Subtitles: Translations that Last a Second

by Ben Soonthornwacharin

Before I joined FunkyCorp this summer, I worked in the field of subtitling. Think of it as translation-meets-F1 racing: it’s fast, furious and any miscalculation will result in a crash. Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but subtitling is the poetic form of translation, distilling meaning into the fewest possible words. 

translations and subtitles buttons on remote by Immo Wegmann

Why subtitles matter

Subtitles are often overlooked. They’re just there to serve us. But when we watch a movie or TV show in a different language, someone created those subtitles, working with a unique set of challenges. First, they last at most, a few seconds but need to convey the message with the same amount of feeling, humor, drama, information and culture as the original language. They must flow naturally, taking up as little of the screen as possible, while keeping up with the rapid flow of the dialog. 

Unlike text translation where the information can be read again, subtitles must make sense immediately to the viewer. You only get one chance to get your point across. Rewinding to confirm the subtitles is possible, but would ruin the pacing and the flow of the story for the viewer. 

Cinema exterior with neon by Myke Simon

Subtitles for different cultures

For those who understand both the original audio language and the subtitled language, it can feel strange to read the subtitles which don’t match the original dialogue. Culture is an important issue to consider when translating Japanese to English subtitles. There are many cultural concepts in Japan that don’t necessarily translate into English word-for-word. There are several work-arounds, but sometimes there isn’t quite an elegant way to put it. 

How to translate nuance

Another issue is getting the same “feeling” as the original. Direct translations can work sometimes but in order to get the same tone as the original, a rewrite of the line is often necessary. The Japanese Netflix show Terrace House is an example of transcreation that captures the nuance of the original conversations, without translating word for word. A casual conversation in Japanese conveys a lot with few words, so when the Terrace House members chat, you might hear, “確かに”, which translates to “surely”, but the English subtitles say “Yeah, I totally get where you’re coming from,” which gets to the intended meaning.

Learn how to subtitle

Subtitles are easy to overlook, but they open up new worlds. Successful subtitles allow us to enjoy foreign language media and give us insights into other cultures. There are some good basic guides out there, to help you improve your subtitling skills and give you an insight into the process—it might even get you thinking about how you adapt your written English for ease of understanding. The BBC has a good overview. For Japanese translation and subtitling, I think these books are useful: What is Subtitle Translation (Japanese edition) and はじめての映像翻訳 (First Video Translation). Next time you watch a film in a different language, know that there’s a complex thought process that goes into those little words across the bottom of your screen. 

Have you seen any examples of good subtitling recently – or any terrible examples? Please comment below!

Old cathode ray TV by Jan Antonin Kolar

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