Game Localization – Let’s talk numbers

Beyond the written words, translation is a numbers game: your word counts, your deadlines and, most importantly, your rates, define your ability to survive in this industry.

If you’re just starting out in games localization, you’re most likely going to be unable to evaluate your own worth. Be aware that the vast majority of the jobs are freelance (although in-house, fixed salary positions are not unheard of in big studios such as Blizzard or Electronic Arts) and paid per word translated/proofread/edited, not by the hour. Therefore, you need to come up with your own formula and analyze your output-to-pay ratio designed for your needs and individual situation.

BIG FAT WARNING: This is a very sensitive topic and I do not claim to have omniscient knowledge on the matter. What follows is solely based on my 4 years of experience in the localization industry (and 12 years of experience in games overall), and your mileage may vary greatly based on the factors laid out below.

Establishing a base rate

Most translators are fairly secretive about their rates, and rightly so. After all, a translator’s prices may vary based on what specific clients can afford, if rush fees are applied, if they’re bumping their prices for certain clients after many years of collaboration, etc. I am one of those translators, and this is why you won’t see a one-price-fits-all on my website, at least for the foreseeable future.

So if everyone’s being secretive about their rates and prospective clients constantly try to lowball you – as is their right, they’re also running a business after all – how can you define a fair price?

Here are a few ways you can go about it:

1. Start with the ProZ aggregated data. It is by far one of the biggest price samples in the industry and it will give you a good idea of how much an “average” translator is worth for their language pair. However, take this data with a whale-sized grain of salt: some language pairs are heavily misrepresented, which skews the numbers.

Minimum and average pay per word (in €) for several popular language pairs.

The data is also not representative of certain industries, such as games, and the average rates can be significantly lower due to the high number of applicants, or the apparent misconception that “translating games (or anything entertainment-related) is easy”. I also invite you to read this page of the ProZ wiki, as it helped me a lot when I first started out.

2. Scour the internet to find other translators in your language pair and figure out if they advertise their rates publicly through their ProZ page, portfolio, etc.. This should be the most obvious way to determine your pricing, but once again, bear in mind that no two translators are alike, and there are many factors that influence one’s prices – their education, experience and location being the three main factors.

Speaking of location, working freelance means you have the freedom of working from anywhere, including a remote, low cost-of-life area. But do not make the mistake of lowering your prices based on your location – your prices should reflect the quality of your work, not where you choose to live.

Figuring out your output

The more words you can translate (while maintaining the level of quality expected by your clients), the more you get paid. Sounds simple, right? Well, in reality, it’s not quite so straightforward.

In an industry as diverse as games, you need to be able to juggle with a wide variety of topics, including some that you might not be very familiar with and need to make time for additional research. Moreover, regardless of your skills or talent, a 5000-word narrative text made entirely of haikus will not be as simple to translate as, let’s say, a simple item list.

On average, a qualified translator’s output is between 1500 and 3000 words a day. However, that output heavily depends on the content being translated, the quality of the source, whether or not you are using a CAT tool, if you already have a solid TM, and so on.

Associated business costs

No matter how well you run your business and how cost-effective a translator’s job is, you will have to consider the costs associated with your activity. For example:

  • Anything hardware related (keyboard, mouse, printer, external devices for testing like Android/iOS peripherals), that can easily add in the hundreds of €/$ if any of them break
  • Accounting costs (unless you are very familiar with your country’s tax system, you will need to hire an accountant, which can cost between €500 and €2000 per year)
  • Private health insurance (again, depending on your country, but in Germany, the costs add up to thousands of euros depending on your plan and premiums). I pay roughly €2000 per year for an almost nonexistent coverage, but this insurance is mandatory
  • Electricity, heating, and all related “office” costs
Pictured: your income.

All those costs might not seem like much compared to a translator’s yearly income, but they do add up. And of course, that does not even include the behemoth that is income/VAT taxing.

Case in point

For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re an aspiring translator who’s looking to earn a decent living (as in, higher than minimum wage, but not Silicon Valley either – everyone has their own definition of what “comfortable” is). You live in a relatively moderate cost-of-life area in Western Europe, so your target should be around 2500-3000€ before taxes.

Your average output is roughly 2500 words per day, and your base rate is 0.08€ for translation. That’s 200€ per day, multiplied by 20-23 business days, for a total of 4200€ (assuming 21 business days). However, you won’t always have the exact same workload every day – you are very likely to have “dry spells” from time to time, and there are a variety of factors that can prevent you from starting work immediately (sickness, other obligations, waiting for the client to provide files, etc.). This also doesn’t take into account any other services you might provide such as proofreading or LQA.

Even assuming a perfect scenario, a significant portion will be taxed (but in Europe alone, this varies between 21 and a staggering 60%, so it’s really hard to make a global assumption), followed by all the associated business costs mentioned above. So while the base amount might seem like decent money, it’s actually not that much once all the dues are paid.

Finally, it’s important to remember that you will spend a LOT of time managing and growing your business, which will obviously be unpaid labor. This includes the time spent invoicing, asking questions about your current projects, networking, building your portfolio, etc.

Conclusion

All in all, making a living as a game translator alone is definitely not easy, but it’s not impossible. As long as you manage your expectations and budget accordingly, I believe that you can make a viable career out of it.

As your network expands and your skillset improves, you have the opportunity to work on lots of interesting projects, collaborate with wonderful people from all around the world and, if you play your cards right, see your name next to some of the industry legends:

Ending of Chrono Trigger DS, one of my first credited projects.

I now want to hear from you, fellow professional translators: how long did it take you to reach a “reasonable” level of income? Are you satisfied with the average rates offered in the industry? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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