English as a Pivot Language: Going Out of Style or An Eternal Classic?

How burgeoning Asian studios and gamers are changing localization processes

The Mobile-First Wave

Not so long ago, when gaming companies decided to go global with their content, the unquestioned approach was to localize into English (U.S.) first. Subsequently companies would pivot from English into European and Asian languages for other locales.   

These days, however, we see an increasing number of requests to translate into French, Spanish and Russian directly from Chinese, Korean or Japanese. And these requests are just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to Asian language pairing such as Japanese into Malay or Chinese into Japanese. To understand this trend, and help our customers achieve their goals, we need to examine the motivations driving this change.   

Asia has become a powerhouse in gaming content generation, especially in the mobile market. Southeast Asia (SEA) with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, among other geographies, is a $5 billion mobile-first market. Non-SEA publishers are looking at the region’s potential to grow their revenue with localized game releases.  

SEA gamers largely sat out the console and PC generation and instead went straight to the devices they already had—mobile phones. The rise of mobile gaming went hand-in-hand with the surge in Asian players.

A Newzoo 2020 report summarizes the factors that are driving the growth of the market and corroborates the increasing customer demand that Lionbridge Games sees for localization to and from SEA languages. Increasingly, those customers are asking whether the traditional pivot through English brings the benefits they need.   

Reducing Turnaround Time by Skipping the Pivot Language  

As a platform, mobile games require the fastest turn-around, akin to the continuous localization model, where there are small daily drops that need to be localized in a very short time. Because simship (simultaneous shipment) is still a requirement, not pivoting through English allows publishers to reduce turn-around times. For some of our Asian clients, Lionbridge Games localizes from any given Asian source into French, Spanish, Italian or German within two or three days.   

Not pivoting through English can generate savings, both financial and temporal. Without waiting for English to be ready before other localizations, the game is out faster (as are subsequent updates, features etc), so companies can start monetizing their investment more quickly. And this means a boost for the all-important concept of ARPU (average revenue per user).   

In other instances, hesitation to localize through English has to do with concerns about the original message and cultural references being “watered down,” with a “double dilution.“ First, during the English localization stage and then when that English translation is re-interpreted by each of the final target languages. There may be concerns that the content becomes overly Westernized, and a perception that this impacts the quality and flavor of the game for some players.  

Like many European languages, some APAC languages share a common linguistic, conceptual and cultural past. Linguistic similarities, cognates, borrowed terms and transliterations amongst some of the APAC languages may be lost when using a pivot language. This is particularly important when a game is based on an Asian canonical literary work (think Journey to the West) or a well-known manga IP like One Piece. Asian players have different expectations of the storylines as well as with the characterization and the terminology used.   

The Value of a Classic Approach  

Given the benefits of localizing directly from the original language to the target, why is using English as a pivot still the go-to solution for most studios and publishers? First and foremost, there is still a larger pool of highly experienced games translators available through English compared to the number of translators working from Korean into Spanish, Japanese into Russian, Chinese into Brazilian Portuguese, etc.   

Additionally, English can be used to harmonize translation approaches and kick off both European languages and APAC localization on a common base. After completing a source content analysis, results can be shared across translation teams. This reduces the number of Q&A queries and provides a consolidated framework for the project that should minimize the number of LQA bugs due to ambiguity and misunderstanding. Also, given the dissimilarity of typography for on-screen text in languages like Japanese, Chinese and Korean compared to European languages, pivoting through English can provide an opportunity to test the English text in game. This should reduce the overall number of layout and truncation bugs that need to be processed.   

Localizing Requires Cultural Competence  

Translating Eastern content for the West is much more than just making sure language is accurate. A true localization job involves adapting cultural references for a Western audience and clarifying concepts that may be unfamiliar for them. A geopolitical review can also identify elements that are culturally or politically unsuitable for the local market.   

These elements can be textual, but also visual (gestures, clothing, symbols) and verbal. When such elements are not properly considered in the content creation process, they can pose a high risk to marketing campaigns, the games success and ultimately to a company’s reputation: Western gamers might be less likely to enjoy and engage with content that collides with their values. Performing a thorough geopolitical review on the English content, reduces the number of potential issues for other Western cultures and the lessons learned can be passed on to other translation teams to drive a shared localization strategy.   

English is used as lingua franca by the gamer community regardless of region. This includes some SEA markets where it’s one of the official languages or very widely spoken. English gives publishers the ability to support players in a multilingual market such as India, Malaysia, or Philippines and to engage with the community. And of course, English equates to access to the US market (among other English-speaking regions), which has seen 104 percent growth in H1 (year over year) in the mobile action games arena and continuous player spending.   

So, is English as a pivot language dead? Not by a mile.

Lionbridge Games is uniquely positioned to partner with you whether you decide to go intra-Asian, pivot through English or have your cake and eat it too by choosing to combine the best of both worlds. We can chat about what your priorities: Faster market access? Mitigating geopolitical risks? Maximizing your budget? Whatever is driving your game, we have the experts and the process you need.   

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Eva Herreros and Cheonjo Kong