International markets demand international products â?? and that means localising your title into a variety of languages. Sideâ??s Andy Emery offers advice on ensuring that the spirit of the game is not lost along the wayâ?¦

Lost in Translation?

With the huge amount of time, money and expertise invested in the creation of a new game, it’s natural that developers and publishers should wish the quality of their game to shine through whatever corner of the globe it may find itself. Yet localisation can be a surprisingly hit-and-miss affair.

While companies responsible for sound production on the original game are, quite rightly, very carefully chosen for their suitability and overall quality, when it comes to foreign language versions it is not uncommon for scripts to simply be sent out to the territories with few of the controls or quality checks demanded by the original.

This can mean a significant drop in production values from the original to the product that finally hits the shelves in a far-off territory. The localised version may have the same beautiful graphics, sweeping orchestral score, creative sound design, and yet be ruined by a poorly translated script, bad overall sound mix or inferior vocal performances.

So, how can you ensure localised versions are faithful to the original? And how can you be confident that not only the words, but the all-round quality and spirit of the game are successfully translated?

First of all, you need to ensure that you are working from excellent source material. It may sound obvious, but working from a badly translated script for a localised version can yield results every bit as inferior as working from a poorly written script in the source language. If, for example, you use a translation agency with little or no experience translating for games, your masterpiece could end up with a translator who has spent the majority of their time translating financial documents. Not ideal.

For this reason, it is often a good idea to factor in a script review after translation and prior to recording. Sometimes what makes perfect sense in Japanese just does not work in English, French or German, and the story may need to be tweaked to accommodate the change – a job often best carried out by someone with writing experience, rather than just translation experience.

For our work on Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King, the publisher took the time to re-work the English script (translated from the original Japanese), ensuring that it worked fully on its own terms – the result being not only truly engaging, entertaining dialogue, but excellent reviews and awards.

It’s also advisable to factor in a lip sync review of the script where you need to work to existing FMV material. It is standard practice when overdubbing a traditional animation into another language, but, surprisingly, is often overlooked when working on games titles. Constantly rewriting a script to fit lip sync, whilst incurring the costs of studio, actors and directors, is clearly not the most economic way to proceed.

A review carried out with a writer/director and sound engineer prior to the session will result in a higher quality production at the same cost, if not less.

This can make all the difference in the smooth running of the localisation process. Some smaller publishers do not have a dedicated localisation department, and liaising with – and managing – multiple studios can be a time-consuming business. There is also the potential for an error in one language to be multiplied and relayed out to all territories if not resolved rapidly. Having all production and project management aspects handled by one organisation means that when a production issue occurs in one language, it can not only be sorted out quickly, but the solution can also be implemented efficiently in all other languages.

Even for publishers who do have a dedicated localisation department, there is often real benefit in having one point of contact to deal with. Perhaps there is a particularly high degree of complexity involved with effected and mixed audio files, in which case it may be desirable to use the same team that worked on the source language to ensure complete continuity of quality. Or maybe they simply require a fast turnaround.
Either way, centralised co-ordination means better, faster results – and far fewer headaches.

Of course, the major issue with localisation is consistent quality. When dealing with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian audio localisation, there are four main approaches you can take to tackle this problem – all have their advantages and disadvantages, and often a combination of methods may be the right approach for a specific project.

Approach 1: Record all languages in London, using native tongue voice talent based in the UK.
The major advantage of this method is that for small projects with a limited character count, you can often complete four languages in just a couple of days, ensuring complete control of the project and making it easy for client attendance if required. However, although London has the biggest pool of European acting talent available in any city, you are still limited compared to recording in territory, so for projects with large or diverse character counts, this may not be the best way to proceed.

Approach 2: Record all languages in the UK and fly in the voice talent required.
This works very well for sports titles, for example, where you may require commentators from various territories for more than a few days each, but wish to maintain control of the project to ensure continuity of quality.

Also, if the development team has come over from Japan or the US, it may be far easier to base the project in the UK and bring the talent to the studio. The possible disadvantage is cost effectiveness; if you require more than a couple of characters, then flight and accommodation costs of the talent may be prohibitive.

Approach 3: Outsource the project to multiple studios, in the various territories.
This is currently the most common way to proceed. Although it still requires a high degree of co-ordination, it does ensure access to the widest range of acting talent. It also means fast and effective turnaround, with languages being recorded simultaneously and post-production being carried out in the territories. However, as we have seen, there is often a real feeling of lack of control. It is rare that the producer or audio leads on a project have time to attend the localised audio recording sessions and often the results between territories can vary enormously in style and quality.

Approach 4: Use a dedicated audio team to go out to each of the territories and carry out castings and recordings.
Rather than simply outsourcing the work to the territories, this approach involves sending an audio team with portable recording gear, mother tongue voice directors and project managers to organise and oversee the entire project. All production and management aspects are handled back in the UK, and post-production on the audio is completed by the same audio team across all languages.

The considerable advantage of this method is that you can ensure total continuity of quality and style across all territories whilst still having access to the best pool of acting talent. The potential disadvantage is that you need to factor in a little more time to allow for the audio team travelling from territory to territory.

At Side, we’ve found this last method to be particularly effective, especially when dealing with high profile triple-A titles with large character and line counts. In the case of Medieval II: Total War, for which we produced both the original English and French, Italian, German and Spanish localised dialogue, it proved invaluable, and yielded great results.

The key factor in all of this is early planning, and our experience of working with next-gen titles shows that publishers now seem far more likely to take ‘localisation factors’ into account at earlier stages of production.

We are, for example, seeing more cases where the final lip sync has not been animated for FMV’s before the localised dialogue has been recorded, which allows for a far more natural delivery – and, therefore, a better performance.

Thanks to localisation being considered whilst titles are still in production, rather than merely as a ‘post production’ process, we are also seeing more flexibility with script rewrites and edits for localised versions (especially Japanese to English).

All of which is good news – and an indication of the time and effort publishers are now willing to put in to achieve the highest quality localised versions of their titles. Hopefully, games now really can sound good in any language.

Andy Emery is MD and co founder of game audio specialist Side which was set up in 1997 and has studios in London, Cambridge and LA

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