The Translation You’re Looking for is in Another Castle: Video Game Translation as Literary Translation


by Jaclyn Kershaw

When most people hear the words ‘literary translation’ they more than likely think of books, poems, plays, etc. The first thing that pops into my mind, though, is video games. Before you denounce my title as fellow bibliophile, hear me out. Sure, video games had a very humble beginning and didn’t have much text, if any, to translate. Most of that, if there was any at all, was dialogue. In modern video games, there is dialogue, quest and story descriptions, menus, etc. that all need to be translated professionally so that the story and its nuances come across accurately, naturally, and beautifully – after all, it is literature. For those of you who are still hesitant, let’s start at the beginning.

Even though early video games didn’t have much text, they still needed to have professional translations. Many, unfortunately, did not, and as a result have given us some hysterical quotes. While the general meaning was usually conveyed, there can still be some major problems if the translations were not done correctly:


The old man’s body language doesn’t exactly match his phrase.

While this probably sounded much better in the original language, it does make for amusing dialogue. We can get the general gist of this message, but it’s not a great translation. While it could be considered ‘correct’ English, it is doubtful that one fighter would say that to another. Especially those old man fighters; they are much more subtle than that. This is an instance where the incorrect translation doesn’t cause too much trouble because it is obvious where the game is going, but that is not always the case.



Noooooo, not the jam!

There are a couple other grammar mistakes other than the most obvious mistake; however, the most important mistake in this example is that it is about the law. Since it was translated poorly, the game owners may have difficulty pressing any possible charges because the suspected criminals could claim they were confused or that the charges are unenforceable in English. I’m not a lawyer, but I would suspect it would be difficult to charge people in accordance to the jam.


 Well, at least his is upfront and honest about his family problems.  

All jokes aside, this is an interesting mistake. In the original, the character’s name means ‘bug’. In English, the word ‘bug’ (especially in relation to computers) could mean a mistake or an error, hence the mistranslation.  While this may not have a huge impact on the progression of the story, it could. Depending on the dialogue that follows, it could confuse the gamer about what is going on, especially since all of the text is in capital letters. Thankfully, modern games have progressed and include proper punctuation and capitalization, but keep these errors in mind with the next couple of examples.

Skyrim quest


Imagine trying to figure out what to do with your Dragonborn in Skyrim if any names were mistranslated, phrases misused, or important words left out. Skyrim can be hard enough without roaming all over the province looking for “Error”, when in fact they are named something else, or, even more fun, it is a place or store and not a person.  This example also shows how video games have more than just dialogue. This short blurb of text is nestled right between drama and prose translation because it is not quite a short story, but not quite dialogue either. If that isn’t a particularly fun literary translation conundrum for you, let me just give you even more examples! In video games, Skyrim especially, there are thousands of these side quests, each with their own short story/dialogue mixes, and there could be serious problems if they aren’t translated correctly. “Now, Jackie,” some of you may say, “This could be considered dialogue. In theory, this person could be talking to his or herself and it is just written down.” I would be inclined to agree with you, but that doesn’t make it any less of a literary translation. Journal entries are also literary translation; many books have been published under the title of “Diary” or “Journal” and the author just uses their voice in that way instead of something more traditional. The nuances of the specific words used and how they are presented is the meat and potatoes of literary translation, whether it is in a more traditional literary text or journal entry.

skyrim journal better

Look at that, an actual journal entry! This was even written by a crazy NPC who liked to talk to a corpse (no, his name was not Norman; but he did always make the quests interesting with his random outbursts). These journals are common to find in Skyrim quests, whether they are related to the quest or not. Skyrim also has a variety of books…. Everywhere. While slaying bandits you can grab a couple of their books and read them for information about the quests, nifty spells, or lore about Skyrim and its people. There are also books in most houses, castles, and guilds.

skyrim book better


Books, like this lore book, might not change the storyline much if mistranslated, but if the player had to read the book for information, they may be mislead or confused if the translation was poor. Books definitely fall into the literary translation field, no?

Video games occupy an ever-expanding niche in our world today that encompasses entertainment and sometimes communication for the not-so-social butterflies (at least not in the real world). But aren’t books – real and electronic – the same? Video games offer the player a space similar to which a book offers the reader: a space that whisks them off into a realistic/non-realistic fiction (depending on what you are reading or playing, of course) for them to discover. The lay American reader is reluctant, however, to accept translation in his or her literature: this is why publishers often mask books that are translations (#namethetranslator!). In a similar way, players of modern and retro video games are unlikely to appreciate or even know the games they are playing are translations, and only likely to care when something is wrong – a similar case to a literary translator’s woe after the publication of a text! Video games, however, seem to occupy a space more similar to that of drama translation: it is underappreciated, even among literary translators; it is underrepresented; it is a blending of genre and form. Video games mix together stage directions, dialogue, and storytelling in one space: this requires a skilled literary translator to transcend form and deliver a text and product to the player that allows smooth play-through and enjoyment that is similar to a reader’s enjoyment of a book. Video game translators and traditional literary translators even have similar dilemmas: domestication or foreignization. Video game translators have to make these choices as carefully as traditional literary translators do, especially if the video game isn’t based off of traditional literature. It isn’t just accuracy; it isn’t just making sure that “Bug” is not translated as “Error”; it is delivering a player into a world as seamlessly as a book delivers a reader.

20170503_083128Jaclyn Kershaw is a blog contributor for the ALTA. She earned two Bachelor’s, one in Biology and one in Spanish, at Arcadia University, and is currently earning her MS in
Translation at New York University. Her dream is to be a literary translator and translate books and video games. She lives in Philadelphia, and you can usually find her buried in a book somewhere outside.

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