What is a pivot language?

A pivot language is an intermediary language used to bridge the gaps between a source text and the target language in the localization process. Pivot languages are most useful when there are few available resources for a desired language pair, and serve to expedite localization. As a common second language, English is the obvious choice for a pivot language, but it is far from the only one.

The use of pivot languages needs to be considered carefully when creating a localization plan for games. An increasing number of East Asian developers and publishers are expressing a desire to translate their content directly into their target languages and remove the intermediary step, often due to concerns about preserving the integrity of the text. Direct translation is the purest form of translation, with no intermediate step that could dilute the original meaning, but it can bring its own difficulties.

Deciding whether to use a pivot language can be a difficult choice for many publishers looking to localize their games. As an expert provider of end-to-end Enterprise Localization services in the gaming industry, Alpha Games is well positioned to advise on when multi-step localization with a pivot language is the best option, and when a direct approach is more suitable.


Why are some companies moving away from pivot languages?

The trend of developers looking to move away from pivot languages comes as a result of a number of concerns about the cost of the extra stage of translation, which also makes it a potentially slower process, and the possibility that the final product might drift too far from the source text. While pivot languages have always had a valuable role in localization, use them with care:


Risk of human misinterpretation or error when translating from source to pivot

Translation is a largely subjective process. With multi-step localization, misinterpretation can lead to wide-reaching issues when compared to direct translation. If an error occurs when adapting the source text into the pivot language, this error will be reflected in all target languages. A stringent QA process is required to minimize the risk.


Adjustments to the source text cannot be replicated in target languages immediately

Since localization begins while game development is still underway, source text is still open to changes and adjustments. In multi-stage localization, these changes will need to be translated first into the pivot language before they can be implemented in the target. This can result in a slower, less reactive process if efficient localization processes are not properly implemented.


The pivot language has different linguistic features to the source and the target

It’s important to be aware of linguistic differences between the languages used in multi-step localization. Some languages carry linguistic features such as gendered nouns or formality markers, while others do not. This can lead to ambiguities in the translation process. In the following example, content translated from German to Spanish uses English as the pivot language.

The German word Lehrerin translates into English as the gender-neutral ‘teacher’, because there is no English differentiation between male and female teachers. However, when moving back into a language that does used gendered nouns, such as Spanish, the translator will see ‘teacher’ and have to guess which form is best to use. In this case, the translator has opted for the male form. In the process of translating from German to Spanish, with English as the pivot language, ‘teacher’ has changed from a female Lehrerin in German to a male profesor in the Spanish.


Concerns about Westernization

Western Pivot languages leave significant cultural marks on translations occurring between Asian markets. The relative lack of shared cultural history means that idioms and references are often interpreted in unexpected ways which, when translated back into the Asian target language, can sound incorrect. Adapted humor often relies heavily on Western cultural knowledge, resulting in a game that feels overly Westernized.


The benefits of pivot languages

Take care when implementing pivot languages in the localization process, but they can also mean important benefits that should not be overlooked:


Larger pool of available linguists

Pivot languages can significantly boost the number of resources available for localization. Uncommon language pairs can lead to difficulty in trying to find experienced, quality translators. However, finding a pair of translators with a shared second language such as English, can be comparatively easy. This also makes it easier to find translators with expertise in a particular game genre or narrative style, ensuring a higher quality final product.


Ability to work on a larger volume of content simultaneously

Major releases requiring large volumes of translation in a shorter time can benefit greatly from the larger pool of resources available through a pivot language. The more translators working on a project, the lower the chance of a bottleneck occurring in the process and holding up localization.


An opportunity to optimize the process

Translation from the source language into the pivot language is a valuable opportunity to optimize the localization process. Crucially, it offers an early opportunity to identify potential issues that may arise, as well as any possible bottlenecks that might occur down the line.


Tips for using pivot languages

Using pivot languages correctly, and on the right project, can result in significant benefits for publishers and developers. To make the most of a multi-step localization process, here are some tips to follow:


Prepare reference material for two-step localization

Tools such as termbases and do-not-translate (DNT) lists help ensure the integrity of the source text is maintained in all locales. Information on specific terms, game lore and the storyline should also be provided. For main characters, make sure to detail how formally they speak, and how they should be referred to in gendered languages. These steps will help clarify ambiguities that could occur as a result of the pivot language lacking certain linguistic features.


Carefully select the right pivot language

While English is often viewed as the ‘default’ pivot language, it’s important to consider whether it is the most suitable choice on a case-by-case basis. For example, some Asian-Asian language pairs might benefit more from using Japanese as a pivot language – its grammatical structures or cultural history might be closer to both the source and the target, so the final product is likely to remain closer to the original vision.


Perform source analysis

A source analysis can help identify the intended meaning of idioms, jokes or wordplay, and help to maintain a similar tone throughout all target languages. Source analysis must be performed by a native speaker of the source language, familiar with both the game content and style, in order to ensure a high quality final product that captures tone and feel of the original.