• Sijin Xian

Thoughts on Subtitle Translation (Part I)

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

It has been over a year since I started doing subtitle translation. I have learned to apply my translation skills to a new environment and matured considerably in my approach and philosophy. And I'm happy to report that my continuous effort to hone my craft has been met with recognition for my work. I believe now is a good time to reflect and share my thoughts on subtitle translation, especially how it compares with my original habitat of document translation.

Accuracy of experience v.s. words

One aspect of what accuracy means in the document translation world is "no one gets left behind." No omission. Whatever is in the original should be reflected in some way in the translation. I had undoubtedly carried such established understanding with me when branching out to subtitle translation. And I've observed the same pattern in work done by new subtitle translators that I proofread.

Obsession with word-for-word accuracy can be a detriment in the subtitle world, where accuracy is more about the equivalence of experience than words per se. This is due to two fundamental differences between subtitles and documents. One, the reading time is limited as it is determined by the length of the original dialogue and how fast the actors speak. Second, the viewer can watch and hear the actors while reading the subtitle.

It is therefore prudent to cut out filler words that contribute nothing to the plot or understanding. To this end, the translator must be able to understand when words like "you know," "like," and "I mean" are innocent and dispensable, and when they carry meaning and need to be reflected. Watching the delivery of the actors can also give you clues about whether a pause carries dramatic weight or is simply a natural tempo variation when speaking.

Paraphrasing is encouraged to adapt to timing restraint as long as the viewer enjoys the same experience as a native speaker would. In other words, the preservation of meaning, intention, information, register, and tone trumps that of phrasing and syntax.

Condensing, or eschewing wordiness, is a good practice in all writing, and this is especially important in subtitle translation. I will explore it further in the next section. It is worth noting that the general principle of accurate translation still holds. Truncating and paraphrasing should be justifiable and done to enhance the viewers' experience, not diluting it. Concise writing, on the other hand, should be a go-to subtitle translation strategy.

Treat character space like prime real estate

The strain of reading subtitles cannot be overstated. Subtitle translators should develop the awareness that with every word they type, they are using a drop of the viewer's energy to read. Like prime real estate, every square inch of character space is precious and expensive. For this reason, readability is ever so crucial in subtitle translation.

It's a good practice to train yourself to use fewer characters to express the same meaning. Again, this has a lot to do with how much time you have. If the actor speaks slowly, there is no reason you can't write 他说他过一会儿就到. But if the on-screen time is more limited, it's preferable to say 他说他马上到 instead. This example might not look like too big of a deal alone, but it adds up and makes a difference on an episodic level.

This also connects back to the first point. Consider this example: He says the only way to get this done is for everyone to work together. It is okay to render it as 他说做成这件事的唯一方法就是大家团结合作, but condensing it to 他说唯有协作才能成功 might be easier to read as a subtitle and should not be deemed as inaccurate.

In the next post, I will discuss the importance of having a viewer-oriented mindset and understanding the effect of subtitle timing.



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