Legal and medical interpreting assignments require a deep knowledge of specialized terminology to help people communicate. But there’s another kind of interpreting work that requires specialized lingo and research into empires, galaxies, and eras spanning from medieval quests to outer space exploits to post-apocalyptic worlds. These varied realms are all in a day’s work for Russian-English interpreter Kseniia Topolniak.
With revenues surpassing USD 116 Billion in 2017and expected to reach USD 130 Billion by 2020, gaming is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the localization and interpretation industries. This explosive growth is fueling the demand for specialized gaming interpreters to assist at worldwide gaming conferences and events.
“Conferences happen on all continents, now they are even broadcast live, and fans come from around the world,” Topolniak said. “Other events, like online tournaments, championship broadcasts and local events, happen quite regularly, and it’s my job to facilitate communication among players, teams and organizers.”
Topolniak enjoys that gaming requires more creativity than some of her earlier assignments, like interpreting for a manufacturing company. She also likes the variety, which changes depending on the event and job, and the great variety of genres, worlds, galaxies, times and ages that come with gaming. She even enjoys the pressure.
“I love the challenge and the stress that comes with it,” Topolniak said. “I agree with Michelle Hof, a colleague conference interpreter, who wrote ‘there’s the fact that [as a conference interpreter] I thrive on stress’.”
Topolniak grew up in a small town in Kazakhstan that retained its Soviet culture well into the 1990s. Her parents decided she should learn English, which was less popular at the time than German or French, and her studies began at the age of six.
“I fell in love with the process of translating one language or culture into another, and this is how it all began,” Topolniak said. While she also exceled at math and science, a career in languages seemed to be the natural choice.
In 2009, just as the global financial crisis hit Russia hard, Topolniak completed her undergraduate degree in Linguistics and Cross-Cultural Communication with English and Spanish. Ignoring her professor’s recommendations to start out as a secretary, Topolniak enrolled in an advanced course in simultaneous interpretation. Her first position after graduating was as an in-house translator and interpreter for a state company that built metallurgical plants outside of Russia. While she learned a lot in this role, she wanted to focus on her simultaneous interpretation skills.
Six months later, Topolniak accepted a position with a major Russian telecom company. This role offered a wider variety of interpretation assignments like press conferences, shareholder meetings, strategy sessions, and working with Olympic Committees.
“It was a pretty exciting time,” Topolniak said. “Three years flew by like three months! But after the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, and the unfortunate political events that followed, I began to think I needed a break.”
Topolniak resigned and moved to Los Angeles to study equine science (horse management). In the last year of her studies, she remembered her original dream, which was to study at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey (MIIS).
“I first learned about localization when I was scrolling through the MIIS website in 2017,” Topolniak said. “I had never heard this word before! I remember Googling it to see what it meant. Then I realized I had been doing localization at my previous jobs, I just didn’t know what it was called.”
Topolniak graduated from MIIS in 2018 with a Master’s in Conference Interpretation, which included classes on software and gaming localization. While Topolniak had been a gamer in high school and was familiar with the gaming scene as a player, she was surprised to learn that gaming interpretation was such a complex and challenging field.
“A gaming interpreter faces multiple challenges,” Topolniak said. “You must quickly pick up on what is happening in the game and be creative. I am not exaggerating when I say there are ‘lives’ at stake. Also, I believe that the gaming industry in Russia appeals to a younger crowd, who use a lot of slang. Having worked in formal settings, it was uncomfortable to use so much slang when interpreting since I was not used to doing that at all. Once I heard cursing and I knew I had to interpret that…I can tell you, those words did not come out easily!”
Topolniak said a further challenge is interpreting remotely. Since this uses relatively new technology, it can add an extra layer of stress, such as worrying about the Internet connection going down, if there’s a technical glitch that can’t immediately be resolved, or if there’s an audio issue and the interpretation can’t be heard.
Another remote interpretation concern is whether she is being recorded and her words used after the session without her permission. How would Topolniak protect herself and her rights if her work was recorded and distributed? Topolniak confesses remote interpretation is her least favorite mode of working, but she says it is becoming increasingly common and she is getting more comfortable with it.
Quality is another challenge. When working on an assignment, Topolniak is the voice of her client in another language, and they trust their message will be delivered accurately. This is a huge responsibility since an error of only one word can completely change the meaning.
“Imagine using the wrong term or character name, or even worse, game title, during the event. The gaming audience can be quick to react to such misdemeanors,” Topolniak said.
Topolniak’s assignment preparation includes researching as much as possible in both languages about the game, genre, characters, universe, world, and ages. She reviews gaming media to understand the lingo and watches videos to help with slang, name, title and location pronunciations. Quick reference glossaries are created for unfamiliar terms or names. Right before the assignment, she performs an interpretation warm up where she plays a piece of news and repeats every word in Russian or English after the speaker.
“When I am nervous, I hold a stress-relieving ball that I squeeze while interpreting,” Topolniak said. “Before getting that ball, I used to fidget with cables and the noise would get into the feed, which is very distracting to listeners. After the job is done, I try to refrain speaking for an hour afterward because neither my brain nor my tongue can come up with a word in any language.”
When asked about her experience as a woman in the masculine world of gaming, Topolniak has only good things to say.
“Most of my experience has been in male-dominated sectors, like metallurgy, telecom and IT,” Topolniak said. “My experience in gaming has been nothing but professional and I have been very lucky with my colleagues, male and female. I cannot say that I enjoyed any special treatment because I am female, nor have I encountered any prejudice.”
However, Topolniak confesses there was one time in her career that she wishes she had been a man.
“When the TV show Top Gear Livecame to Moscow, they were looking for interpreters to do simultaneous interpretation,” Topolniak said. “Just think about it, to be the Russian voice of Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond to an audience of thousands of people! One of the show organizers asked if I would be willing to do it. Of course, I said yes! But a couple days before the show I was told that it was decided Jeremy and Richard should have Russian male voices. I was quite upset to learn that!”
Topolniak said that many people are unaware how much research and preparation interpreters must perform to do well on the job, and gaming localization is no exception.
“It’s like in ballet, you see the dancers flying around the stage, they seem to be doing it effortlessly. Hardly anyone thinks how many days and hours of training were spent and how long it took the dancing to seem effortless. It’s the same with interpretation.”
Despite the stress, shifting terminology and long hours of research that her role requires, Topolniak is fulfilled by her work.
“Gaming is an interesting industry. Learning new things and looking up new terms is so much fun – I am a nerd and this is my kind of fun!” Topolniak said.
“What makes interpretation for gaming fun is the energy that you feel when you work with big audiences. I like the thrill – and the pressure – to do my job well so no one is ‘hurt’ or ‘dies’ when I’m interpreting during an actual game tournament. It’s fun too that I have freedom to use frivolous slang phrases every now and then, and to curse at work!”