The Head of Translation Services at Testronic Manuel Verdinelli told us about the intricacies of localizing one of the most text-heavy video games of all time – Disco Elysium, talked about the challenges during the production, and gave a piece of advice for aspiring translators.
My name is Manuel Verdinelli. I was born in Argentina, but my family is of Spanish (Basque/Catalan) and Italian origin. I lived in different countries throughout my early years, which opened up my eyes to different cultural and social realities at a very young age. This meant both the realization about the rough life situations that exist in the world during my time living in the Caribbean, but also to the dynamics of multicultural exchanges in general. This forced me to develop a bilingual proficiency in English in order to manage my foreign schooling situation.
I learned Catalan during my 3 years of schooling around Barcelona, and later French and Portuguese, although I would not say I am very good in either. Currently, I am learning German, slowly. My family is split between Spain and Argentina, so my Spanish is somewhat hybridized between the European and Latin American variants and regional specifics.
I studied Translation and Interpreting in Madrid and Warsaw, and at that time, I could never imagine I would end up working in the video game industry. My time moving countries as a child meant socializing was troublesome, so I spent a lot of time reading and playing. To me, literature, poetry, and games have always been interrelated, and the sensibilities and tastes that one develops through either of these mediums influence the perception and what one draws out of the others.
When it comes to translation/localization, the theories and ideas that serve as the basis to the approach in each of these mediums are different, from a technical point of view, but of course, an understanding of how to adjust rhetoric devices to new targets is a skill that can be adapted to different contexts. As of today, I have contributed to many game localization projects, besides Disco Elysium, with our team we’ve contributed to projects like Subnautica: Below Zero (Unknown Worlds Entertainment), Amnesia: Rebirth (Frictional Games), F1 2020, and Dirt Rally 2.0 (Codemasters), and many others.
Getting Into Localization
I started my work in localization through LQA, at the time it was a job that I was not very aware of, despite having played many games in my life (certainly it´s not the most visible or lauded part of the process, despite how essential it is). The Testronic LQA team was being developed in Warsaw and I was very involved in this initial phase.
At that time, we were testing the DLCs for The Witcher 3, which was definitely a very memorable moment for me. Some of the first console VR games were also interesting to work on, and challenging on a physical level. At first, there was no dedicated localization team (only LQA), but we started developing that around 2016, and I have been involved in that throughout the whole path we have carved so far along with Katarzyna Brzozowska who joined the team shortly after and has put up with a lot of things. We have done very different projects; I cannot namedrop much because of the expected industry NDAs, unfortunately.
Still, I would mention the recent project KeyWe, a very interesting one to localize due to the text-based puzzle mechanics, that required a lot of thinking and technical workarounds. We are also working now on technical-scientific simulations that are not actually games, we had some interesting ones in this vein in the past as well, which is also more than welcome!
Best and Worst Localizations
Elegant and successful localization of the games I play are essential for a full experience and although different players come into different games for different reasons, localization faults can definitely break immersion and detract from a game’s intent. There are many talented and dedicated people driving the localization of games with their restless passion, it is a very interesting field. Most of my user experience with localized games applies to Japanese games that I play in English. It’s hard for me to enjoy games localized into Spanish as it puts my brain into "work" mode when I’m trying to enjoy the game, even if the localization job is optimal, it still triggers "work" thoughts.
Thinking of best and worst? Nintendo games always have flawless localization, they are surely known for this, I played half of Breath of the Wild in English and half in Spanish and the experience carried in both languages with ease. I very much respect the localization work on The Witcher 3, as well. I would definitely highlight the localization work on Dark Souls and Bloodborne, it is a joy to read every item description, the tone and choice of words always resonate so much. I have been playing Yakuza Zero recently and I have to admit I did not expect to enjoy it to this extent, the localization catches me off guard at times, yet works well with the quirky feel of the game.
I would not want to comment on ‘worse localizations’, knowing what goes on behind the scenes and the myriad factors and complexities behind game development and localization processes, it would feel unfair to point any fingers.
Localizing Disco Elysium
We started talking to ZA/UM Studios rather early in 2020 thanks to a mutual partner of ours. This was an incredible surprise, at that time I had not found the time to play the game yet but had read the impressive reviews and followed its acclaimed reception, so the rest of the team and I immediately got copies of the game and went into a deep dive in order to be fully prepared for this endeavor.
It was daunting at first but of course, with such a title, it was not too hard to have some of the best people in our team on board! There was a lot of brainstorming initially to figure out the schedule at large, how to divide the files, who would do what, etc… We had probably two months to prepare everything in organizational terms, have everyone in the team spend as much time as possible playing, and then went into translation.
Translation and editing were carried out in parallel, with the lead editors having access to the content as soon as each file would be translated. There was also some overlap with the testing team in order to make the plan work, and this was very helpful as LQA´s changelogs, suggestions, improvements, etc. were circulated back to our editors for a cyclical feedback process. Lead editors were making changes directly into the game as LQA continued progressing, and I believe that this cycle allowed for a lot of mutual feedback that helped everyone get the best out of themselves. There were some changes to the source and of course the addition of the new quests for the Final Cut edition, so we started translating and editing that content when LQA was finishing the pass on the base game. To keep things as tight as possible, we had 4-5 translators in each language team + one lead editor + LQA testers.
Collaborating with Other Studios
We incorporated into our team the uber-talented Alphyna (Alexandra Golubeva), who was leading the Russian community effort. This allowed us to consider some of the progress and ideas of the community-organized effort in a way that would make sense in the bigger picture, and her help was crucial to the project. It is tricky in formal terms for us, as a professional translation company, to incorporate the translations created by an independent community group, so we opted to share insight on the process in different ways, including the blog posts you can find here, in order to incorporate feedback into our work. To this date, we are receiving the player´s feedback and are in the process of incorporating further changes.
Challenges of Disco Elysium's Localization
To say this game is difficult to translate may be an understatement. This challenged even our most senior people in the team, and everyone did a lot of research and put countless hours into this. We had access to very interesting design documents that helped us fill in the gaps of concepts and ideas presented in a more abstract or fragmented way in the game, this also was crucial. To tackle this and other difficult parts there’s a mix of factors and ideas: research, taste/sensibilities, understanding the deeper intent of the game, striking the right balance of cryptic and accessible in the right moments, experience, and… time.
Summing up some of the team’s insight, besides the technical parts that had to do with forensics or required other research, the game deals with failed relationships and mental issues in a way that certainly is demanding to work with and requires care, and can also trigger unexpected emotional responses in the process.
Necessity of Localization
This is a very complex topic that is discussed often in localization conferences and I will probably do a very flawed job at attempting to summarize what I think, but: I use a lot of machine translation in my daily life for bureaucracy, navigating foreign news, or similar purposes. The results are more mesmerizing each day. There are fields in which the transition is already quite advanced and post-editing is more and more prominent.
This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can mean that localization becomes more accessible to more people and those who have the need and budget for higher-nuance human translations will still demand them. The use of language technologies will still produce jobs, yet the proportion in which this happens as a more human-based-work scenario is disputable. However, this is of course a risky development that can lead to many undesirable outcomes, technology monopolized in a few hands, lowered expectations in the consumers when it comes to localization quality as offer increases, an increased proportion of loc work being post-editing of perhaps less engaging content as opposed to organic and human-led localization projects. I would personally strongly prefer games and cultural works to continue to be translated by humans, as much as we realistically expect that.
It is my understanding that localization is very much in demand, indeed. There are many ways to enter this world, but in short, I would suggest looking out for opportunities that match one’s current experience level and to level up from there, given it’s quite a dynamic and busy sector. In order to appeal to possible clients, it´s important to be well informed about the subject matter, consume translations critically, trying to specialize in the fields where you want to focus on, and focus on approaching clients that are truly relevant to you.
This depends on the language pairs you work with, of course, but it’s possible to focus on games or game-related fields so it helps to associate yourself consciously with what game localization clients may be looking for. I feel like some candidates approach us (and probably other target clients) trying to prove that they can do many languages, many fields, many things, but in reality, we are looking for expertise in games and other related films like movies or books, and will only consider one’s native language as a target language interest. So perhaps narrowing down the focus is the best advice I can think of now.