In the world of video captioning, website and software translation, the concept of literal translation is definitely obsolete.
Since its origins, quality translation has been focusing more on juggling words and cracking grammar in both the source and target languages to make the resulting text comprehensible, coherent and easy to read. An ideally translated text must be fluid, and the reader should not even notice that it is not in fact the originally written text. In order to achieve this, a translator must oftentimes sacrifice literalness in favor of legibility.
Nowadays, technology has introduced a further complication into the matter: character limitation. Especially when it comes to video subtitles and website translation, this issue can become a big problem when we are translating from certain languages. “English and Chinese text is typically very compact, and text translated from these languages will typically be longer in the translation than the original – sometimes to an alarming degree,” explains this article on W3C Internationalization. The article goes on to show how a simple translation from English to Italian, for instance, can reach a size 300% bigger than the original text.
This, of course, gets even more complicated when we throw more requisites into the mix, like localization. iwl linguist Josh Gonzalez has experience in this matter. Among the projects he has in his portfolio there is one that had to deal with a video game translation. Definitely a fun project for Gonzalez, who proclaims that gaming is one of his “personal passions”. But also quite the experience: the translation included tight character limitations and localization requisites that applied to all Spanish-speaking Latin-American countries.  “It required extra neutrality, since it was directed at many countries. The biggest challenge was, however, the character limitation,” explains Gonzalez. “Due to programming barriers, I couldn’t focus as much on localization as I did on adjusting to the maximum amount of words I could fit on screen.”
Josh Gonzalez compares this challenge to that of video captioning, in the sense that in this service, a translator must also be able to fit a certain number of characters on a screen. But in this case, that limitation can be sorted out by simply dividing the text into several parts, always trying to make it as easy to read as possible.
The fact that neutrality was a very important factor for this particular translation made the job all the more complicated for Josh Gonzalez: “I had to be careful with rephrasing the text, since a word that sounds natural to me could not be understood in other Latin-American countries.  The screen space was so limited that I had to use abbreviations every now and then. While definitely not an ideal option, the client understood that there was simply no other option”.
But Josh Gonzalez was up to the task. Thanks to his friends from all over South America, who helped him come up with a final version that could be easily understood throughout the region despite language differences, he managed to overcome the difficulties. “I’m happy that I had the chance to live through that experience. Nowadays it helps me when I have to do a subtitling project and I have to make sure that everything fits perfectly on a screen”.
There is definitely no ultimate formula to deal with character limitation in software translation, but there are some key factors that we can extract from the case of Josh Gonzalez: careful deliberation, in-depth research and communication with the client are essential. Only through such a process can we come up with a high-quality translation that will feel natural to the readers (and gamers!).


And even though translation is definitely no game, there is no harm in having fun on the job!