Sometimes subtitling involves more than just translation skills – it requires a familiarity with the source material of the film.
There is an old saying in translation circles: Subtitling is not translation. In part this is the professional pride of translators who have been defending their work against all sorts of invasions, particularly computers, and a general attitude that what we do can be done by anybody who speaks two or more languages.
It’s natural to try to define your work as specifically as possible as a result. But the fact is, subtitling is not translation in its purest form, although, yes, you are in fact taking words in one language and rendering them in a second language. But subtitling comes with so many artificial rules and limitations it’s really a wholly different subset, with its own challenges and rules. This is something that a Japanese subtitling firm discover a decade ago when the first Lord of the Rings film made its Japanese début.
The Lord of the Rings is a remarkable work in a lot of ways. Although initially successful when it was published in the mid-20th Century, it did not become a cultural phenomenon until the late 1960s, when youth culture adopted the books as part of their mythology. Graffiti declaring ‘Frodo Lives!’ could be found everywhere for a few years, and this cemented the story in the public consciousness. In Japan, a fervent fan base grew up around the books when they were translated into Japanese, and the films were highly anticipated.
When the first of the films, The Fellowship of the Ring, arrived, however, the subtitling immediately disappointed fans and the outcry became so loud and strident the film’s Director, Peter Jackson, promised to use a different subtitling firm for the next instalment. That’s a pretty terrible public blow for a company.
What’s interesting is that if you view their subtitling work objectively, they didn’t do a poor job at all – the meaning is clearly transferred from the spoken lines to the written titles. The problem was, they weren’t fans – they didn’t understand the underlying themes of the story and they had no sense of the characters or the subtleties of the tale.
For example, at one point in the film the character Boromir, who is proud and flawed and very distrustful of the character Aragorn’s supposed claim to be King of Gondor (a country Boromir’s father is Steward of) speaks the line ‘And the tower guard shall take up the call 'The Lords of Gondor have returned’.’ The subtitles render this as ‘And the tower guard will cry 'The King of Gondor has returned’.’ To the non-fan this seems to capture the meaning of the line well enough, but to fans... having Boromir acknowledge Aragorn’s claim to the throne at this point in the story was a terrible misunderstanding of the story.
So you can see what the subtitlers were up against! The subtitling company really needed to hire not just subtitlers or translators, but fans of the books.
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