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As video games have turned into more complex and narrative-driven products, the use of humor has gained momentum. Therefore, the adaptation of puns, rhymes, riddles and irony is important in any video game localization process. Humor is one of the many features included in modern titles, providing a real challenge for translators and localizers, and bridging the gap between video games and audiovisual translation, where the adaptation of jokes has already been approached by academia and the broader industry.

Although the game industry provides outstanding figures in terms of revenues and growth — according to the Entertainment Software Association, 72% of US households play video games, and the expenditure in video games software and hardware exceeded $25 billion last year — video game localization has not gotten the attention of many researchers, and the number of training programs or courses intended to educate professionals in the field is still scarce.

Today, video games have become multimodal and multidimensional products that rely on sophisticated technical features with impressive graphics and original soundtracks. As more emphasis has been put on the stories being told in the games, elements such as irony and humor have become crucial in many of the titles since they are intended to produce a certain effect in the target audience. Obviously, the tremendous development of the game industry and its global scope implies that humor has to be adapted to the different locales where the video game is going to be marketed.

Is it really important that humor is adapted for different cultures in video games localization? Clearly, the translation of humor has to be addressed in any localization project since it will contribute to a coherent story that is consistent and works in the target market. Meeting users’ expectations with adapted jokes or puns will support the deliverance of the message into the target culture and will allow players to interact with the game at a higher level. In other words, the translation of humor can definitely reinforce the engagement and involvement of players in the story and will contribute to the development of empathy with the characters of the title; in addition, the adaptation of comical situations will add some value to the game and will definitely support the creation of a high-quality product.

Humor is important in role playing games such as Dragon Age, where there are plenty of jokes and amusing dialogues among the main characters of the story. One of the most acclaimed sentences of the game is when Morrigan says of another character, “We now have a dog and Alistair is still the dumbest one in the party,” which was translated into Spanish as bien, ahora tenemos un perro y Alistair sigue siendo el miembro más estúpido del grupo. The Grand Theft Auto series provides a more adult style with many different jokes and threats being directed towards the player, such as when Gordon says “So you’re in, big guy? Or are we gonna have to kill ya?” to which Niko Bellic answers “Well, since you put it that way . . . I’m in.” The conversation was successfully translated into Spanish as entonces, ¿te apuntas, muchachote? ¿o tenemos que matarte? / bueno, si vas a poner así . . . me apunto. Finally, graphic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island are a rich field for the study of humor in video games thanks to the constant flow of comic situations the pirate apprentice Guybrush Threepwood experiences. In The Curse of Monkey Island, the famous insult swordfighting is a real challenge for translators, with plenty of tongue-twists and rhymes that were occasionally even improved in the target version. In one of these rhetorical battles, a pirate says “You’re as repulsive as a monkey pig,” and Threepwood answers “So much I look like your sister?” This was adapted into Spanish as eres tan repulsivo como una mona marrana / ¿es que tanto me parezco a tu hermana? where by using the feminine (mona marrana instead of mono marrano) the translator created a rhyme in the translated version.

In some cases, humor has been used as the main resource to re-create stories and scenarios in old graphic adventures (Sam and Max, The Day of the Tentacle), whereas in some other occasions it has been employed in the development of archetypal characters such as Duke Nukem or Wario. Also, different types of humor can be observed in more adult contexts such as Deadrising 2, in the gore-style Mortal Kombat series or in literature and comic-based titles such as Alice in Wonderland or Batman: Arkham Asylum. In a nutshell, humor is a cross element that can be found in all kinds of video games.

Broadly speaking, the adaptation of humor in video games does not differ that much from fields such as theater or literature, although due to the technical features of the games, it is much closer to the case of films and audiovisual translation. Humor is transmitted through different channels in video games. Beyond textual elements, it can also be conveyed through music and sounds, visual elements, and paralinguistic and semiotic components. As happens in software localization, a huge array of different issues has to be considered and approached by translators working with video games. This may include colors, dates and number formats, icons, images, audio and so on. However, the hardcoded contents of the game cannot be adapted by the localizer — for instance, the gestures or facial expressions of the character of a game may include some comical elements but to change them would require re-writing the game code, a task that is not on the checklist of localizers and translators. It is the duty of the game studio to make sure that the title is designed in such a way that it can be subsequently localized for different markets.

Arguably, internationalization plays a role in video games design and development, as most titles are currently sold in different locales and simship has become a standard practice in the industry. However, even when the use of slang, acronyms, colloquialisms and so on should be avoided according to the specialized literature, these elements are at the very core of many video games for the purpose of creating appealing settings, realistic scenarios and charismatic characters. A good example can be spotted in Gears of War where the main characters such as Marcus Fenix utter different expressions when picking up new ammunition: don’t mind if I do, sweet, I’ll take that, good to go, or got it! In the Spanish version, we hear sentences such as con tu permiso, genial, me llevaré esto, or qué detalle.

It is the task of translators and localizers to be able to select the most suitable and appropriate strategies with the aim of making the title fit the local taste in the target language; in some cases, the adaptation of the message into a given culture will not be possible, while in other situations, localizers will have to rely on creative and imaginative solutions to work out how to keep the user experience and the look and feel of the game in a specific locale.


Lost in translation?

The adaptation of puns, rhymes, idioms or even irony can be extremely difficult to achieve in some games; it may be even impossible to transfer the message to certain locales without suffering a loss in meaning or abandoning linguistic nuances in the source language. The main reason is that frequently, humor is so intimately linked to the cultural parameters of a given society that it can hardly be adapted or extrapolated to other contexts, even when they are similar or related. A good example of this may be seen in the no-dubbing strategy of the blockbuster Grand Theft Auto IV. Although the game was translated into several languages, the original voices of the actors playing the in-game dialogues were not dubbed. The reason for this choice was the rich and complete array of dialects, accents and colloquialisms used to depict the personalities and the backgrounds of the characters of the game. Some of them were gangsters coming from Eastern Europe, while others represented typical features of people from Latin America, Italy, Jamaica or different parts of the United States. Humor can be generated not only by means of the textual discourse but also by using other paralinguistic features such as regional accents or particular ways of speaking.

In many cases, it is not possible to effectively adapt the humorous features from the source into the target culture. As long as puns or word plays are used, it may be impossible to transfer the second meaning or intention. In Max Payne, for instance, there are several jokes made with the word pain, and this has been lost in the French and Spanish versions, as it is not possible to find a word that is semantically and phonetically similar to pain (dolor and herir were used in the Spanish translation).

Similarly, cross-references to other titles can be problematic for translators. In Duke Nukem Forever, some other titles of the same genre are mentioned at different moments. The sentence “I ain’t afraid of no quake” was a conspiratorial wink to the rival first-person-shooter Quake; in the translation to Spanish (no tengo miedo de los temblores) this reference is lost. A similar case can be found in the sentence “Hmm, that’s one doomed space marine,” (Hmm, ese es un marine espacial condenado) with a clear reference to the famous Doom, which was also lost in translation.

Many video games developed in the United States include plenty of slang or colloquialisms such as gonna, whatcha or wanna, as in Guybrush Threepwood’s initial statement in Monkey Island 2: “I wanna be a pirate!” This casual register is lost when adapting the games into Spanish, as there are no clear equivalents and the possibility of using local varieties or regional expressions is normally avoided. Because of this, all the nuances that contribute to creating a character’s personality may be lost in the translated version. This is quite notable in many of the typical sentences of Duke Nukem, such as “let’s rock” (juguemos), “that’s gotta hurt” (eso tiene que doler) or “you wanna dance?” (¿bailas?).

In any case, translators must be able to select the appropriate strategy in order to keep the essence of the game in the destination locale while fitting the local taste. Although non-translation strategies may be occasionally selected, the adaptation of the message normally proves to be the best solution since it promotes the involvement and amusement of final users. Hence, compensation strategies may be required. In this regard, the translation of humor in video games seems to be strictly linked to the concept of localization, as the main objective is to adapt the message to the local parameters and achieve a certain effect into a particular audience. It is noteworthy to mention that mastering the target locale and being a proficient translator may not be enough in this case; extra skill or competence may be needed when trying to convey humor in video games, along with a great deal of creativity.



Scholars such as Minako O’Hagan and Carmen Mangiron have used the term transcreation to refer to the carte blanche or the unlimited freedom of localizers working in such situations. Indeed, this phenomenon may be clearly observed in narrative-driven genres such as role playing games, where the adaptation of complex stories also includes transferring and recasting a great number of exotic and fantastic names of the characters, places, magic items, armor and weaponry. In this context, localizers will be allowed to modify words and expressions in the final version, and they will even create new names from scratch.

While in more technical titles translators can rely on official equivalences for many of the information strings appearing in the game with a literal or word-for-word translation approach, it is true that in many other types of video games creativity is required to guarantee that the user experience is preserved across different locales.

Although Nintendo video games tend to be optimally internationalized, with names and characters thought to fit different languages and cultures (such as Mario and Luigi), there is still room for some creativity as the names of characters and settings are intended to be tremendously original and catchy. A fairly good example of transcreation can be found in Mario Kart Wii, where certain names are re-created rather than translated in a literal way. Dry Bones and Dry Bowser are adapted into Spanish as Huesitos and Bowsitos, respectively. Also, vehicles such as the Wild Wing, the Magikruiser and the Dolphin Dasher are adapted as Alerón Chiflado, Magiciclo and Velocidelfín, keeping the comic touch in the target version. Similar examples are can be observed in Smash Brosh Brawl, where plenty of special moves and attacks of the playable characters contain some comic shade. For instance, Diddy Kong’s Peanut Popgun has been rendered as cacahuetola. In all these cases, the translator has kept the comic element by creating new words in the target language.

The recreation of humor in other cultures seems to fit particularly well with the concept of transcreation, as localizers will also create parts of the story in the target culture undertaking an even more active role in the process. Obviously, this “freedom of action” has to comply with the standards and regulations that apply to any localization process; for instance, in the case of video games, localizers have to stick to the tight space restrictions imposed by the graphic user interface, which becomes even more problematic in video games for mobile phones and other handheld devices.

Transcreation is not a must in video game localization, and localizers, together with game studios and developers, have to assess its effect on the game. While in some cases creativity will be the main guideline, in other localization processes more faithful approaches may be required.


New challenges in localization

The emergence of casual gaming has contributed to increasing the standard age for game players — the average age of the player has reached 37 according to the Entertainment Software Association — and this new fashion has reinforced the social aspect of video games in the last years. More and more people play games collectively, not only online but also locally. Hence, humor in video games will probably increase in the long term.

Currently, professional localizers are highly skilled at dealing with typical localization challenges such as space restrictions. However, how can they learn to be creative? Putting it another way, can universities, companies or training institutions teach creativity? Obviously, this is not a skill to be acquired in a one-week course, and translators and localizers have to develop this competence throughout their professional career. Localizers should not only be able to adapt the message but also to contribute to the final product with their own suggestions and proposals. In this sense, an even more active role is undertaken by localizers when adapting a video game, and some kind of authorship could be attributed to them.

The demand of this skill is good news for professionals working in video game localization, as some of them are currently facing the threat of optimized machine translation systems and the emergence of amateurs engaged in collaborative or fan translation. The ingenuity and audacity of human translators will be a must in the future of the game industry.