Indirect translation in game localization as a method of global circulation of digital artefacts: A socio-economic perspective

Minako O’Hagan

To contribute towards extending the scope of research on indirect translation, this article focuses on game localization as an overlooked site where this translation practice is relatively common. For major games developed in a language other than English (LOTE), the English version (locale) is often used as a pivot from which to generate other locales across different regions. This article investigates the motivations, challenges, and implications of the use of indirect translation in game localization through a case study of Square Enix – a major Japanese game developer/publisher that is among the pioneers of game localization. It reveals how indirect translation forms both a solution and a bottleneck for the global circulation of digital interactive products. The article uncovers the key factors behind the position of English as the default pivot language in localizing Japanese games and points to the possible future impact of the emergence of Asian markets, particularly the Chinese market, on the game localization ecosystem. The lens of indirect translation facilitates theorizing underexplored aspects of game localization as an economic activity situated in the digital terrain. By casting the apparent drawback of indirect translation in a socio-economic framework, the article presents the future scope of this research subfield in game localization.

Publication history
Table of contents

This article seeks to highlight the scope and nature of the use of indirect translation in game localization which enables digital games to cross linguistic and socio-cultural borders and be distributed in the global marketplace (O’Hagan and Mangiron 2013, 13). Game localization involves translating and adapting games in relevant regional versions (locales) to ensure that they are technically, linguistically, and culturally adjusted for a given target territory. Indirect translation is commonly applied to games developed in a language other than English (LOTE) in order to localize them into multiple languages, with English typically serving as the pivot language. The multi-layer structure of games, the use of multimedia, and various business practices specific to the game industry (Chandler and Deming 2012) create new contexts for indirect translation, which remains under-researched particularly in the context of digital products (see Pięta 2017). Indirect translation represents multifarious phenomena (Li 2017), but fundamentally refers to any translated text that is not a direct translation from the original source text (Assis Rosa, Pięta, and Bueno Maia 2017, 115–116). This article adopts the open definition of indirect translation as “a translation of a translation” by Assis Rosa, Pięta, and Bueno Maia (2017, 120–121) who draw on Gambier (1994) to accommodate all its variants such as back translation, retranslation, and relay translation. Recent bibliometric studies, such as Pięta (2017), have provided evidence of the historical prevalence of indirect translation, and reveal that much of the research on indirect translation has been focused on the literary genre, leaving explorations of other areas “non-existent” in the literature (200). In fact, this topic has not received much attention within the domain of game localization itself (see Mangiron [2017] for a recent literature review on game localization research), and only brief mentions are made in relation to the localization of Japanese games (e.g., Mangiron 2004; O’Hagan 2009; Mangiron 2021) and, more recently, Chinese games. For example, Teo (2017) highlights how the English version of a Chinese game used as the pivot to generate other European language versions causes “loss in translation unless the translators understand the source language well enough to know the original content” (52). Another study by Wu and Chen (2020), which draws on game-user surveys in Indonesia, finds that “gamers think the lesser quality of Chinese games in Indonesian is due to the use of relay translation” (61). LocalizeDirect’s Game Localization Report (LocalizeDirect 2021, 15) in turn notes that while the most common practice for LOTE games is to use English as the pivot language, “developers can request direct translations […] to keep the translated content as close to the original as possible, reduce the risk of errors and start localization earlier, without having to wait for the bridge language translation.” Stakeholders in the game industry are aware of the ramifications of indirect translation and yet its continued use suggests the trade-off.

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