Is Google Translate Causing Developers to Revert Back to Mistranslations from the Days of the NES and SNES?

You may think back upon games on the NES and SNES and remember – with amusement – the first time you came across mistranslations like “All your base are belong to us” and “I am Error.”   There are an extraordinary number of YouTube videos noting the lack of time and resources game studios used to devote to game translation.  Many a gamer has come across these mistranslations and likely said something to this effect, “What were they thinking?!” (to quote the Angry Video Game Nerd).

While established game developers and publishers now dedicate the time and resources necessary to solid translation, tools like Google Translate have given rise to a new sector of poorly translated games – games from indie developers looking for the “quick-fix” solution to global game markets.  I’ve written blog posts on this topic before, and I’ll likely write on it again, as I continue to encounter increasingly larger numbers of game studios using tools like Google Translate at incredibly high rates, at significant risk of actually driving gamers in global markets from playing their games.  By using translation tools at excessive rates (and more as a translation program than a mere tool), game studios could likely end up in a new series of YouTube videos by gamers who find your translation just as amusing as English translations of the NES/SNES days – “Conglaturation!!!  You have completed a great game.  And prooved the justice of our culture.”


Given that over 50% of worldwide game revenue comes from markets outside the United States, it is crucial for mobile game developers not only to make their games accessible on multiple platforms but also to gamers of different linguistic markets.  Would you take your Unity code that you developed for your iPhone game, simply use it to build an Android version, and release it – as is – for the Android market?  No!  Of course not!  With the varying interfaces, input methods, and other capability differences between Android models, it is essential to test for bugs and correct them, adapting your game to various Android devices.  The same is true with releasing your games for foreign markets.  If you don’t take the time to adapt your game to other audiences, you run the risk of your game simply not working within those markets.


We’ve all heard stories across brands, industries, and product lines in which cultural and linguistic considerations were not taken into account, and what generally happens as a result?  Entire product lines are recalled, at great expense to the company.  Imagine the money these companies could have saved by simply asking a native speaker to review their marketing materials and products.  Even images that non-native speakers might not consider to check are subject to costly errors within a given target market.  Ever hear about Nike’s product recall in 1996, forcing the company the recall 800,000 shoes due to the “Air” logo resembling the Arabic script for “Allah?”  Do you really want your game studio to make headlines by outraging an entire community of gamers?  I’m guessing a lawsuit is at the very bottom of purchases you’d like to make.


The American Marketing Association (AMA) conducted a study regarding product recall and found that consumers “[tend] to be more understanding if the company initiating the recall had never done so before or if it was well-liked.”  Unfortunately, smaller game studios just finding their place in the international market are more likely to use Google Translate as a cheap translation solution rather than a tool.  These are the same companies that likely have not had the time and resources to build up their brand’s reputation on a global scale and will be severely impacted by a localization blunder.  By taking such shortcuts, you have a better chance of negatively impacting your company’s image as opposed to enhancing it.  This quote from an article about reputation and brand image sums up the damage that can result, “Building your brand’s reputation takes years.  But it can be destroyed overnight with a product recall.”


Aside from the fact that there is a strong likelihood developers will damage their brand by relying too heavily on Google Translate, here’s the real kicker – By running your game’s strings through Google Translate, you are actually granting permission to third parties to permanently retain and use your original text.  For this reason, a number of translation companies legally prohibit employees from running any source material through Google Translate and similar tools.  You wouldn’t want to make your game text liable for being recycled by another developer, now would you?


It typically costs less to do something right the first time than spend the time and resources redoing it, and in the case of adapting games for foreign markets, the associated cost of recovering from significant localization blunders can come at an incredibly high price.  Game studios that overutilize translation tools and don’t allot the attention necessary for localization are likely to damage their games and brand reputation within foreign markets.  The financial implications of overutilizing these tools are significant, as these markets are key to attaining over half of the potential revenue for any given game.  Google Translate is a great tool, but it is just that, a tool.  Asking a native speaker to translate or (at the very least) review your game in the target language can rescue your game from becoming a wildfire YouTube share for mistranslations on par with “A winner is you!”

3 thoughts on “Is Google Translate Causing Developers to Revert Back to Mistranslations from the Days of the NES and SNES?

  1. @Aurora The very problem here is that no_professional translators_ are being hired at all to localize these games or apps—so no one realizes there’s a problem until the product is already out and the players/users see it.

    A good professional translator of course would not rely on a tool like GT to do their work, because they know that it simply doesn’t work. But when it comes to developers, PMs or other management staff that has no idea about the localization process and its implications, and that probably don’t even speak any other language and don’t even understand how translation/localization works… there we have it—just run those texts through GT and voilà, we can start selling our product in Europe or anywhere in the world!

    I think Karin’s example about reusing the iOS code for Android is brilliant—we should really start talking to developers in their terms if we want them to understand what this all is about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>