Machine Translation for Game Localization: Will it Ever Work?

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NMT in a nutshell: what on Earth is it?

When machine learning was introduced to localization, it was seen as a great asset, and for quite a while localization companies worked using the PEMT approach. PEMT stands for post-edited machine translation: it means that after a machine translates your text, translators go through it and edit it. The main problem with PEMT is that the machine translates without comparing the text to previous or current translations and a glossary — it just translates as it “sees” it. So naturally this method results in numerous mistakes, creating a need for manual editing.

NMT solutions: a brief overview

It’s no surprise that there are dozens of ready-made NMT solutions on the market. These can be divided into two main categories: stock and custom NMT engines. We will talk about custom (or niche-specific) NMT tools a bit later; for now, let’s focus on stock NMT.

The many intricacies of game localization

While machine translation works fine in many industries, game localization turned out to be a tough nut to crack. The main reason for this is that gaming (regardless of the type of game) always aims for an immersive experience, and one core part of that experience is natural-sounding dialogue and in-game text. So what’s so challenging about translating them properly?

Creativity

It may sound like a given, but creativity plays a massive role in bringing games to life, especially when it comes to their translation. A translator might have a sudden flash of inspiration and come up with an unexpected phrasing or wording that resonates with players much better than the original text.

Specific phrasing, dialects, and slang

One of the biggest challenges in localization is making the translation sound as natural as possible. And since every country and region has its own specific languages and dialects, it takes a thorough understanding of one’s culture to successfully adapt a translation to it.

Tone and overall vibe

Certain words convey a certain tone, and this is something that we do without thinking, just by feel. So when translating a game, a human translator can sense the overall vibe of the game (or of a specific dialogue) and use not just the original wording but synonyms that better convey the tone and mood. Conversely, a machine is not able to “sense the mood,” so in some cases the translation may not sound as natural as it could.

Advantages of using MT for game localization

Despite all the challenges around game localization, machine translation still does a pretty decent job. This technology has several significant benefits that make MT a great choice when it comes to certain tasks.

Speed

Speed is probably the biggest benefit of machine translation and its unique selling point. A machine can translate massive chunks of text in mere minutes, compared to the days or even weeks it would take a translator. In many cases it proves faster and more efficient to create a machine translation first and then edit it. Besides, the speed of MT is very handy if you need to quickly release an update and can manage with “good enough” translation quality.

Translation of out-of-game content

When talking about game localization, the first thing that comes to mind is usually in-game dialogue. But game localization is much more than that: it includes user manuals, how-tos, articles, guides, and marketing texts. This kind of copy doesn’t employ much creativity and imagery, since these materials don’t really impact how immersive the gaming experience will be. If a user spots a mistake while reading your blog, it’s not likely to ruin the game experience for them.

Cost of services

One more huge advantage of machine translation is its relatively low cost. Compared to the rates of professional translators, machine translation tends to be more affordable. Hence, it can save you money while letting you allocate experts to more critical tasks.

Consistency of translation

One more way MT can benefit your project is translation consistency. When several independent translators work on a text, they may translate certain words differently, so that you end up with different translations. But with machine translation repetitive phrases are always translated the same way, improving the consistency of your text.

So is machine translation good enough for games?

Apparently MT is not 100% accurate, according to gamers. For example, in a recent Reddit discussion there are hundreds of comments left by frustrated gamers, the majority of whom say the same thing: companies are going for fast profits instead of investing in high-quality translation. And what’s the best tool to deliver quick results that are “good enough”? You guessed it — machine translation.

Screenshot of the Reddit discussion

Localization-specific NMT

While neural machine translation has certain flaws, it has many benefits as well. It’s quick, it’s moderately accurate, and it can actually be quite helpful if you need to quickly translate massive amounts of documents (such as user manuals). So what we see as the perfect solution is niche-oriented, localization-specific NMT (or custom NMT). Let us explain using ourselves as an example.

Screenshot of the Airbnb press-release

How machine translation differs from traditional localization

Finally, let’s talk about the intricacies of localizing a text translated by a machine, and how the process differs from standard localization. We’ll compare the two approaches based on our own experience acquired while working on different projects.

Process

When we localize a project from scratch, it’s safe to say we are in full control of the quality, since the team has glossaries and context available from the start. Here the text is translated with a specific domain in mind, and only rarely do we have to post-edit the translated copy.

Team

The approach to assembling the team may vary across localization companies, depending on business focus, processes, availability of resources, quality of machine translation solutions, and other internal factors. We would like to share our approach here, which strives for agility but is not intended to be paramount.

Quality

When you choose a traditional localization approach, there is a 99% chance that your project will be assigned to a person who has the most experience with your particular language and domain. But with machine translation you can’t really be sure how well the machine has been trained and how much data it has for different languages. One engine may have learned 10,000 pages of Spanish-English translations, while another engine has studied 1,000,000 pages. Obviously, the latter is going to be more accurate.

About the author

The article is written by Alconost, a professional translation and localization company.

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Blog of Alconost Inc.

Blog of Alconost Inc.

We localize apps, games, websites, & software and provide video production, multilingual marketing, & instant translation services. Visit us at alconost.com