Most of us at one time or another have criticized the subtitles whilst watching a movie or television show.
Most of us at one time or another have criticized the subtitles whilst watching a movie or television show. The mistakes in translation are glaringly obvious at times. But for us couch potatoes it’s easy to criticize without stopping to consider the limitations and difficulties of translating subtitles.
Limitations of Subtitling
You may not be aware that one of the most significant limitations of subtitling that dramatically influences the translator when completing their task is the number of characters permitted per subtitling line. So, as an example, if you have a video in English and it’s translated into Spanish – a language that generally requires more words to express an idea – the translator’s job is to make it fit onto one line. This often means that the literal meaning might have to be modified.
Of course time is the other limitation. People need much less time to listen to messages than to read them. Therefore, the translation must be so concise that the audience has sufficient time to read everything.
At the same time, the subtitles have to be synchronized with the audio and show up on the screen for a specific amount of time. This reason is enough to compel the translator into reducing the text to as few words as possible, which can cause the translation to lose its precision and the nature of the original text.
The translator must also emphasize the cultural differences between the source language and the target languages. Today, it’s quite common for movies to be translated into various languages and dialects, but this is not always the case. So, still staying with our Spanish example, the translator must also deal with using a neutral Spanish; one that’s understood in all Spanish-speaking countries. As you can imagine, the cultural differences between one country and another are quite significant, so the translator has to both transmit the message by neutralizing the words, making it understandable by all, and still convey the effect required by the author.
So, for all these reasons, translating subtitles is a very specific area of translation that requires specialization, like many other fields of translation. But, above all, it requires a great deal of creativity in order for the translator to correctly translate the message and simultaneously reduce the number of words; plus maintain the audience’s attention.
Perhaps next time we’re watching a subtitled movie we’ll take a moment to consider the poor translator and the mammoth job they have in completing this task.