The Regional Differences of Languages and Their Impact on Game Localization: Exploring Spanish Localization across the Americas
Localization is one of the few parts of the production process where you know you’ve done a good job when no one ever mentions it. A good localization isn’t intrusive and should make the player feel that no matter what language they’re playing the game in, that is the original.
- Capcom’s blog for Dragon’s Dogma
I recently returned from DevHour, an incredible industry conference in Mexico City. The organizers have done a fantastic job of bringing together game development talent from states across Mexico, making DevHour the largest conference specifically for game developers in Latin America. As a result, the conference is gaining more traction from organizations abroad, this year including talks by the IGDA, King.com, YetiZen, and TechBA Vancouver.
Since very little has been written about the nuance of game localization, particularly for languages outside of Japanese and English, I interviewed Language Automation’s Latin American localization team and gamers from the region, in addition to scouring gaming forums. This article reflects the compiled information – how linguistic differences across 20 Latin American countries affects immersion in games and how translators are able to compensate for these linguistic variations. I’m publishing this article in follow up to my DevHour presentation about game localization, in which I spoke about the complexities of global markets and why proper localization (and culturalization) is key.
Muchísimas gracias a todos ustedes al DevHour por 2 años maravillosos a la conferencia en DF. Espero que disfruten este artículo explicando más de las idiosincrasias de su mercado. Si pueden escribir de sus opiniones y experiencias con los juegos localizados en español, por favor, lo escriben debajo por los otros desarrolladores aprender más de la importancia utilizar la localización de una buena calidad (¡y con espero, recibir más juegos buenísimos en español!…a menos que prefieren los traducciones como “Yo soy cola, tú pegamento.” : ) ).
A Brief Introduction to the Wide Distribution of Spanish, French, & Portuguese
My first experience with regional differences in a language for which I wasn’t native was when I spoke Spanish with a Venezuelan. Until that time, I spoke Spanish exclusively with Mexicans, so it surprised me to hear the Venezuelan say, “¿Qué?” (“What?”) in response to not having heard what I said. I learned very early on when speaking with Mexicans that “¿Qué?” is often considered rude in that context and that “¿Mande?” should be used instead. When I asked the Venezuelan why he used “¿Qué?” instead of “¿Mande?,” he asked in response, “What is ‘mande?’”
When that conversation is contextualized within the field of game localization, it puts a new spin on the localization of video games for widely translated languages like Spanish, French, and Portuguese. After all, Spanish is spoken from Mexico down to the tip of South America, Europe, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and throughout the U.S. French is spoken within Canada, Africa, Europe, and parts of Latin America, among other locations. While Portuguese may immediately bring to mind Portugal and Brazil, it is also spoken in parts of Africa and even Southeast Asia and India.
Due to the wide geographic spread of these languages, it isn’t as simple as merely translating an English or Japanese-based game into Spanish, French, or Portuguese. Even if Spanish is pared down to Spanish of the Americas, translators are likely to encounter problems with in-game jokes or words that don’t easily translate across the entire region. (For a detailed description of the differences between translation vs. full localization and culturalization, see our previous blog post “When to Forgo the Culturalization of Video Games: Contextualizing Globalization within the Mobile Marketplace.”) Even the Harry Potter book series was localized from British English to American English! Why do you think the American Harry Potter books refer to scotch tape, as opposed to the British “sellotape” and wastebaskets as opposed to “bollards?”
Word use vastly depends on context, such as in the instance of “qué” and “mande,” wherein “qué” is understood and used in Mexico (depending on context) but “mande” is not widely used in other countries. There are instances in which words and phrases that make sense in other countries would throw Mexican gamers off-guard – a main component to be avoided within localization. (After all, games are localized specifically to give international players the opportunity to experience a game like players of the original version and certainly to avoid jarring experiences that would remove the player from the gameplay experience.) Although game companies may translate products into Spanish, French, & Portuguese for Europe and separately into Spanish, French, & Portuguese of the Americas, there are an incredible number of linguistic variations in any of these languages throughout the Americas. So exactly how are game translators able to account for these regional differences, maintaining an immersive experience consistent throughout an entire region?
Location Does Impact the Evolution of Language!
Often, languages spoken in Europe are influenced by languages within close proximity. In Latin American Spanish, “computadora” is used for “computer,” whereas the European Spanish equivalent evolved from the French word for computer “ordinateur,” resulting in “ordenador.” (Microsoft Windows uses the “region-neutral term” “equipo.”) The same phenomenon occurs in parts of the US, where even Spanish speakers who don’t know English use English terms like “park” as opposed to the longer “estacionar” (to park) or “estacionamiento” (parking), just as “mall” is frequently used in lieu of “centro comercial.” Spanish words from the US down to South America can vary rather drastically due to the influence of the English language, historical linguistic factors, etc. While Spanish speakers in the US, border states of Mexico, and even countries like Venezuela may use “carro” as opposed to “coche” for car, in other regions, “carro” brings to mind an old carriage, a horse-and-buggy. Even for basic words, translation can get complicated very quickly.
Even though Canadians and people from France can speak French and understand one another, there are significant differences between their vocabulary and even grammar. European French often anglicizes words, whereas Canadian French elects to use terms that sound more French-rooted. For example, France uses “firewall” or “pare-feu” rather than the Canadian French “barrier pare-feu,” and France uses “serveur proxy” rather than “serveur mandataire.” Despite the ability for Canadian and European French to communicate together (barring major differences in spoken French), a game or game support documentation translated into French but not localized for different regions may come across in a bad light, possibly putting-off a select portion of the French market.
These differences may seem minor to those with limited knowledge of these languages, but the use of region-specific words (or lack thereof) can make the difference between a localized game that is highly praised and one that people simply will not buy.
The Impact of Linguistic Differences on Spanish Localization Efforts
If you want a clear picture of how linguistic differences can affect gameplay, take a look back at news segments regarding Microsoft’s Kinect. The Kinect is an Xbox add-on, allowing users to play games with a motion sensor as well as with voice commands. Just as Google Translate sometimes produces incomprehensible translations between languages, the Kinect didn’t always properly register certain dialects…or even entire languages. In an article from 2010, El País cited the inability of the Kinect to register Spanish spoken with a Spaniard accent, as it would only have the capability of speaking English, Japanese, and “Mexican” at that point in time. Castilian was unsupported until the spring of 2011. Just because the Kinect could supposedly understand English, that did not necessarily mean English across the globe. At the end of 2011, Aussies rejoiced when the Kinect could finally understand them.
To get a better sense of the broad range of games in Spanish from seamless localization to the poor, I scoured gaming forums to learn how gamers respond to localization ranging across a broad spectrum of dialects:
Halo 2 Localization
Halo 2 had the worst rap among gamers from Spain for its localization into Spanish. As opposed to localization in Spain Spanish (Castilian) or even neutral Spanish (also referred to as universal or standard Spanish), Halo 2 was done in Mexican Spanish. This was problematic for many reasons: Spaniards couldn’t fully enjoy – or immerse – themselves into the game as would have been possible with a Castilian localization. Plus, Spain’s trailer for Halo 2 was actually dubbed into Castilian Spanish, leading gamers to feel they had received a false advertisement. A trailer flawlessly dubbed into the region’s dialect inevitably caused gamers to believe the entire game would be released in their local dialect of Spanish.
While the game may have been translated into Spanish and read by native speakers, Halo 2 was not localized for the market in Spain, resulting in Halo fans of the region perceiving the game to be a subpar gaming experience. Games are typically dubbed at least into Spanish for Spain’s market and sometimes given a separate dubbing for Latin America, due to regional preferences and what would give gamers in both regions the best possible gaming experience. (Wouldn’t you be disappointed if the first Halo game was localized perfectly for your native language and you were led to believe the 2nd installment would be just as immersive, but suddenly, the entire cast was speaking in an entirely different accent (or dialect) with jokes that make little to no sense in your country and with words that don’t even exist in your own language?!)
While many games are currently made with the North American gamer in mind (whereas games are not always localized for Latin American gamers), let’s say Halo was available only in British English and not localized for American gamers at all (putting aside for the moment the fact that Halo is based upon the US). While you yourself may be fairly knowledgeable about the linguistic variations and differences in humor between England and the US, there are plenty of Americans who would be entirely unaware of the meaning of British words (especially the younger gaming audience who may never have traveled abroad nor had much exposure to British English apart from Harry Potter). In fact, here is an extensive list of words that differ between British English and American English, such as “articulated lorry” for “trailer truck,” “naughts and crosses” for “tic-tack-toe,” “The Plough” for the “Big Dipper,” “tea towel” for “dish towel,” “bonnet” for “hat,” and “torch” for “flashlight.” If these words were used in Halo, it could entirely change the meaning of how the player perceived (s)he should try to interact with the environment. What about in Left 4 Dead, if you were told to turn off your “torch,” as opposed to your flashlight? While you may able to gather the intended meaning, that doesn’t mean it would be any less jarring to hear people say, “Turn off your torch!” After all, you aren’t playing Tomb Raider, where you are using torches to light your way…you are using a pistol with a handy flashlight attachment.
World of Warcraft Localization
Some localization decisions ostracize gamers since they cater the game to one specific region or country, and some localization decisions have players rolling their eyes and frustrated over disengagement from what should be an immersive experience. A prime example is the tendency for speakers of Castilian Spanish to prefer literal translations of proper names and places. This resulted in the translation of Stormwind reading as a command rather than as a place, with the translation “Ventormenta” essentially reading as “Come here, storm!” Horde didn’t receive it much better, as the translation for Undercity (“Entrañas”) reads as “Entrails!” If you’re expecting an immersive fantasy setting, there goes that sense of immersion if your map says “Come here, storm!” or, worse yet, “Entrails!”
A tricky aspect of Spanish localization is the sheer number of words with offensive meanings in countries of the same region. While I won’t write out the incredible list of words with double meanings here, these words are available online if you’re interested. The sheer number of food-related words with offensive meanings in certain countries could mean that cooking-related games may end up blocked by parental controls or even outraging parents in a given country. Are you a fan of pico de gallo sauce? Be sure to order something else in Chile, since pico is slang for the part of a male you probably wouldn’t want to eat (with gallo meaning “rooster”). Do you enjoy the traditional Peruvian shell stew dish? Don’t try to order that dish in other Latin American countries, as its literal meaning is often something very different, so different in fact, that I’m not going to include it within this article. Let’s just say you are likely to upset parents if you include this particular dish in a cooking game distributed across other Latin American countries.
Regional Differences Aren’t Just Limited to Spanish!
The idiosyncrasies of localization across other languages may seem more complicated than English simply because English doesn’t have a plethora of words with offensive double meanings across multiple countries. However, this doesn’t mean English is devoid of linguistic and cultural variations. In an interview with Emma Watson (Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger), she discusses the language barriers that made life in America a bit more challenging, including the time she ran around with a bloody finger, asking for a plaster (Band-Aid). I, myself, faced communication barriers simply by moving from the West Coast of the US to the East Coast – the first time classmates were talking about getting hoagies and grinders, I thought they were talking about some kind of food that only existed out there. Plus, when my teacher talked about going to UConn for the weekend, I was unimaginably confused, picturing a quick trip way up north to the icy Yukon. Likewise, I assumed a trip to Washington meant a cross-country trip to Washington state as opposed to Washington D.C., as I had only ever heard the state shortened as Washington and the capital shortened as D.C. It took a while to (in a sense) reorient myself to the English language based upon my physical location.
Beyond the vocab variations and differences based on locale, I even discovered communication difficulties based on accent. People on the East Coast couldn’t understand my pronunciation of the word “tour” (a pronunciation difference I can’t even begin to describe), and when the word “idea” inevitably arose during classes and meetings, I mentally checked out due to the frequent addition of the “r” sound at the end of the word, effectively changing “idea” to “idear.” (Talk about a jolt from a setting in which my attention should have been held!) While accents and seemingly minute linguistic differences may not seem like a significant problem in theory (such as “idea” versus “idear”), this can result in a hugely jarring experience for gamers if not accommodated for correctly.
Creating an Immersive Experience across Borders
Many video games use a neutral Spanish that can feel stiff and emotionless to Latin American players. This form of Spanish is perceived to be the best solution in encompassing broad linguistic differences, as it is the lowest common denominator of all Spanish variants and eliminates idioms and regional mannerisms. However, since the entire point of localization is to make a player feel as though a video game was created specifically for their enjoyment, how would neutral Spanish serve as an effective solution?
Although neutral Spanish is understood by speakers across Latin America and certainly costs less than adapting a video game to every linguistic variation (since, after all, games are a business and business decisions ultimately come down to anticipated ROI), there is also a tradeoff to consider in the quality of localization: with neutral Spanish, the game is not truly being localized for given markets, which often results in a less than immersive experience.
In fact, it has been echoed by many gamers that Mexicans prefer English dialogue with appropriate Spanish subtitles, even for movies (with the exception of those for kids), whereas Spaniards prefer a full localization – Castilian-style, an accent that often sounds grating to Latin American speakers. Perhaps this would not be the case if more games implemented localization effectively but, far too often, the Latin American market receives games with “sloppy” localization, inevitably turning players off of so-called “localized” versions (not far removed from the translations English games used to receive on NES/SNES titles…can you “proove” the justice of our culture?). This is due to the history of Latin American games receiving subpar dubbing via voice actors without formal training. Subsequently, gamers in Latin America are prone to instead buy American versions of games. Martina Santoro, co-founder and director of Okam Studio in Argentina, cited both subpar Latin American voice acting and games featuring Castilian Spanish as the reason gamers in the region often buy English games from the US:
“[Since] gamers, especially hardcore gamers, preferred to buy games in English directly from the US [when] big studios did their marketing research, the results said that Latin Americans weren’t spending money on games. But the fact was they were; they were just spending it in the US market.”
Fortunately, voice acting in select Latin American versions of games has vastly improved, leading gamers to highly praise games such as Uncharted 3 and Killzone 3. This is key, as The Game Localization Handbook states, “More gamers are likely to buy a game that is localized specifically for their native language […] Gamers might not purchase it if it is not in their native tongue, resulting in a direct sales loss” (8). In fact, in LAI’s upcoming article “How to Approach Game Localization for Scandinavia,” I cite the importance of at least adding subtitles to games, even for countries with the world’s highest rates of English proficiency. It follows that games should be localized for Latin America, given the region’s reportedly low rates of English proficiency.
Just as neither British English nor American English works for every localization project (as it greatly depends on context), neutral Spanish nor country-specific Spanish will work in every instance in which developers seek to broaden or narrow game localization. What does that mean? Well, in Final Fantasy XII, the English localization decision for the word marquis resulted in an ongoing headache for the localization team long after the game was released. It was decided to use the pronunciation “mar-kwis” (as opposed to “mar-kee”). Why would an incredible localization team such as the one at Square Enix elect to use a British pronunciation for an American release, particularly when other dialogue was voice-acted using American pronunciation? Localizers intentionally selected the “mar-kwis” pronunciation to reflect the linguistic influence of the British in that part of the fantasy world. While some gamers appreciated the effort after learning more about this localization decision, this ultimately resulted in a decreased immersive experience for the American audience – the complete opposite intent of localization. This parallels the experience many Latin American gamers have when playing a game with Spain dubs:
“There are some truly great actors like those used in Uncharted, I enjoyed the Spanish version almost as much as the English even though I probably laughed at some things that were not intended as comedic just because they said them with [a] Spaniard accent.”
- ilfito’s comment on an IGN article
Consumers in the Americas may understand and accept specific linguistic variants (such as the British use of “bloody”) and reject others (such as “marquis” in Final Fantasy), but the key to perceptive localization is to know when cultural context allows for the use of other dialects. Localization professionals well-versed in both game culture and the target region will not only be aware of the current vocab specific to games (ex. mage, spell, raids), but they will also remain up-to-date on slang and other linguistic trends pertinent to the successful localization of your game. Immersion into the gameplay experience can be severely stunted by those who don’t agree with stylistic choices or understand the nuances of the localization effort.
As translators behind titles such as Final Fantasy, Apollo Justice, and Vagrant Story said at PAX 2011, it’s about doing service to the original:
“You want to bring out everything that’s good about the original [and] that requires constructing a style that’s true to that world [...] Style is very language-specific [and] that can mean many different things, and of course, you’re drawing from yourself as well.”
How LATAM Translators Account for Linguistic Variations across the Region
With 20 countries in Latin America spanning numerous dialects and distinct cultures, how can one translator ensure that every single word and phrase within a game makes sense across the entire region? After all, not even all Americans are aware of common words used in different parts of the US across the West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, and South, and Mexico alone has ten different variations of Spanish.
US vocab pop quiz! – Can you tell me what a bubbler is? How about an alligator pear? Where would you put jimmies?
Just how are Latin American translators able to make sure they use words that make sense to all and don’t offend a particular segment of the market? A key resource is proper education. If you are using a certified translation team, years of specialized training prepares that team to effectively use Neutral Spanish. In addition, translation courses educate native speakers on the tools necessary to double-check that words aren’t too local or too broad. Our translation team cites Google Trends as an immensely helpful tool, since it shows the popularity of the word across locales, compare its usage, etc. However, Google Trends is currently unable to provide alternative solutions and is therefore solely limited to the insight of the translator. By coupling research via Google Trends with tools such as Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DREA, an online dictionary), translators are armed with the information necessary to achieve a greater understanding of whether a word works (or doesn’t work) across an entire region. In addition, qualified translators are knowledgeable about industry-specific forums and online groups, allowing them to reach out to peers who have faced similar localization issues or are more familiar with a given part of Latin America and are able to provide possible solutions.
Why might a fully-qualified translator need to use tools like Google Trends and DREA? Well, one major aspect of localization is using consistent terms. That is why quality localization vendors create (or build further upon) a terminology database – a list of commonly used words and their translations within a game (or game series). Translators are expected to maintain this consistency in order to suspend the player into immersive game worlds. After all, it would be oddly unsettling and confusing for characters and key items to change names throughout a game or between sequels.
Imagine a character whose name was translated differently across multiple countries. Then, imagine some translator who is supposed to localize a game featuring that character for widespread release across those different countries. Here’s a good example: The character Strawberry Shortcake received at least three different translations in Spanish – “Rosita Fresita” in Mexico, “Frutillitas” in South America, and “Tarta de fresa” in Spain. Hopefully, the game developer or publisher sees the value in localizing games separately for the market in Spain versus the market in Latin America, but even so, there are at least two different variations of the name to choose from. (Fortunately, there seems to be less confusion over the necessity of localizing games into Spanish separately for Europe and the Americas, whereas there seems to be more confusion among developers for languages like French.) Instead of arbitrarily selecting one of these possible names for Strawberry Shortcake, a qualified translator would likely consult a tool, such as Google Trends, to determine which name is most popular:
Fortunately, the translator is able to analyze the three terms side-by-side and note the drastic difference in the popularity of these terms. In addition, the map view clearly shows the translator which countries use which terms. For example, these two maps show the difference between “Rosita Fresita” and “Tarta de fresa”:
The left table shows the widespread popularity of “Rosita Fresita,” and the right table shows interest in “Tarta de fresa” localized primarily to Spain.
Both Google Trends and Diccionario de la Real Academia Española can reveal the regionalisms of specific words. This is useful in determining which word would make the most sense across the entirety of Latin America or perhaps ensuring the use of a regional word for a character who is supposed to be from a given country. (After all, even different states of Mexico have their own distinct, just like in the US where the use of the word “pop” or “soda” is telling in where a person is from.) Pretty much anyone who has taken a Spanish class or two can tell you the word for “skirt” is “falda,” and it is true that term is used across Latin America. However, in both Argentina and Uruguay, the word “pollera” may be used instead:
The word “pollera” is clearly popular in Panama, but the word doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in other countries, referring instead to the typical national dress of the country. This is where DRAE can clear up the actual meaning of a word by country or region:
DRAE gives each definition of the word, along with the regionalisms that range from someone who raises and sells chickens to someone who transports people to the US to the definition unique to “Pan.” (Panama), where “pollero” consists of a dress with a flowing skirt and blouse. (In contrast, Google Translate simply defines “pollero” as “poulterer” or “poultry dealer,” encapsulating none of the other definitions.) Experienced translators are able to use respected industry tools to ensure the best possible translation is being produced. It is far too easy for inexperienced “translators” to entirely change the meaning of a game or to even outrage parents by not taking into account regionalisms. (Remember the food-related examples from earlier in this article? Pico de gallo sauce is not something you’d want to order in Chile, just as the traditional Peruvian shell stew dish is best ordered only in Peru.)
What it comes down to is that translation is no easy task! With such nuance across languages, it is essential to use certified translators, as poorly translated games run the risk of causing massive PR problems on a global scale. Everyone loves a good laugh when it comes to mistranslations…but if you’re a game developer, you certainly don’t want people laughing at the expense of your game! Tools like Diccionario de la Real Academia Española and Google Trends aid translators in ensuring translations won’t include fatal mistakes that may cost millions of dollars in damage control and rebranding. Certified translators are set apart from the average bilingual through careful training, experience, and overall expertise, utilizing specialized toolsets and industry practices specific to their niche.
When quality is built into the overall localization process, you end up with phenomenal localizations such as the incredible care taken with Epic Mickey 2 and Ni no Kuni across multiple languages. Qualified translators are able to properly utilize tools to ensure your game is the most immersive it can be for players in a given region. One person cannot possibly know every single linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasy across 20 countries. However, proper education and collaboration with other specialists throughout the region aid in sculpting the most appropriate translation possible. This ultimately results in localization that transcends the translations that remove players from the gameplay experience like using “Ventormenta” for Stormwind (essentially “Come here, storm!”) or “Entrañas” (Entrails) for Undercity. With localization (or “full” culturalization), gamers are able to enjoy the game in their language as if it were the original, resulting in higher reported satisfaction overall.
Since Latin America is reported as one of the key emerging markets in the world, game developers don’t want to ruin their reputation within the region by utilizing subpar localization efforts. After all, the region is expected to reach $624 million in virtual good sales by 2014. Plus, Pyramid Research states the mobile market in the region is far from saturated, with Latin America expected to reach 130% mobile penetration by the end of 2015 and Newzoo revealing this year that Latin American and the Asia Pacific have the highest regional growth in game spending.
By giving gamers a chance to fully immerse themselves into games through the appropriate use of linguistic nuance, you are allowing the player to build a deeper relationship with the game world and its characters. The reputation you build with gamers through localization does, in fact, impact your bottom line – The Game Localization Handbook specifically states that a game not available in multiple languages directly results in a loss of sales (8). And poor localization is even worse, as it damages the brand and makes the player more likely to actively criticize that game and future games to other potential players. In contrast, gamers will actively praise and promote games that have stellar localization, even when they perceive the overall game to be subpar for other reasons.
Quality localization is beneficial to gamers, game developers, and the industry as a whole. After all, we want to make games available to a broader audience on a global level, giving everyone the ability to enjoy games as if playing the original. There are entire movements of gamers dedicated to bringing games from Japan to the US, Europe, and other markets. If we don’t continue to advocate for games to be given quality localization (not only for ourselves but for other markets as well), business decisions will continue to be driven by perceived market demand as opposed to actual market demand.
- Gamers – Make sure your voice is heard! Check out Operation Rainfall and other advocacy groups dedicated to bringing games abroad. (Disclaimer – We are now partnered with oprainfall, so we’re a bit biased!)
- Game developers – Stay focused on building a presence for your games…but not only in English-speaking markets, or you’ll miss out on over 70% of the potential worldwide market!* Check out the IGDA to stay connected with the industry globally.
We at LAI would like to send a special thank you out to our Latin American Spanish translation team for contributing to this article and the DevHour coordinators/attendees for teaching us more about the game industry in Mexico, as well as Rossana Triaca and Juan Rowda, plus the members of the LinkedIn group “Meet Latin American Game Developers” for their assistance, specifically the commentary and opinions provided by Alvaro Gonzalez, Mayra Donaji Barrera Muchuca, Pedro Pimenta, Ignacio Bettosini, Sergio Rosa, and Rick Castillo.
Please comment below or tweet us @LanguageAutoInc (or the author @KarinESkoog) with examples of the linguistic differences in Spanish localization efforts and across other languages. Your examples could make it into our subsequent articles! Check back on LAI’s blog for future additions, and ensure you stay up-to-date with new articles and our upcoming podcast by subscribing to our monthly newsletter.
* Only 27% of the world speaks English.