files remain available after the contest ends, so anyone is free to download the projects and start working right away, then publish the results on their portfolio. Another advantage is that you get an opportunity to compare your work to other translators’ entries in many different languages, learning and growing in the process.

To learn more about LocJam events, head to the official website: https://locjam.itch.io/

Fan translations

Fan translations are another way of breaking into the field. In fact, one of the most revered game localization specialists, Clyde Mandelin from Legends of Localization, rose to fame for his fan translation projects. However, this comes with two major hurdles: legality and technicality.

Indeed, translating older games requires very specific technical knowledge to reverse engineer and extract the data hidden within the game files. If you’d like to learn more, check out this great summary from HilltopWorks:

It’s also worth noting that while this process isn’t exactly legal, copyright holders often turn a blind eye to the practice (especially if the original developer/publisher companies no longer exist). For this reason, if you choose the path of fan translation with the intention of going pro later on, be aware that some localization companies might not consider this as a legitimate experience.

Translating games for free

One of the most obvious choices to gain hands-on experience would be to offer your services for free, and some beginners decide to do exactly that in exchange for credits. While this is a valid approach, I personally don’t recommend it for several reasons:

  • Lack of feedback: Unless your client is willing to hire a second professional to proofread you (which would defeat the purpose of getting a free translation), you take the risk of delivering sub-par quality without realizing it, as you don’t have enough experience to notice your mistakes. Since your name will appear in the credits, this could reflect badly on your reputation if someone decides to check your credentials.
  • Undervaluing the profession: Translating games for free (regardless of if said games are monetized or not) encourages developers to believe that localization is something that “just anyone” can do, thus perpetuating the belief that LOC is an afterthought as opposed to an integral part of game design. You wouldn’t ask a junior plumber or accountant to do your maintenance work or tax filing for free, right? So, why should your translation work be any different?
  • Harder to upsell down the line: At what point do you start considering yourself “good enough to be paid”? Especially if you suffer from impostor syndrome, you might end up getting your labor exploited for longer periods of time. Moreover, once you’ve offered your services for free, it becomes much harder to ask for money later on.

That said, everyone should be free (pun intended) to run their business as they please, and I certainly don’t blame those who choose to translate for free if only to get experience on a “real” project. Just be aware of the implications for yourself, your colleagues, and the industry as a whole.

Translating mods / wikis

Just because your favorite game is already translated doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to its success! Some titles continue to thrive long after their original release thanks to the tireless work of modders. One such example is TESR Skywind, a massive fan project which aims to recreate The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in the Skyrim engine. Otherwise, Nexusmods hosts over 12.000 localization-related mods (and even purpose-built translation tools for some games), so there’s really no shortage of projects to get your hands dirty.

TESR Skyrim

If mods aren’t your thing, gaming wikis hosted on platforms such as Fandom or Fextralife are constantly in dire need of translators and constitute a valuable translation experience, as they contain many different types of texts like character/quest descriptions, trivia, etc. What’s more, fan wikis are often used as an actual resource by professional translators (or even game developers who don’t have time/resources to build their internal documentation), so your contributions could be paving the way for industry actors to deliver their best work!

Agency internships & LQA roles

Entry-level gameloc jobs are hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist: Every year, several agencies (see the full list here) advertise internship roles aimed at students, graduates or even established translators looking to switch specialties.

The conditions of the internship vary widely from one company to another, but you can usually expect to be mentored by senior translators who will (hopefully) teach you the ropes on real projects and give you constructive feedback. Most of those internships are also paid, and in some cases, you will receive a certificate highlighting your contributions. However, keep in mind that these roles are highly coveted, and the supply far exceeds the demand, so you’ll need to make sure your profile stands out if you hope to make the cut (more on that below).

Don’t worry, it won’t be that bad… Probably.

Linguistic Quality Assurance plays a crucial (and sadly, often overlooked) part in the localization process, and as QA positions are often entry-level, it’s a great way to start out in the field without focusing exclusively on translation. Moreover, LQA testers are expected to hold the same qualities as localization specialists: Native-level proficiency, a keen eye for detail, and a strong adaptability (among many other things – props to you, LQA warriors!)

LQA roles are not limited to agencies, and many game developers and publishers have their own dedicated teams. Having an in-house experience is invaluable, especially early in your career, as it will help you understand the internal workflows should you choose to go freelance down the line.

Writing

At its core, translating is writing, and you don’t necessarily need a source text to practice your language chops. As mentioned above, many gameloc professionals started in a different field, but they all have one thing in common: an unbridled love of reading and writing, specifically in their native language. After all, your source language proficiency won’t mean much if you can’t write a natural-sounding dialogue, description or instruction, and what better way to improve than to write like nobody’s reading?

When it comes to games, there’s no shortage of things to write about: your favorite pairing on AO3, a review of the latest game you played, or even an essay on a totalitarian Sim City hellscape:

Enrolling as a Project Manager

Project Managers are at the forefront of the localization trenches, and as such, they are keenly aware of the challenges faced by translators. While PM roles don’t usually involve actual translation (although you might get called in for the occasional small task), they teach valuable skills such as communication with end clients, deadline negotiations, CAT tool management and other key components of the localization process. Moreover, working as a PM allows you to rapidly expand your network both inside and outside your company, which could lead to new opportunities regardless of your career path.

One might think that PM roles are reserved for people who already have experience in the industry, but this job is actually accessible to anyone with the right skill set: excellent communication skills, an analytical mind and basic understanding of CAT tools. Even if you are lacking some knowledge, some companies are willing to sponsor certificates (such as the PMI certification, which is very sought after in the industry), and could open a lot of doors even if you chose to pivot to translation later on.

Building a portfolio / Online presence

Okay, you’ve got a couple projects under your belt, and you’ve now decided that Game Localization is something you totally want to do until the end of time. Now what? Building an actual portfolio or profile should be the next step on your priority list, ideally while you’re already in the process of gaining experience. Thankfully, even if you don’t know how to build a website from scratch, many platforms offer “ready-made” solutions, such as Carrd, Notion or WordPress if you want greater customization options – for example, Loc’d and Loaded was built on a WordPress template and a couple of plugins.

Ultimately, you may not even need a website at all: a well-structured LinkedIn page can be more than enough to get started. You can find plenty of resources on how to build a LinkedIn profile and grow your presence, so I won’t cover too much here, but here are some tips that I’ve found helpful:

  • Make sure to keep your profile up-to-date with a professional photo, banner and clear headline. Don’t try to cram as many keywords as possible – algorithms know the trick.
  • Your About section should be catchy yet concise – it may sound harsh, but nobody cares that you’ve been playing video games since you were 4 years old and that Zelda OOT is your favorite game of all time (but if so, you have great taste!). State your language pair(s), fields of specialty, and goals as straightforwardly as possible.
  • Use the Featured section to link to your portfolio or links to the projects you contributed to.
  • Even if you’re not a social butterfly, try to engage with other professionals: there are dozens of interesting posts being published regularly under hashtags such as #LITranslators or #Gameloc, and a single interesting comment is sometimes all it takes to push you to the top of recommendations 🙂

Some translators also have an online presence on more “generalist” websites like ProZ or Translators Café, but bear in mind that gameloc projects are rarely published over there, and tend to get overrun by low-quality clients and applicants.

Standing out from the crowd

As mentioned previously, game localization (and the games industry in general) is a highly competitive field, and even ticking all the right boxes does not guarantee you’ll find projects easily. Having an eye-catchy portfolio is a great starting point, but to leave a durable impression, you’ll need to stand the test of time by constantly meeting, or even surpassing, expectations. This includes:

  • Being responsive: In an industry where most projects are due by yesterday, time is of the essence. While setting boundaries is important to maintain a healthy work/life balance, replying promptly during your regular business hours is the first step towards building trust with your clients.
  • Delivering projects on time: You wouldn’t believe the amount of translators who see deadlines as suggestions rather than strict requirements! Clients and PMs are aware that unforeseen events (sickness, family emergencies, realizing that the last part of your file requires additional research, etc.) can affect your ability to meet deadlines, but don’t wait until the last moment to warn them.
  • Delivering quality work (duh): Mind you, this doesn’t mean your translations should always be 100% error-free – we’re only human, after all – but the bare minimum should be done to make sure the project is in a deliverable state: QA checks and spellcheck done, preferably followed by a second pass of self-editing when deadlines allow.
  • Being receptive to feedback: If you’re working with agencies, chances are your work will regularly be subject to an editing pass by a third party. More often than not, their comments will be an opportunity for you to learn and grow, so stay receptive to both positive and negative feedback.
  • Having patience: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your career. Building a freelance business is hard work, and it can take between several months and several years to establish yourself, even if you do everything right. Don’t give up too easily!

Contrary to popular belief, undercharging will not make you a more interesting candidate: people working for peanuts have to double their workload to make ends meet, which often leads to burnout, and people suffering from burnout cannot deliver quality work. So study the market, seek advice from your colleagues and set rates that will reflect the quality of your work, even if you’re lacking experience.

Finally, having a sub-field of specialization can set you apart: games come in all shapes and sizes, and having an affinity with a particular genre can be a massive advantage on certain projects. Whether you’re an avid fan of fishing games, know everything about a particular sport or have played MMOs for longer than you can remember, all those things can come in handy when clients need someone with a particular experience. Make sure to play your strengths to your advantage!

Learning the tools of the trade

A common misconception about translation is that all you need is a text editor, a dictionary, and you’re off to the races. But when it comes to game localization, that’s far from enough!

On smaller projects, you might be able to get by with a simple Google/Excel sheet and a spellchecker, but game projects are often chock-full of complicated variables, cross-referenced IDs and other hurdles that require specialized tools to be translated (and QA’d!) properly. That’s why I believe it’s extremely important to learn how to use those tools early on, especially since you can find countless free tutorials online (*cough* starting on this very website *cough*).

To do the right job, you need the right tools.

The good news is, most CAT tools operate more or less the same way, so once you’ve learned one, you’ve learned all of them. The bad news is, they all cost a pretty penny – usually, between 300-500 USD/EUR per license. However, compared to the cost of starting a business in other fields, that’s a bargain. If you don’t want to take the plunge just yet and try your hands on a free CAT tool, I recommend OmegaT (free forever) or Smartcat (free with some limitations).

In the gameloc space, the leading CAT tools are MemoQ, Phrase and Trados. Mind you, if you’re working with agencies, there’s a high chance they’ll provide a license for the duration of your collaboration, so you might not even have to spend a single cent if you snatch the right contract. If you’re a regular of this website, you probably know I largely favor MemoQ thanks to its large selection of bells and whistles tailored towards gameloc, but to each their own – a great translator can deliver pristine work regardless of their tools.

Don’t take my word for it, though – the numbers speak for themselves:

Mentorship & Collectives

This industry is smaller than you may think, and who you know can be as important as what you know. Despite translation being a field full of introverts, fostering relationships with your peers is crucial to level up. In my experience, the more prestigious/well-paying the client, the more likely they are to recruit exclusively through word-of-mouth and direct recommendations. Wouldn’t it be a shame to pass on such opportunities?

Two ways of learning about game localization in a more “social” environment are through mentorship and collectives: The former allows you to ask questions and receive guidance on a variety of professional topics, get feedback on your work from an experienced colleague, and earn practical translation experience (ProZ even offers an official mentoring program). However, if you’re looking to specialize in gameloc, you might better off asking for guidance on broader social networks.

A mentor, you seek. Good judgment and wisdom, a mentor will provide.

Collectives, on the other hand, are professional translators who join forces to offer their services in one or multiple languages. Unlike agencies, collectives are typically more decentralized and may not have a formal company structure or offer the same range of services. However, these tight-knit groups are heavily invested in their projects and work closely with game developers (usually indies), and their members offer each other guidance and support. Some notable gameloc collectives include Warlocs, Prismaloc and Locasaurus.

Whether you choose to start your journey through mentorship, collectives or a good old solo grind is up to you, but remember, there is strength in numbers. You don’t have to make friends with everyone – just keep an eye on conversations in some of the many gameloc communities, chime in if you feel like it, and who knows, you might just meet your next colleagues/partners!

Conclusion

This topic is so vast that no single article can cover every option (for example, I’ve voluntarily omitted gameloc courses and books, as I have no experience with either), but I hope that this piece gave you some leads to start your journey on the right foot.

Finally, never forget one of the major tenets of freelancing: regardless of your experience, you are the CEO of your own business, and you need to behave as such. While this industry is full of truly wonderful people, some will be more than happy to take advantage of your skills for their benefit (by trying to push unreasonable clauses in their contracts, offering way below market rates, etc.).

It’s important to recognize those predatory practices early on, not only for your own benefit, but also for the future generation of translators who will follow in your footsteps. Glhf!

Special thanks to Guido Di Carlo and Max Klaut for their valuable inputs.

Learn more about starting out in the industry:

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2 thoughts on “Getting Started in Game Localization”

  1. Great article, Lucile! It’s very practical and full of valuable information for those who want to enter the world of video game localization but don’t know how.
    However, I was surprised by the fact that in the “Translating games for free” section, you don’t recommend this practice. Your reason is valid and I understand it perfectly, but I always thought offering translation services to developers who don’t intend to monetize their games was a good way to gain experience and “credibility”.

    If that’s OK with you, I’ll give my opinion: I have contacted localization agencies and video game studios, but so far they have told me they only look for professionals with at least one year of experience. So it becomes a never-ending cycle of “I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience – I can’t gain experience because I don’t have a job”. I know there are other solutions to this dilemma, such as the agency internships you mention, but they are scarce and the chances of being selected are very low. I feel that entering this industry is too difficult, especially for Latin American translators like me.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. Thank you very much for this article, I will be waiting for the next one.
    (Please don’t think I’m criticizing you. On the contrary, I love your blog)

    1. Hi Antonio,

      Thanks for your detailed comment, I’m glad you liked the article!

      I’ve outlined the reasons why I think translating for free is a bad idea, simply because if the main goal is to build a reputation for yourself within the industry, other options are just as valid, not to mention more ethical. Even if a developer releases a game for free, there is no guarantee that they won’t release paid DLCs or monetize their title in some other way down the line – and in 99% of the cases, you won’t see a single cent of the profits. This industry thrives massively on exploiting labor from passionate people, and I cannot in good conscience support this practice – it’s not fair for anybody.

      When my friend creates something that benefits my personal projects (such as 99% of the graphics assets on this website), I pay them fairly, even if they offer to do it for free. Using that same reasoning, even the smallest indie dev should be able to compensate the people who directly contribute to their project’s success. But as I said before, everyone is free to make their own choices, free market and all that 🙂

      All the best in your gameloc journey!

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