Game Localization

David · October 4, 2019

For context: I recently shipped a game translated into 14 languages and I was the programmer who adapted our translation system from another game, updated our game to use the system, and managed importing translations.

This post is based on my comment on a translation company’s post about localization in Unity. I’ve expanded my thoughts and made them generally applicable to anyone who wants to start translating their game.

Own your translation pipeline

My recommendation for programmers is to ensure you can programmatically process your translations. You will likely do multiple rounds of translations. You will accidentally send typos out to translation. You want your pipeline to reject complete changes to strings (to get them re-translated) but accept minor differences (to save you money and time). (See Edit distance.) You may want to translate text before it’s ready to go out (ship language hotfixes for the game while also creating DLC) so you’ll it’s helpful to support “unreleased” translations – only output text changes for the released content.

I’d recommend shipping your translations with your game as text files – po or csv are good formats. Using plain text allows players to create translation mods without any work (they can modify an existing one) and will simplify adding official translation mod support to your game. The po file format is from the open source gettext project, so there’s free tools for creating translations like poedit and more expensive tools that translation companies may use.

You can build your translation pipeline to collect several translation files for one language, load up all their data, and then output the desired translation. That way you won’t re-translate something you already got translated – even if you moved it to a new id.

If you’re targetting many languages, you may find your translators prefer csv or po files, so it’s a bonus if your pipeline can handle both. po files have three standard fields: msgctxt, msgid, msgstr so you can output csv files with those three columns. If you’ve done the work to support both of these formats, it will be easier to add another – but most likely translators can import one of these format into their tools.

Working with Translators

It’s probably a good idea to talk to translation companies before you start development on your localization tech, but beware of becoming locked-in to their way of working. (We worked with four translation companies.)

Find out if they include Loc QA (where they play the game with their translation to look for errors). If not (the cheaper ones probably won’t even look at your game), you’ll need to figure out your own Loc QA solution.

Try to get native readers to look at the game and give feedback. Get nonspeakers to run through looking for English. Your translators may misunderstand something which leads to mistranslation. Also, be responsive to fans reporting issues on bad translations.

You know your game super-well, so play in German. German words tend to be very long (they form compound words like “freundschaftsbezeugung” for “demonstrations of friendship”) are really long so try to look for cut-off text. For English speakers, German is often similar enough to English that you can still play.

Use hierarchical structure for your strings

On previous games I’d worked on, we had a flat list of all of strings: IDS_001_GARY_SHOUTING_HI, IDS_002_CINDY_TELLING_GARY_TO_F_OFF. This seems terribly unhelpful. You end up with weird numbering that seems useful, but when someone adds IDS_181_GARY_PERV_WHISPERS it’s unclear that 181 goes after 001 and fixing requires renumbering many unrelated lines.

Instead, I’d recommend a hierarchical structure (like nested classes or tables) that you collapse into a long name (INTRO.HARASSMENT.001_GARY_SHOUTING_HI). Translators won’t see your hierarchy, but it will help force you to be organized. I also avoid numbering unless ordering is really important (like dialogue). The hierarchy will also maintain sensible order if you sort your localization strings (which makes it easier to see changes in diffs).

Try to find a way to include context hints in your string structure. These hints will help avoid many translator questions that can occupy your time and slow down translator turnaround. Hints are especially important when using string format functions that use numbered placeholders instead of names (compare C# string.Format("Pickup {0}", name) to python’s "Pickup {item_name}".format(item_name=name)). The lazy approach would be to tell translators not to translate anything ending with _HINT because those are just hints for the preceeding string.

Unique language issues


Rami Ismail has a quick starter and a talk. If using Unity, look into arabic-support-unity for Arabic letter connections and Right-to-Left.

German, CJK, Arabic, etc

Test that your fonts display text properly in other languages. You may want to build a fallback to Noto.

Support language mods

I’ve mentioned a few times how you can setup your pipeline to more easily support language mods. If users just need to drop a strings.po file into the right folder to support the mods, then you have a great start. The next step is to build Steam Workshop support into your game to list subscribed mods and write out the selected one as strings.po on startup (before strings are loaded) and delete strings.po when selecting your default language.

Steam handles updating your mods and so long as you keep writing out the latest on startup, the game will keep loading the latest mod. The only other thing you need is an uploader. You can integrate the uploader into your game or find an open-source standalone Workshop uploader and upload that as a Tool (instead of a game) on Steamworks.

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