Creating Translations for Imported Games

(in which I mostly talk about what I do to cobble together English language translations for Japanese games when I don’t speak, read, or write any Japanese and where I also hope that some folks will chime in with what they used to do to play the German imports.)

This portrait of Yayoi Kusama hangs in the stairwell at my house.  It’s a cheaply framed page ripped from a magazine, and the only photo in my house that’s not of a friend or a family member. (That seems like a weird thing to say, but I never understood that schtick of having pictures of Elvis or Rod Stewart above the fireplace, so it seemed like maybe I should explain. She’s my Elvis.)

It’s there because of those polka dots in the background.  Her shawl too. It’s the repetitive action of creating those dots.  Of making those…tassels. There was a time when I made a lot of pottery and I had become infested with the same polka dot virus that got to Yayoi.

I don’t do well attempting to meditate or staying focused in yoga, but there was a time when I had polka dots.  I’d spend my afternoons and my evenings and sometimes my mornings or my late nights with an eye dropper in one hand and a pot in the other.  Dip, squeeze, squeeze, rotate, squeeze, dip.  

There was an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

I worked at five or so different studios and when switching one time, I gave myself a variation of an assignment my mentor at a previous studio had done: make 200 tea bowls.  Don’t make anything else. Don’t get distracted. Me being me, I also didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, so I also had to brush off their encouragement that I could…do something else.  It was a time of growth: doing away with inefficiencies in my processes and techniques; gaining flexibility in what I was working with.

There was an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

In the first half below, I’m going to talk about ways for someone else to do, or have done, the translation you’re looking for.  In the second, I’m going to discuss what happens when it falls to you, and the answer for me is going to involve something something solace in the process.


Double check that someone else hasn’t already made a translation.  Twice with games that were released at the 2018 Fall Game Market, I was nearly complete with a difficult translation when the publisher released English rules.  English translations usually list the translator and so now I ask one friend which rules he has been tasked to translate before I start, so that we’re not redoubling our efforts.

For Peter’s Two Sheep Dogs, Kevin used a method I’ll talk about momentarily to get a workable translation, but later it turned out that the publisher had one which they had forgotten to share, so it’s also worth asking -that usually means on Twitter, but Japanese rules typically include contact information at the end, though, again, usually that’s a Twitter handle, and sometimes there’s an e-mail address. (When Game Market releases do include English rules, they have often been printed at home, or are a handout to go along with the game, and not packaged within, so time constraints may have prevented their inclusion at the time of release.  A game not including them does not mean they aren’t being worked on for a later release.) I double check the game’s Game Market page to make sure that there aren’t English rules as well.

There is a subreddit (a specific forum on the Reddit website) where you can get some free translations.  (I’m not going to discuss paid translations as it’s likely to cost several hundred dollars at minimum, and so we’re just moving on.)  Here’s an example where my friend Jason got a fairly lengthy translation and this is the method Kevin used for Peter’s Two Sheep Dogs. I try not to abuse this method, and it isn’t always perfect.  Sometimes I use it more to square up some nuance I’m struggling with rather than use it as a first pass, but the price is right, and usually a response can be received overnight. Post it one evening, and wake up to a translation!  (This also works on the BGG Japan forum, as our own Jonathan Franklin demonstrates here.)


There will come a time when it’s down to you and Google Translate, and there’s no way around that.  (Well, learning Japanese, but for our purposes, I’m assuming that’s off the table.)

There are a few quirks to the process which we’ll discuss in a moment, but you need to start with the best input you can.  What format are the JP rules available in? My preferences are:

  • PDF where I can select the text to copy and paste
  • Physical copy of the rules
  • PDF where I cannot select the text to copy and paste
  • Image of the rules (jpg, png, etc.)
  • PDF where I can select the text to copy and paste but it pastes as an endless string of unrenderable boxes (⎕)

My friend Yuto recently shared some musings on what Japanese designers and publishers should consider regarding the availability of EN language rules for their games. In discussing the topic with Rand and I before hand, he was surprised about our valuation of being able to copy and paste the text.  As you’ll see below, having the correct text is often one of the key stumbling blocks to an understanding of the rules. I have access to hardware that allows me to scan in physical rules at a good resolution and software that can OCR the scanned document (a process by which the program searches the PDF for JP text and renders it selectable so that I can copy and paste.) However, this procedure is inevitably filled with quirks, especially when it comes to smaller sized fonts, expressive fonts, columns, and game-play examples.

This is a good time in your process to again check on Twitter, Game Market, and any publisher website for a copy of the rules.  Before, we were looking for EN rules, but this time you want JP. There may be an image of the rules on Game Market, but maybe there is a PDF on the publisher’s website.  Sometimes, rather than being in a document, the full text of the rules is just under your nose on some website, in the case of something like Fraction Poker, or on the Game Market site, in the case of Übergang des Barocks.

The first thing to know about doing MT (machine translation) of JP rules is to remove the “hard returns”.  Here’s an example from 名人伝 (The Legend of the Greatest Master). A selectable PDF of the rules is available, and here’s what a strict copy and paste portion of the setup rules translates as:

I can’t make heads or tails of that. However, there is a hidden character at the end of each of the JP lines which when removed looks like this, and leads to a much clearer translation.

In this trick-taking game, there is one card which is shuffled into the deck and determines the start player (the “Arrow” card.)  The start player reveals that they have it, but to ensure equal hand sizes, the other players randomly discard a card (and have some asymmetric knowledge about the available cards.)

Be careful with removing these hard returns, as sometimes the JP side may appear as if there are none left, but the EN side shows that there are, as in the example below.

As I said above, sometimes you need to OCR the rules and there are inevitably quirks.  Here is a passage from the FINAL BURGER -LAST ORDER- rules, and how it pastes, in an extreme example:

Yikes.  That won’t do at all. This passage, and frankly several large portions of these rules, are difficult to make out, both in the scan and in the physical copy.  This is an egregious example to stress that you should proofread what pastes into your MT software. Be aware that many JP characters may appear similar, but are not.  つ and っ, for instance. Is the character below 様 or 樣?

Even when the OCR is clearer, you’ll need to scan the text to make sure that it vibes with your source material.  Columns and example image captions can get in the way, as the software often takes a line from column A and a line from column B and splices them.  

One of the hardest of these to deal with is rules that use, well,…this is where we need to talk about Japan’s three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.  For our purposes today, kanji are the more visually complex characters borrowed from Chinese (and it continues to astonish me that each rule set includes several new characters I’ve never needed to draw before).  Some rules use a system called “furigana”, where a line of hiragana characters is placed above the kanji. It looks like this, in an example from the Fraction Poker rules:

The hiragana characters from the line above the main text show how to pronounce the kanji characters below them. For your translation purposes, you can ignore the hiragana line, but it will make your copy and paste more difficult.

When OCR fails you.  Not if; when. You’ll need to know efficient ways to input JP characters.  Google Translate offers 2 ways to do this, one in the desktop interface, and one on mobile.  I suppose both are at some point the same, but for our purposes they are key differences. Highlighted in the image below is the button you want for the desktop version.

This pencil button will allow you to draw characters with your mouse and Google will auto suggest the character you are trying to input.  Here’s an example of when it works (and I suppose that means you know what is going to follow.)

Other times, the result you want either isn’t there, or appears not to be there.

In this case, your result _is_ there though.  Here’s another example. No matter how many times you draw it, the “L” shape doesn’t seem to be in the options.

Though again, your result _is_ there.  The trick is the style of font the character is being displayed in.  If I understand correctly, in the first example, I’ve drawn the character in the “ming” style that is used by the rules, but Google is rendering my options in the “gothic” style.  In the second example, Google has rendered the kanji character in Chinese rather than the Japanese version that would be expected. The first row below shows the same character in two fonts, as does the second row.

(I typically see those characters in rules as I drew them above: り in the ming style, and 直 in the Japanese version.)

Those two characters seem to be fairly common and are the only ones I routinely come across where I need to know that the suggested characters are correct, even when they don’t appear as such. (You can see more examples of this “L” shape variation and its usage at this link. h/t Saigo.) 

(And if you found this fascinating, I recommend checking out what happens to the Cyrillic alphabet in italics; notably Т)

I’m about to discuss the differences between drawing the translations by mouse through the desktop interface and drawing them by hand through the mobile interface, but first, a note on these two characters on mobile.

The mobile Google Translate interface _does_ render り in the same ming style as the typical ruleset.

One thing you may notice about the mobile interface above is that you cannot see what I’ve drawn.  The desktop interface waits for your input before deciding upon an interpretation: take your time. The mobile interface immediately proceeds with its best guess if you pause for too long. At first, I hated this. Now I love it.  Drawing with the mouse can be difficult; for me, it is much easier to reproduce the characters by hand. Some of them are becoming familiar enough (though I still don’t know what they mean), that I can draw them with my finger rather quickly.  The mobile interface helps you out here also as you can enter several characters at once (as many as you can fit on the screen), and it will typically convert them flawlessly, though it still gives you options to choose from.

One of the drawbacks of the mobile interface is that, well, the results are on my phone.  I find it beneficial to have the results in a document so that I have it for prosperity, can combine with other portions that I have been able to copy and paste from an OCR document, or can input into different MT software.  (To do this, I usually copy and paste from the mobile app to a Google Doc.) The benefit of the mobile app is that it has a nice memory of what I have drawn; for instance, I was at a coffee shop yesterday working on the translation for 3番目に強いもぐら (Third Strongest Mole), and the app will let me bring up any of the passages I drew yesterday.

Just as you need to learn when two characters are the same, but appear different, there are also translations that Google will give you that are a puzzle the first time, but you’ll find become second hand: references to a “mountain” mean a deck of cards; the “parent” is the lead player.

You may find yourself in a position where OCR isn’t going to work or is sufficiently unreliable that you’re faced with entering all of the rules by hand.  Take this page of the GORiATE rules for instance.

It seems like a simple card game, but that’s page 1 of 4. This is where the intro comes back around: For me, there’s an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition of drawing the characters. It’s also addictive. I don’t know the language so the characters just become symbols.  The theme paragraph usually goes ok, but the components and setup are smooth sailing. Many of the rules I translate are trick-taking games, so much of the game play is hanging on a familiar armature.  That just leaves scoring and we’re out of here. 

It’s like squeezing those dots onto the pots. Draw this character. Draw another. Draw another. Draw another.  Soon, the sentence is finished, and you see what it means. Many of the characters are becoming second nature -though I know what almost none of them mean (I’m vaguely becoming familiar with the characters for “card” and “points”)- and this makes the process more relaxing. 

It’s work.  You have to put in the work, but I love seeing the results! “Just one more sentence…” Maybe I want to see how it plays. Maybe I’m looking for context clues to understand the previous sentence.  Keeping drawing characters whose meaning you don’t know. Just keep drawing.

There’s an intoxicating meditative solace to be found in the mindless repetition.

Anyway, after a first pass, there will be a few nuances that need addressing, and we have a couple approaches for this.  We can try an alternate MT service, for instance. Take this passage on the turn order from 3番目に強いもぐら (Third Strongest Mole):

The next player to the right of the third player 
will be the starting player so that the third
player to the meeting place will be the third
player today. The next start-up ear next to the
player on the right side is the next start-up
so that the third player who will be third in
the game will be placed third.

Ouch.  Step one, proofread the JP characters to make sure I haven’t mistaken a つ for a っ. (In the above passage, I did accidentally accept Google’s interpretation of し when I meant レ, but the revised result isn’t much clearer:

The next player to the right of the third player 
will be the starting player so that the third
player to the meeting place will be the third
player today. The next player to the right next
to the third player will be the next start player
so that the third player who will be in third place
will be the third player by comparison.

The game _is_ themed around coming in 3rd, so I suppose it is saying that the third person to arrive to play the game today should go third in the first trick, but I could be more confident, and I certainly don’t know who leads the 2nd trick.  Let’s ask Yandex’s translation service:

Just as the 3rd player who came to the meeting 
point today is the 3rd player, next to the 3rd
player is the starting player. Next to the 3rd
player to the right side of the 3rd player
becomes the next start player, so that the 3rd
player to the 3rd place to the next player to
the second place to the left.

…that…uh, doesn’t clarify things (see, you thought you knew where that example was going.) Luckily, rules often have redundant portions.  This passage about turn order has been from the section about the start player for the first round. If we move to the section about who leads the next trick from the rules for resolving a trick, Yandex gives us:

The starting player (the player next to the 
player on the right side of the 3rd player)...

Ah, I see.  The start player for the next trick is determined such that the player who was 3rd in the previous trick’s rankings is now 3rd in turn order. In hindsight, I can see that in the earlier outputs.

Sometimes, I try to watch a video.  For ジャンキー (Junkie), I was having trouble determining how the scoring works.  The game has 2 suits, milk chocolate and white chocolate, and I knew that the scoring involved the difference of the 2 chocolates that a player had collected, but in what manner?  Sum their values and subtract? So I watched this video and tried to follow along with the scoring:

That didn’t work.  Then I got out my copy of the game and moved the cards accordingly and realized that the score is the absolute value of the difference of the _number of cards_ collected of the 2 suits.

I’m also grateful for the support of the publishers and designers in helping get through the finer points of the translations.  Across the board, they have been very supportive in offering their assistance. I usually only approach them with specific questions, asking my question in both English and Japanese, and trying to reference specific elements from the rules.  Their English knowledge varies (though is almost always more than my Japanese), but here’s an example where ショータ couldn’t explain my questions in text, but drew, colored, and scanned illustrated examples to touch on the points I was unclear. It was perfect.

When I’m finished, I share a link to a Google Drive PDF of my text with the designer/publisher. Google Drive lets you manage “versions” of PDFs, so if I need to update something later, I can and the link I’ve provided will update as well.  I never know if this will be helpful or not, but they never know if making English rules up front will be helpful or not. I do it as an act of goodwill, and it seems to be appreciated on their end.

At the extreme end, is a ruleset that I’m working on getting into decent OCR shape for a friend.  The scan of the rules looks like this.

The text of the rules is cyan on white, and it includes not only furigana, but English language notes from a previous owner.  In this case, Rand had the idea of using photo-editing software to clean up the scan first. This one is a work in progress, but I’ve erased the hand-written EN and furigana, and I’ve darkened the main text so that it looks like this.

Much clearer.  Not the cleanest, but it is a quite legible font.  I’m still working on getting it close to this state but without some of the fuzzy artifacts around the characters.  

I did some work with cleaning up around the characters and inverting as the letters seemed clearer, but my OCR resources were not fond of the inverted image. 

As usual, the situation is developing.


From what I know, there isn’t a central list of what folks are working on translating.  If there was, this is where I’d tell you about it. I share any rulesets I’ve made and am sufficiently confident in to BGG, but sometimes I keep them to myself if I’ve done 90% of the work to determine if the game is something I want to purchase, but then decide not to.

There is a 2015 Geeklist from Joe for folks to list JP titles where they are looking for EN translations, though now I believe the community is using Nathan T’s 2017 list here for adding new such titles.  It can serve as a sort of central resource to be notified when a new translation is available. (I’ll also mention that Nathan T keeps a list of the ones he is working on in his BGG profile.)

As for me, I’m working on at some stage:

  • スタンフォード (Stanford)
  • ファイナルバーガー -ラストオーダー- (FINAL BURGER -LAST ORDER-)
  • 太陽と月のの王国 (Kingdom of the Sun and the Moon)
  • ゴリアテ (GORiATE)
  • 三ツ星ショコラティエ (Apprentice’s Journey to a Three-Star Choclatier)
  • Blue Border

James Nathanより 


[JN: I also invited my friend Rand to say a few words about how he does translations of Japanese games.]

Translation is like a puzzle to solve where the machine translated clues get easier to parse through practice, like a crossword puzzle (Quick! Five letter word for “Speculate, hypothesise!”). Translation is like a game I can play by myself. Of course, if I knew Japanese I imagine it would be less of a puzzle, and perhaps a bit more of a chore.

For me, the puzzle starts with the raw rulebook. I make scans into a PDF, then layout the scans in a desktop-publishing software. From there I take screenshots of the scans to use the free online OCR at Yandex, which allows copy/paste and drag-and-drop. From there, the steps are mostly the same as JN described above, except that I use an alchemy of Yandex, Bing, and Google to get my MT done. After some massaging, I finally put my translation into the desktop-publishing software atop the original language, retaining the structure and examples from the original rulebook.

I find a kind of logarithmic rise in time compared to page count. It becomes more difficult for me to hold the game’s ideas in my head at a higher page count, so there is not a direct page-to-time relationship. A four page rulebook may take an evening or two, whereas a ten page rulebook will take at least a week. As a volunteer doing this work for fun, this means I often choose what to translate based on what I have and am most interested in, and that is usually based on art and/or designer track record.

Working on:

王様の新しい街 (Saicolo New Town)
エイジオブフェアー (Age of Fairs)
ダイスニコフ (Dicenykov)

[JN: Here’s an example of what you get with Rand’s layout from Leiden 1593.]


[JN: I also asked the OG crew to chim in for the sake of nostalgia and a Then And Now sort of comparison, of what it was like playing German games before the digital tools we have access to now.]

Mark Jackson: So, I had/have a deep love for oddball children’s games from Germany, which often did not have a translation available. The steps to get them translated were:

  1. Check The Game Cabinet (Ken Tidwell’s excellent site that introduced many of us “old skool” gamers to the wonders of European games)
  2. Check The Gaming Dumpster (Frank Branham’s oddball collection of rules and other stuff… I think most if not all of this was ported over to BGG.)
  3. Realize you might be the only person in the U.S. that had even seen this game.
  4. Get really good at transcribing German into a Clarisworks document (yep, I was an Apple guy – still am)… and remembering the commands for umlauts and Eszetts was just part of the skill set.
  5. Feed the transcription bit by bit into Babelfish (this is pre-Google Translate) and paste it back into the original document.
  6. Work line by line to turn “Babelfish” English into understandable English, using your rudimentary high school German class knowledge.
  7. For the most part, ignore color/thematic text – it was always more difficult to translate/fix.
  8. Email friends in Germany with particularly tricky passages.
  9. Clean up and post on your (now defunct) website so others can use it.
  10. Tell people on about it. 

I was actually featured in the Fresno Bee in the Lifestyle section – and the thing the reporter was most interested in was my translating Goldsieber kids’ games. (I transcribed the interview – in English, thankfully – on my personal blog if you’re interested – 

Fraser: I married well :-)

Joe Huber: I am amused by James Nathan’s use of the past tense.  Yes, I have far fewer games I have to translate the rules for to play than I used to, but it does still happen; I’ve always had obscure interests in games.  The great advantage of translating German rules (or French, or Portugeuse, etc.) is that it’s the same alphabet, give or take. And so – since we passed the point of being able to scan rules – it’s – really not that hard.  The one step Mark doesn’t list that I often went through was – after 5, and before 6 – trying to play the game with the rough translation. I often found that that step helped one realize best what needs to be clarified.

I also remember translating a couple of games by hand, with my rudimentary high school German and a German-English dictionary.  I really appreciate OCRs…

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