Subtitling is just another example of translation affecting our everyday lives.
Australians don’t watch as many foreign-language films as they used to. This is a function of both an increased insularity in Western audiences – after all, Hollywood makes so many high-quality films and there are many brilliant Australian films produced every year, there’s little motivation to seek out foreign films – as well as a decline in the film industries of other countries.
Still, there have been several foreign films in the last few years that have made an impact in both Australia and the United States – The White Ribbon from Germany, The Intouchables from France (I would include The Artist here except it was a largely silent film!). In each of these cases, the film was subtitled instead of dubbed when released in Australia and the U.S., so every person who attended a screening had their lives touched – and improved – by a translator.
Challenges in Subtitling
Subtitling a film is a very different form of translation from working on a business document or academic work or even a novel. First of all there are the length restrictions; your translation of a line of dialogue must conform to the length of time it is onscreen. This can be very challenging, especially if the target language requires more verbiage to get the idea across.
On the other hand, there is some freedom, because your job as a translator in creating subtitles is to help the audience enjoy the film, not necessarily to give them a perfectly-accurate translation. You are more concerned with the spirit and meaning of the dialogue, not necessarily the literal words. You must get into the story and the characters, and re-interpret their lines for the new audience, often substituting the right slang or references, and sometimes taking liberties with the exact meaning in order to help the unseen, unmet audience enjoy the story.
Sometimes, you must be very careful when translating individual lines – you must be cognizant of the themes and plot, and try to stay within the ‘colour’ of the language in the original while helping your audience to understand, especially if the film draws heavily from the native culture of its origination. In some ways, translators take on partial creative credit when subtitling a film.