In France, the demand for localization began to accelerate in the 1990s, shortly after the adoption of the Toubon law – which aimed to preserve the French language by driving out anglicisms. "This law forced publishers’ hand in translating their games. There was great demand for translation in video games, and few people able to do it at the time" remembers Thierry, cofounder of the company Words of Magic. While working for Coktel Vision, known for its famous Adi and Adibou (English title: “AJ’s World of Discovery”) educational games, which later became a subsidiary of Sierra in 1992, Thierry began to oversee the localization of their titles. In 1998, he launched his own company with a colleague with whom he began to translate Sierra games such as Lords of Magic and 3D Ultra Minigolf, going on to work for LucasArts and Ubisoft. Over the last 20 years, their company has remained more or less the same, which is largely an exception in the game translation industry. The market has undergone huge changes over the years, and their largest clients now work differently to them: "In the 2000s, everything began to get bigger and harder to access with publishers like Ubisoft, EA and Blizzard. What we do is a craft, they want mass production. We’ve reached a point where most publishers are satisfied with a level of quality where no one complains. This way of working, where they say "We’ll send you 1,500 words in the morning and we need it back the same day" and asking us to be constantly available is a form of servitude."
Transformé en archive gratuite
- Cet article, initialement réservé aux abonnés, est devenu gratuit avec le temps.
The armies in the shadows
An overview of the working conditions of French translators
In the last edition, we tried to explain how games are translated, and why some of your favorite AAA games are likely to contain at best some typos, at worst huge mistakes – and how we’ve moved on from terrible translations made by developers to generalized professionalization of the localization process. After talking with French translators, freelancers and employees alike, several facts soon emerged. The fact that their working conditions haven’t really improved over the years. And, like many other small cogs in an industry which favors the culture of silence, they haven’t always had the opportunity to make themselves heard, to express their joys and their frustrations. It is certainly not because they are short of things to say.
You are reading an English version of an article published in the French magazine Canard PC. The article was translated by Nikki Kopelman, on the initiative of Lucile Danilov.
"Being able to talk about our profession is quite a difficult thing for independent translators. In the video games industry, we’re the fifth wheel."
The little world of silence. "Being able to talk about our profession, it’s quite a difficult thing for independent translators. In the video games industry, we’re the fifth wheel", says Julien*, who has been a translator for fifteen years and has now gone freelance after a long period spent working in an agency. An important issue, he says, because of the social benefits which can be difficult to access due to the lack of suitable structure, between increases in social insurance contributions, lack of unemployment cover, and lower rates paid by publishers Note : 1. When the time comes to adapt a game for the international market, most publishers contact localization agencies, where project managers then parcel out the workload among internal employees and freelance translators. These freelancers work as "auteurs" (authors) or "autoentrepreneurs" (self-employed), a "rather flexible" status where income can be variable. "We sometimes get the chance to talk about our working conditions, but it has consequences. In this economy, we can’t always ask a client to accept higher rates due to fear of losing a source of income", he continues. This is one of the reasons for this general silence, but it is not the only one. In the small world of French video game translation, many fear being recognized by their managers or potential clients. Trying to explain this self-censoring, Julien* believes that the financial stakes are so high for publishers that they "hunt down any information they don’t control". This theory is also put forward by Timothée*, a project manager at a Paris localization agency for a number of years: "Clients try to control all communication about their game. We’ve seen a game change title after a leak, and employees fired for speaking out about something going wrong". There is also a fear of being seen as interchangeable by their clients, who have plenty of options, and of being replaced. On top of this are non-disclosure agreements, which Julien* thinks are "stupid and extremely counter-productive". "I agree that a video game is a collective work, in which we are just a very distant link", he adds. "But does that mean we don’t exist as translators in the game? It’s quite dishonest and bad for our profession, because you can’t really build yourself up". For all these reasons, many didn’t want to explicitly name their clients – even when their experience had been positive.
Note 1 : Two of my contacts stated rates of between 0.05 and 0.10 euros per word, with a translator being able to translate 2,000 to 2,500 words per day.
Sharing recognition. "Let's talk about studios crediting 'Production babies', 'the pizza delivery guy who brought food to the office the last month before release' or 'pets' but not crediting at all their translators who rewrote and adapted thousands of words of the script into another language", tweeted Felipe Mercader, a Spanish translator, last June. That tweet is the reason I initially contacted him, and it made me realize that the need to be credited was far from a simple question of ego. Translators are sometimes credited individually, but it’s very rare. More often, the name of the agency is mentioned – in the worst cases, the localization team is not mentioned at all. "I think some agencies willingly maintain this vagueness, because they don’t want their translators to be able to go to other employers and say they have worked on a particular game", Thierry suggests. Robinson, language lead at the Marque Rose agency, has been working in localization for seven years. He has only been named once, for his work on Marvel’s Spider-Man, in an interview with voiceover actor Donald Reignoux: "It’s sometimes sad to not be able to talk about the games you’ve worked on. Some publishers are overly cautious and don’t really give a reason, but there is zero risk, it’s to avoid even the slightest issues. They are less awkward with comedians, who may have special permissions because they have a different interest in highlighting their work". There’s also a certain lack of recognition from the public and the press – which have a tendency to talk about translations when they are bad. "You know that the localization has been done well when no one talks about it", says Léa*, head of localization at a Paris agency. For example, she remembers working hard on translating a life simulation game, where one of the reviewers praised the "author’s hand" when it was in fact she who had done a great deal of rewriting. According to Robinson, the situation has changed a little, with specialist media citing game localization more regularly: "Today, there is more recognition for voiceovers, and translation is gradually getting there". Timothée* notes the same, and views this change as highly encouraging, but is sometimes frustrated by negative feedback: "You sometimes see where translators have tried to insert the most relevant cultural reference, which is then perhaps not understood and is mocked by people on the internet, which can really concern publishers. Some of our clients have employees whose job it is to scour the internet to see what is being said, and would rather contact us to ask us to reformulate it than risk a huge outcry when the game is released".
"It’s an artistic activity which 90% of people treat as a technical activity. They ask you to translate a Welsh poem just like they’d ask you to translate an instruction manual for a hairdryer, and the allocated budget is the same."
Losing out. Among the people I spoke to, several said that the worsening of their working conditions coincided with the advent of games as service. "Some of these games have become really uninteresting and repetitive. It’s the patches: the games have no end, and we can no longer say that such projects are finally finished even after working on them day and night", summarizes Léa*. We must also consider the hidden part of the iceberg at the localization stage: "A game generates a lot of marketing content ", explains Robinson. "When we agree to work on a game, that includes the translation of in-game text, but also publisher blog entries, descriptions that appear in online content, promotional offers, and instruction books. All that involves a huge amount of work, particularly with publishers who generate media hype". When Martin* began to work in a Paris agency in 2009, he began by localizing a game which he continued to receive daily translation requests for. "I’m currently working on another successful game-as-service, which exemplifies the process for these never-finished games: there are always frequent updates, which means we need to keep up a hellish pace". To make matters worse, most of the texts provided by clients are not final and are delivered out of order: "Today, no one has the time to send us finalized files. It’s one of the reasons why it’s become impossible to avoid computer-aided translation, which analyses texts and finds corresponding sections in the project database, or highlights changes. It makes the work easier, but it’s far from infallible". For Martin*, these constant updates can cause a deep sense of discouragement, even ennui: "The profession still has interesting and motivating aspects, but this constant working in flows causes a fairly palpable loss of meaning, both in terms of routine procedure and in the feeling of being "locked" into the same project without a break".
Rise of the independents. In around 2012, Thierry rejoiced in the explosion in the independent scene, which allowed him to find clients which suited his company’s work style. "There were plenty of independent developers that didn’t want to work with anonymous, impersonal agencies, and who allowed us to offer something in line with what the market wants". In addition to seeing more diversity in an industry which had been exciting him less and less, he worked on games that he really likes, such as Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn and Shovel Knight. "In this case, we’re in direct contact with the developer or person who wrote the text, who are often passionate and really care about the quality of the translation. We’d had years of doubts and bad times, but I hope that the video game ecosystem allows these independents enough success to get their games translated". Lea*, whose agency mainly works on AAA games, really misses this human aspect, "I’d really like to be able to help out the smaller developers by offering a more affordable rate to those who don’t have the benefit of a dedicated localization budget".
Over the last few years, several French agencies have been acquired by Keywords, an Irish company that supplies technical services to publishers such as Tencent, Activision and Electronic Arts – and which has continued its expansion since its first acquisition in 2014. At the start of the year, the company had 5,000 employees in 20 countries. At the moment, things are rather mixed; several translators report "fears", others mention drastic changes in their way of working. "Before, we had greater freedom with our clients. Since the acquisition, we’ve had rigid structures and methods imposed on us, whereas localization normally requires great adaptability for each client and project", says Léa*, who works at one of the agencies acquired by Keywords. "There’s a lack, an absence of flexibility on their part, and a desire to limit costs as much as possible". She said she regularly works on her days off – "sometimes projects just won’t wait" – with weekly workloads of up to 80 hours. "Some publishers expect miracles, which means unsustainable paces. And yet somehow, the game is still released, which is a real miracle given the circumstances. But sometimes this is at the expense of the health of the people who worked on it", she confides. In this race for efficiency, she thinks the skills and expertise of translators are really taken for granted: "It’s an artistic activity which 90% of people treat as a technical activity. They ask you to translate a Welsh poem just like they’d ask you to translate an instruction manual for a hairdryer, and the allocated budget is the same". For another of my contacts, Keywords didn’t impose working processes on their agency, which has managed to maintain its working practices since the acquisition. "I want to give them the benefit of the doubt for now" he says. "But in the promises made to employees, there has been no improvement in their working conditions. Clearly, the motivations are essentially financial, and translators are not their priority". In Robinson’s eyes, this acquisition policy stems from the desire for uniformity and control of the production chain – but he hopes that each agency can continue to maintain its own way of working in the years to come. "There are also discouraging signs, such as the arrival of automatic translation even though it has not yet become commonplace, or the falling price per word. I hope we can fight against this – good working conditions are essential for providing a good quality translation". Despite contacting them when writing this article, we have not yet had any response from Keyword on the issue.
Crunch time. According to Timothée*, crunch periods at studios can have repercussions on translators, although he doesn’t believe they are completely comparable to the effects on developers: "At those times, you can feel the stress on the other end. On a project, this might happen when someone takes the decision to completely redo a section of the script, and you get 50,000 words to translate in two days". As an example, his agency works on around twenty projects at a time, taking into account the marketing and in-game elements. Among other difficulties that persist in the community, Julien* highlights the same issue of timescales, but also the lack of context and continuity: "For a translator, there is nothing worse than translating snippets. I once had the opportunity to play a game I was translating, and I have continued to advocate for that ever since. Some AAA game publishers bring in the localization teams before the translation begins, and take one or two days to explain as much to them as possible. It’s quite a simple thing , but it makes it possible to put a face to a name that will be appearing in your inbox for several months".
You don’t become a video game translator by accident – everyone I met really seems to enjoy their work. "There’s always a slightly magical and childlike joy when a game you’ve worked on is released", says Thierry. "It’s a time that still makes me smile, even 20 years later. That’s what makes it so much more frustrating when you’re not given the means to do your work well, and it can really affect your health". This passion can be exploited, as Timothée recounts: "I really love my work, and I’ve seen people cancel their holidays because they enjoy working on a project they were looking forward to. But employers sometimes take advantage of this to offer lower salaries, or working conditions that aren’t always healthy. I’m proud of my work, I think there’s something romantic about translators when it comes to meaning and relevance", Julien* concludes. "But there’s still this desire to avoid making waves, something that seems common to all sub-contractors. Without a sufficient framework to support them, they prefer to stay quiet".
* Names have been changed.