Translating Movies

February 12th, 2015

Content is an overused word that is supposed to contain multitudes, but you can’t translate “content” - you can only translated specific things, like writing, or a film.

Translating Movies | One Hour Translation

When speaking of translation there’s a tendency, I’ve noticed, to treat it as one monolithic industry of content. The word content itself is one of those modern buzzwords used by marketing gurus and Internet wunderkinds who want to level everything and make it all very formulaic. But the fact is, a blog post is not a video is not a song is not an encyclopedia entry. All that “content” out there in the world exists as specific groupings of words, images, sounds, and other materials, and we treat them as one thing at our peril.

So, when we’re talking about translation, the temptation to treat a blog post being translated for a foreign market and a film being translated for another language is strong, because we’re being taught to regard them as just “content.” But they are in fact two wildly different things linked only by their use of language and the need for language translation to get them from one cultural pocket to another. You can’t use the same techniques for both, you can’t even approach them the same way philosophically. You have to bring different tools.

The Assembly Line

One of the key ways an industry boils a process down to something that’s as cost-effective as possible is the “assembly line” approach, wherein a process is developed and then flattened so it can be applied generically to every thing. Writing blog posts can be done this way: Have an idea, write an introductory paragraph of 100 words, write three supporting paragraphs of 100 words each, write a conclusion of 100 words. End result is a well-structured blog post of 500 words, every time.

When you’re dealing with translating the same thing, you can come up with a generic approach for translation as well, it’s true. For blog posts you can start from the same place each time and end up with a great translation on the other end.

Film Translations

For other things, you can’t get this kind of generic approach. Take a movie: Let’s say you have to take the spoken dialogue of a film and come up with subtitles, which then have to be translated into several languages. A film is a singular artistic expression. It comes from the minds of a screenwriter, a director, all the actors involved, and all the technicians assigned to the music, special effects, and cinematography. You have to approach each film as a unique piece of art, and that precludes any sort of standard “process” for translation.

Your only viable strategy, in fact, is to take in the film as a work of art and start from there: How can you translate the mood, the tone, the humour and the heart of this film? There is no generic way to approach this. You must be an artist yourself, in a way, and find a way to bring all of that over into the target language.

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