Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Utopia: a translator's paradise

First things first.

That, there, is a bullet. I'm going to stick in my foot so you don't have to shoot first. Bad pun? Check. Now that it's out of the way, let's go.

I've been translating stuff for as long as I can remember. I was translating stuff on the Commodore 64, I was translating stuff before the internetz was the cool kidz in class, I've been translating with notepad, with edit.com, with hexadecimal editors, I've lived my life amongst my best friends: words.

Don't take my word for it. Get out there and look for me. Chances are you'll find me in the weirdest places. One page isn't enough for my resume in localization. I know it, I've been trying (without success) to put it all in my (fake) Facebook profile.

It's not just words either, mind you. And that's where our high-velocity friend up there comes into play. See, I'm also a complete nerd at heart. If it's easy, it ain't fun. If I don't learn something in the process, it ain't worth my time. If things don't even need to be tested, I won't bother nearly as much. Point is, I like my localization borderline sadomasochistic.

But my point here, is to kill everything that makes localization fun for me. The intended audience? Individuals. Better known as indie devs these days. Most big companies wouldn't bother what a lowlife like myself has to say, they'd rather give insane piles of cash to idiots who don't even have a clue what a videogame is, have no - or few - talented translators, use obsolete tools (and when I say obsolete, I mean obsolete by design), completely lack consistency, aren't properly proofreaded and tested in-game, the list goes on.

There must be some exceptions out there. I just don't have time to waddle through an ocean of PR bulldung and bad games to find the oh-so-rare pearl. And even if I did... Let me tell you, they probably wouldn't want to waste their time and teeth on me. I don't have a diploma. I'm a self-taught guy (bless the Harrap's and Jack Tramiel), and I've seen it all. I could probably tear their all-important processes apart and shove it down their throat just to show them what's wrong with them. Most of the time, it amounts to "everything" anyway. All I have is empirical experience, and a list of released and unreleased projects long as longcat, as well as videogame culture that would make most of their translators blemish. I'm not perfetcly bilingual either. Because see, my whole life in words has been revolving around games, and a huge list of books - most of them in the fantasy genre in all its forms. From the Dancers at the End of Times to Snare. Gives me an edge for sure. But pretty much bars me from entry in the club.

And the very cause of their problems may very well be just that: they have processes. Because, see, they're pros. Or at least supposed to be. And it wouldn't look good on their PR bullsheet to say "we don't have fixed processes, because every game is different". Understandable: all games are the same to EA (except when it comes to money), why would they treat them any different?

But... Heck. Things are different here. You're in it for fun, I'm in it for fun. You do your best, I do my best. They don't do their best. Let's make things clear: "they" isn't limited to our so-called pros up there. Translators (meaning: people worthy of translating your work) are few and far between. So, is crowdsourcing the way to go?

Is privileging quantity over quality the way to go? A thousand monkeys have a chance to come up with a localized version of your game. But would you really want to work with them? Thought so.

On the other hand, we all know it: you don't have the funds to hire a translator, much less a team of translators. Just like I don't have enough funds to buy Windows and all the tools that would make my life so easy. Don't know whether I would if I could either. As I said, I'm a tinkerer.

So you basically have three solutions:
  • Not localizing your game
  • Crowdsourcing it and hope for the best
  • Finding someone who actually has the skills to do the job and can prove it.
Chances are, not localizing isn't one for you, as you're still reading this. So back to the problem at hand: DO. NOT. CROWDSOURCE. Don't give a thousand monkeys the opportunity to crush your labor of love. Mojang tried it before you. And that's not even the tip of the iceberg. I've seen it all in my "career". Pros often amount to monkeys - they don't proofread (enough), they don't check for consistency (enough). Most AAA games are proof of that. Heck. Go look around for the unofficial Morrowind patch. The french version. It's insane. Just as an example.

Speaking of which, it will work to crowdsource your translation. If specific requirements are met. You'll need a huge community, devoted to your game, you'll have to grant access to the right tools for the job, and you, as well as your community, will have to be very selective about who will get on board with you (or without you for that matter). Implying you'll possibly be facing petty quarrels because some people are full of themselves and certain they're better - even if they can barely spell their own name. Now look me in the eye and tell me you're sure to have that by the end of the week. Right. DO. NOT. CROWDSOURCE.

Which leaves us with exactly one solution. And a stairway to hell. I'll lead the way.

Have you even thought about all the shiny languages out there before typing your first line of code? Did you really think it could wait? You were wrong. Just like you were wrong if you thought you don't need to have it localized. What if I made a great game, and it was only available in Chinese? How would you like that? I mean, why bother with English, Chinese is the most used language in the world. You could also see it this way: English roughly represents one quarter of your potential market. One. Quarter. And that's according to people whose business it is to localize games. So it's worth what it's worth. But I wouldn't immediately dismiss it as PR bulldung. Now tell me it's not worth it.

Everyone is in that position to start with. You're not reaching the full potential audience. And being ready for localization from the start will spare you a lot of splitting headaches. Your text isn't hardcoded, the necessary resources are available. Heck, it may even make your life easier if someone spots a typo in your work. And you don't have to change anything in your code. It's just ready. No problem with special characters, hardcoded strings, nothing. And that is amply worth the extra effort. Plus it won't hamper your ability to run the game in whatever language you prefer from the start.

Then comes the funny part. You need someone. But who, and how, will you hire? Some people may work for free - in fact I'm willing to believe most of us will translate your game for free, whatever the reason may be. Still, you're not exactly in a position where you can afford to let a monkey do that kind of job. Look at it this way: would you play your game if it was in engrish?

Then the poblems kick in: you don't really have a clue. Admit it. I'll bite you if you don't. Chances are you don't even understand a basic thing in whatever languages people can translate your game to. And you still don't want a monkey. Get some help. Open Word, or Abiword, OpenOffice, whatever suits your fancy. Ask your candidates to translate a little chunk of text. 50 lines should be plenty enough. Give them a harsh deadline. No more than a few hours (and even that looks like a lot if you ask me). You don't want them to cheat, you want to assess them.

Paste it all in your word processor and change your spellchecker to their language. If your screen becomes some kind of fireworks for people with OCD (either red or green) and the pretty lines aren't right under the bizarre words you came up with while creating your game... You just found a monkey. Next!

Another way to do it would be to find another native and ask him to hunt for typos and blatant mistakes. You're still at risk of asking a monkey to do so. But this once, quantity wouldn't be a bad thing.

I won't pretend I have a clear solution for such a matter. But localization isn't a matter to be taken lightly. You want quality. Come up with imaginative ways to test your candidates. You can do it. All that should matter is the quality of their work. Translators, at this stage, are cannon fodder.

Once you find someone you deem worthy of the job, here come a few more problems. And that's if you listened to me and took all the necessary steps to ensure things will go as smoothly as possible. And where my bullet will hurt.

As I said, I'm a tinkerer. Localization is only half the pleasure as far as I'm concerned. I like to bitch, I like to learn, I like to try interesting things on your precious material. The best way to illustrate it is to give you a concrete example.

I first got Thief: The Dark Project as a demo, on some magazine CD-Rom. And I played it to death for years, bought both games and... Well, when one plays Thief, it will usually lead him to so-called FMs. Fan Missions. Most of them in English. And if he's a tinkerer... You already know how it'll end. So I began work on that.

The tools available... Well, easy enough: there were none. EDIT.COM - yeah, that EDIT.COM. And that was it. I think I can take pride in saying I pushed the boundaries of FM localization as far as the French Thief community is concerned. When I was done with it, I had given people the tools to properly translate each and every FM the authors could throw their way. They had a tutorial for the strings (txt file with old DOS encoding) in a proper Windows editor (Notepad++ IIRC). They had a tutorial for automap translation, and a link to download the necessary hex editor. They had a tutorial for video editing, complete with compatible codecs, a tool to subtitle the cutscenes, mix audio, sync speech. They had a tutorial for texture modification and how to import the necesary Photoshop palette into The GIMP so it was possible for anyone to step up and continue my work. And everything would work in all languages. Looking back at it now, I should probably have released that on the ttlg forums. But I've never been much of a forum lurker, and quite frankly after that I was too exhausted to even think about it.

As I said, I'm a tinkerer. If I were to use PR bulldung, I'm a pioneer, and I like to leave all the necessary tricks of the trade in my wake so people can follow if they want.

And there's nothing as boring to me as a clean localization process. I almost busted a nut while localizing the Dark Mod. Because they weren't prepared for multilanguage support from the start and I had to wade through the source code - without knowing anything about C++ - and edit it so the strings were available for translation (that was in the days of version 1.00... The fine guys at the Mod have come a long way since then, and it's much easier now - still, that took them months. If that doesn't tell  you something about the importance of thinking it through before coding...) - still, it was as exhausting a job as shaping up FM translation.

Yet here I am, pleading for you to kill my favorite part of the job. It's the most reasonable thing to do. People with a proficiency in languages won't necessarily have the technical know-how to cope with burdens such as those. Texture editing, audio editing, video editing... It's all hard work. Chances are you  have people dedicated to them, or don't do them at all (or in a basic way). Do you really think everyone can do it even if you don't? And even if they did, trust me: it takes its toll on your man.

KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. When all is said and done, no-one can say he's a one-man army. One individual can go a long way. But a team will take things one giant leap further.

And even if you did it all correctly, this here word is one you should always remember: team. Work with your translators as a team. Because you included some obscure reference in your game doesn't mean it will be universal. Example? I'm quite excited at the thought of translating Cube Noir's Incursion. Peter has a lean, mean writing, I've never touched Ren'Py, and even if things are done correctly and I don't have to tinker with the code, once they'll need me I'll need them. And my example is in the demo. So, without any advertising intent, go ahead and download it. Then try to find the secret. When you do, come back. And let me show you what kind of problem, if that localization happens, I'll have to solve.

See, that secret is exactly what I'm talking about. It's a great reference. But I didn't even have a snowball's chance in hell to find it. Much as that thing seems to be big in English-speaking countries, it's unheard of as far as I can tell in the French world. So something will have to be done for that. The best solution, of course, would be to replace it with something as relevant and carrying the same... let's call it "legacy". Which in turn means I'll need their artist to cooperate with me. Their writer to cooperate with me. Luckily, I probably won't need the help of their sound guy.

If you're not willing/able to answer each and every question from your translator, you have it wrong. Never forget that it's not just their name on the line. It's yours, too. People do forget translators, unless you happen to make a name for yourself as the new Dan Woolsey or Véronique Chantel. Now tell me: how many of them can you name, and why do you remember them? Have any catchphrase to give that'll show why you appreciate their work? Probably not. And that's not a bad thing. It means they simply disappear and only their work shows. Just don't forget that, whatever the language, it's your game people are playing, and they'll be more than willing to be harsh with you because your translation sucks. Tell you what? I am. Because after almost 20 years in translation, 6 years publishing translations on the intertubes and correcting other people's translations (which more often than not equates to starting from scratch and rewriting it whole), I'm sick of it. Not of the job itself. Of seeing noobs take a place they should never be granted. A very, very important one, and one devs too often leave to rot in a corner because it's none of their concern. Or so they think. A missed reference is a missed opportunity. A verbatim translation simply doesn't work. A monkey unable to spell his own name is bad news.

I'm lucky. I can play my games in English, understand them, enjoy them, and even get most of the (not-too-obscure) references. Many people don't. If you want to impress them, your translator has to impress them. Don't let a monkey ruin months of work. Think of that. Kill my job.

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