As a global localisation manager, Teo Kah Hui ensures video games can be enjoyed by people from all around the world.

When an onigiri appears in a Japanese video game, should it be labelled “rice ball” for the benefit of the American players who may not know what it is at first sight? Or should it be replaced with a peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) sandwich—the equivalent of an American packed lunch?

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Kah Hui ensures video games can be enjoyed by people from all around the world.

This is an example of the decisions that Teo Kah Hui and her team make daily at Keywords Studios, a technical service provider for the global video games industry. The company provides services ranging from art and audio services to localisation and player support. As a global localisation manager in the Singapore office of this multinational corporation, Kah Hui and her team help game publishers ‘localise’ their works for different cultures and markets so that it can be reach a larger market.

This means more than just having a game use the language understood by its target audience, says Kah Hui. Beyond a mere “transfer of meanings from one language to another”, her team works to ensure a game’s concepts and ideas are relatable to the players who often come from vastly different cultures and traditions. Thus, whether the onigiri should be replaced with PB&J sandwich or not depends on how faithful the game publisher wants to be to the original material. 

“We don’t (just) translate games,” says Kah Hui who has been working in the industry for more than a decade. “We deliver a user experience.”

Kah Hui first developed an interest in translation when the then-engineer at a Japanese firm had to decipher technical documents which were written in Japanese. The experience inspired her to switch careers and pursue a Graduate Diploma in Translation and Interpretation at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Upon graduation in 2008, she was hired as a localisation project manager at the Singapore office of American video game publisher, Electronic Arts (EA). Kah Hui’s job included managing the localisation of the games, flagging translation issues and working with the company’s linguists to rectify them. When Dublin-based Keywords Studios took over EA Singapore’s entire localisation department in 2014, she went along. Today, she is part of the Chinese Hub of Keywords Studios, with teams in Singapore, Shanghai and Taipei, which localises games for the Taiwan, Hong Kong and China market. Her team also translates games from Simplified Chinese to other languages. The company also has project managers who oversee the localisation of games into more than 20 languages that are carried out by colleagues in other offices and translators across the globe.

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Kah Hui with her colleagues.

Although she was not a gamer before joining the industry, the polite and chatty Kah Hui says it didn’t take her long to be good at it. Playing video games is an essential part of her job since each genre of game has its own lingo that’s not taught in schools. For instance, while “skill shot” is hardly heard of in daily life, it is commonly used by players of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games to refer to a spell that requires prediction of the enemy’s movements for the projectile to hit. 

While it’s impossible to be proficient in the distinct lingoes of over 30 video game genres—ranging from first-person shooters to adventure games and puzzles—Kah Hui says that a good game translator must be knowledgeable in at least a few. This is why “games translators cannot afford to stay static in the language universe,” says Kah Hui who attained a Master’s in Translation and Interpretation from NTU in 2017, with the support of the SkillsFuture Study Awards for the Media Sector. She believes that translators have to constantly upgrade themselves to have specialised skills for emerging industries such as interactive entertainment and also keep up with the industry’s changing technologies. “An accurate translation is not good enough. We have to keep up with the latest internet lingo and pop culture trends.” 

To stay up-to-date, Kah Hui and her team play the latest games and join gaming communities and forums to find out what new buzzwords and slang have caught on to update their vocabulary. They also keep an eye on current affairs, as what happens in the real world has an impact on video games too. For instance, if a game with an earthquake scene is to be released to a market that recently experienced a deadly natural disaster, the localisation team would flag it and the publisher may make a decision to delay or cancel its release.

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 Kah Hui and her team play the latest games and join gaming communities and forums.

With Singapore’s video gaming industry gaining momentum, she feels that local game developers need to start thinking “global” to capture the larger market beyond our shores. To save cost and effort, she advises them to design their games with localisation in mind. This includes catering for non-Latin alphabet-based systems that may need more space, or are laid out in different text directions. The rest of the gaming world is already paying attention to the value of localisation, says Kah Hui whose office doubled its team last year to keep pace with this growth. They are also looking to grow further this year.

On top of her day-to-day responsibilities, Kah Hui is also a proponent for localisation at game conventions such as the SEA Summit, GameStart. She believes Singapore can be a Southeast Asia hub for the global language services market, which market research company Common Sense Advisory estimates to have brought in a total revenue of USD 43 billion in 2017. “Several major translation industry players have chosen to set up their regional headquarters or establish offices in Singapore because we are perceived to be well-positioned as a translation and localization hub in the region,” she says. 

Her advice to potential recruits?

“You need to feel for the game, or you will translate it like it’s a washing machine manual,” she says. At its worst, poor localisation can cause a video game to be boycotted as players assume the publishers do not care about them. “When you can translate a game such that an audience who is not in touch with global culture really enjoys it, that’s when you are successful.”