In 2020 the German computer game market was the fifth largest in the world. It’s no surprise then, that many developers and content producers are trying to break into this market.
Of course, it’s possible to sell games in English on the German-speaking market, as Germany has a fairly high level of English proficiency. However, it’s much more enjoyable to immerse yourself in a game world that is set up along your rules, your culture of language, society, and life. Today, we’ll examine what factors need to be considered to successfully launch a product on the German market.
We can’t forget that Germany unified into a nation state quite late. Up to the 19th century, Germany was made up of separate duchies, kingdoms, and free cities, each of which had its own dialect. To this day, there are several dozen variants of these dialects, which can seriously differ from each other. The international community is helped in this by the so-called Hochdeutsch, the High German dialect that is generally accepted as the standard form of the German language.
If it’s hard for Northern and Southern Germans to understand each other, what about the speakers outside the country, in Austria, Switzerland, and Luxembourg? Each of these countries has its own dialect of German, so it’s important to know what region you’re localizing for.
For example, in Austrian German, the gender or plural form of a noun might be different. Plus, while in Germany, you go to the store to buy Tomaten and Kartoffel, in Austria you’ll have to look for Paradeiser and Erdäpfel.
If a character in a computer game that was made outside of Germany is intended to be German, it would be helpful to clarify exactly what part of the country he or she is from. Then, the German translator can work to pick the appropriate dialect for the character, adding some extra “spice” to the translation.
2. Formal and Informal Style
For German translators, the decision of what level of formality to use when translating texts for games depends, for the most part, on the client’s requirements. If the client says that the player/character must be addressed formally, then the translator will use the formal Sie. If an informal style is required, then the translator will, of course, use the informal du.
You should keep a few things in mind when addressing a player or character. Firstly, you can’t just jump back and forth from formal to informal. If there are inconsistencies in the source and the translation, it’s best to first ask the translator and then consult the client.
Secondly, when speaking to the player through the in-game support system or the tutorial, Germans prefer to use the formal Sie. But this only applies when directly addressing the user themselves, not the character that the user is playing as.
One more thing: while Russians consider the use of the formal you as a sign of respect or lack of acquaintance, Germans see the formal you as more about distance.
For example: a female NPC is intentionally interfering in a meeting of an enemy cult, while holding a relic that they are very interested in. The cult member is outraged, says this:
“Who are you? How did you get ahold of our relic?” An English translator does not have to worry about what form of “you” to use, but a German translator would use the formal Sie. The editor might make a note and ask them to change it to “du”, but the German translator would be taken aback: “How can you use ‘du’ with a stranger?”
“It’s supposed to be rude,” the editor would say. “And rudeness doesn’t really fit with a polite address.” The translator would then say that in Germany, Sie is about distance: “I recently criticized this guy on a forum, after which he asked me to address him with Sie, to emphasize the distance that had sprung up between us.”
So, you need to pay attention to your game dialogue. While a Russian might prefer the ruder informal you, a German wants the coldness of “Sie.”
3. Word Length
If you were expecting to find some scarily-long German words, this is the section for you. This problem with German localization is well known: German sentences often don’t fit the length limits.
This is mostly caused by articles and case endings that can’t be changed, as they play important grammatical roles. Plus, German words are, on average, significantly longer than English or Russian ones, to say nothing of Chinese.
However, German has some upsides in this matter, too: compound words. It’s simple: you take the roots of separate words, put them together, and voilà! You have a new word. It’s long, but it gets the job done. But this is, of course, best done by native speakers.
Sometimes, an English phrase of 3–4 words can be replaced by one compound word: Suggestion to improve the game = Verbesserungsvorschlag.
This “loophole” of the German language — creating words from roots — leads us to another problem. Sometimes, it’s just impossible to find the right adjective in German. There is a word, but it has no adjective form. How come? Because you can combine two words into one compound noun.
For example, there is no adjective in German for “ice”, so while in English, you can say “ice sculpture”, in German, it will be “Eisskulptur” — one compound word.
There is one other difficulty that results from this. If there are certain game concepts that are connected to variables, and names like “Ancient Dagger of the Fire Giants” are created by insertion, this isn’t possible for German, because “Dagger of the Fire Giants” must be one word. You have to use prepositions and linkers as a crutch.
One good thing about localizing into German is the fact that German is pretty loyal to using English words, particularly in the gaming and computer industries.
We’ve mentioned that English is not a problem for educated Germans. They don’t find it strange to use English when communicating, and even less so when using computers, where everything is an Anglicism.
Verbesserung doesn’t fit the limit? Well, then use Upgrade. No problem!
However, the power of the German language sometimes overcomes English words, forcing them to conform to its rules. For example, aufleveln — an English root with a German prefix and verb ending.
5. Non-Standard Interface
It’s important to remember that the German keyboard layout is unusual: it has keys for umlauts, the dots above u, o, and a. Another example is that the Ctrl button on most German keyboards is called Strg, from the word Steuerungstaste. This must be kept in mind when working on tutorials or other control mechanics.
6. Forbidden Topics
Until 2018, Germany had very strict censorship laws for video games: any games that depict excessive violence or mention Nazism or racism were banned. Then the rules were relaxed a little, and currently almost anything that is socially appropriate is allowed.
But even though the blocks were removed, there are still some topics which are better not to mention in games or texts aimed at Germans. Anything involving Hitler or World War II is taboo.
7. Gender Neutrality
It’s always necessary to ask what biological gender a character is, to prevent any grammatical gender mistakes. In reality, it’s not always possible to guess from the first impression, so it’s better to just ask the developers about a character’s gender, as it will influence the choice of words.
You cannot use the word Kämpfer (Warrior) for a female character. It must have the suffix -in, indicating the female gender: Kämpferin.
8. Low-Key Marketing
Germans like moderation, and they do not like to show off. So, when writing marketing texts, they avoid using descriptions like “the best game in the universe,” or “better than every other game in the world.” Choose more low-key wording to gain the support of German audiences.
Stay tuned for more articles about localizing into different languages, and read about case studies of real projects, all on our blog.