An Introduction to Japanese Game Localization

Today we’re featuring a guest post by Sarah Tangney, a translator and editor with experience working in game localization. She received her BA in English with a minor in Japanese from a small liberal arts college in the United States and attended the Middlebury Language School for Japanese. 

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Photo by Mia J

So your Japanese is pretty good, you like translation, and you’re considering how you can make a career out of this. I’m Sarah and I’ve been working in Japanese-to-English game localization since 2014 (in-house in Tokyo from 2014 to 2017, occasional freelance from 2015 to 2018, and full-time freelance since 2019). I’m going to provide an overview of the industry and what you need to get started in it.

What is Game Localization?

Game localization is the process of translating a game, and localization specialists (translators and editors) and managers work either freelance or in-house at game companies (console and mobile). While there’s many possible language pairs, my experience is in translating a Japanese game into English and then localizing it for a western audience, so that’s what I’ll be providing information about. In most cases, localization specialists have to do a bit more than just straight translation into English–the game also needs to be localized so it will appeal to a different culture. Of course, there’s lots of opinions on how much localization, if any, is truly necessary for each game. For more on the process of Japanese game localization itself, check out the excellent blog Legends of Localization.

Getting Started in the Field

In general, you need a minimum of JLPT N2 Japanese to start working in localization. So pass the test first and then start looking into this field. You’re generally not ready to translate games at a professional level until you have at least N2, and you will most likely need to show you’ve passed N2 to be considered for in-house jobs.

There’s two ways to go about getting into the field: freelance and in-house. Freelance can be done from anywhere, and you don’t need to be living in Japan or a major US city with a lot of game companies to do it. The way to begin translating games freelance always involves first passing a translation test. Some companies that you can contact about taking their test include:

And there’s many more. Signing up for TranslatorsCafe.com alerts is a good way to find out about new work (some legit, some you’d be better off ignoring). You’ll always need to pass a company’s translation test before they’ll hire you. However, even if you’ve passed their test, there’s no guarantee you will be assigned work. And if you don’t pass, you may not receive a lot of feedback that helps you know how to improve. Attempting to break into the industry by freelance translating when you have no experience and no connections can be very frustrating, though you do sometimes get lucky. To build up your translating resume even if you don’t have any professional experience, pick a project to practice translating (it can be anything you want – a light novel, manga, visual novel game).

The other way to get started is by working in-house as a staff translator (localization specialist). However, this path is generally limited to people who are already living in Japan and who have a bachelor’s degree. (These jobs do exist outside Japan as well, generally in major US cities and some in Europe like Pokemon in London and Nintendo in Germany, but the ones outside Japan will usually require candidates to have prior experience. I’m also much less experienced when it comes to the job market for game localization outside Japan, so I can’t speak too much on this.)

Japanese game companies do not tend to hire from outside Japan–the process of providing a visa (CoE – certificate of eligibility) is one not many Japanese HR departments are familiar with. They’d much prefer to hire people who are already in Japan. If you want to break into the industry this way, I’d recommend planning to go work in Japan as an English teacher while getting your Japanese to N2, then once you’re N2 certified starting to apply to game localization jobs. (This is basically the path I took.) New visa rules have also made it much harder to switch from tourist visa to work visa, so I wouldn’t recommend going that route if you don’t want to teach English and your Japanese is already good enough for in-house jobs. It’s still best to go with a different job for the initial visa and then switch once you’re there.

Now, if you’re ready to job hunt in Japan for game localization jobs, I recommend using these websites:

When I was job hunting in Japan for game jobs, I’d post my resume/public profile in English and Japanese, search for game localization jobs by keyword, and apply to a handful. Usually recruiters would contact me, send me job info, and we’d go from there. For those who haven’t job hunted in Japan before, unless a friend is referring you to a job at their company almost everything is done through recruiters. They receive a commission if you are offered and accept a job they introduce you to, so they’re very motivated to help you in the job search process. (Of course, they do tend to get upset if you ever decide a company isn’t right for you and want to cancel an interview/withdraw from the hiring process, even if it’s because you already got a job offer elsewhere. They will try very hard to convince you to keep going so they get their commission, so be careful and stand firm if that’s what you want.)

In my experience, someone whose Japanese is at a high (minimum N2) level and who is a native speaker of English with a bachelor’s degree–not to mention a professional, mature attitude–was perpetually in high demand at game companies in Japan (mainly Tokyo, though there a handful in Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka as well). Native speakers of other languages like French and German are also kept on staff at several big game companies in Japan, but there will be fewer of those types of jobs offered at any given time.

These are companies I know of in Tokyo that have in-house game localization teams (not an exhaustive list):

  • Voltage Inc. (where I got my first in-house localization job)
  • Cybird Co. Ltd.
  • KLab Inc. (KLabGames)
  • Cygames
  • Square Enix
  • Okko
  • Gumi Inc.
  • Colopl
  • Arithmetic

Types of Jobs

Each company will do things in its own way, but a few of the jobs found at game companies include:

  • Localization Specialist (Translator and/or Editor/Reviewer/Proofreader)
  • Localization Project Manager
  • Localization Manager/Head of Localization

If you’re just getting started, you’ll want to aim for the translator/reviewer type jobs. After some years of experience, you can try to move up to project manager (someone who handles the timeline of a project and assigns work to a team of translators) and eventually localization manager (the head of the entire localization team).

Some of the editor/reviewer/proofreader jobs (especially freelance ones) do not require Japanese ability/fluency, but I personally think it really does help, especially in being able to pick up on translation errors the translator may have made.

Networking/Meeting Translators

Most translators working in the Japanese game and media translation industry can be found on Twitter. Everything is fairly decentralized and it can be hard to know where to start. Aspiring translators are encouraged to make an account and start following some well-known translators to get a feel for what the job is like and what the hot topics are. Threads such as this one asking people to tell the story of how they broke into the industry are a good place to start. There’s also this thread boosting Black voices in the J-E media localization industry. You can also look at my follower list (my Twitter is linked below) as I’m following a lot of J-E game translators. My advice is to follow anyone who seems interesting and listen to what they have to say.

More Information

For more on the industry, the blog J-EN Translations is a great resource, especially the Interviews with Localizers series. My thoughts on my experiences working in-house in game localization can be found in my interview for that series!

If you have any questions or want to see more about my professional experience, find me here:

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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