• Sijin Xian

Thoughts on Subtitle Translation (Part II)

Viewer-oriented mindset 


Viewer experience is the ultimate yardstick for subtitle translation quality. Each subtitle only gets a few seconds on the stage, and the show literally must go on. Additionally, we don't have the luxury of including explanatory notes on cultural references or plays on words. Therefore, as subtitle translators, we must convey the tone, intent, and meaning with not only accuracy and clarity, but also succinctness and effectiveness. 


I like to imagine a Chinese grandma to help me ensure the viewer experience I create is as accessible and pleasurable as possible. This grandma might not speak a word of English. She probably doesn't read as fast. Maybe she is not up to speed with the latest pop culture and slang terms. Will she still be able to understand and enjoy my subtitles?  

On the flip side, I also envision a viewer who speaks decent English but prefers watching English-language shows with Chinese subtitles on. Imagine the following closed caption for an English video: Nothing brings me more pleasure than taking a hot bath after a stressful day at work. Here are three ways to subtitle it in Chinese: 


Option 1: A two-line subtitle: 

在一天紧张的工作后

没有什么比泡个热水澡更舒坦的了

Option 2: Option 1 split into two one-line subtitles appearing sequentially: 

Subtitle 1: 在一天紧张的工作后

Subtitle 2: 没有什么比泡个热水澡更舒坦的了


Option 3: Two one-line subtitles mimicking the original syntax:

Subtitle 1: 最令人舒坦的莫过于

Subtitle 2: 在一天紧张的工作后泡个热水澡了


While the three approaches are all technically acceptable, I think option 3 provides the best viewer experience. First of all, unlike the closed caption option here in the States, most Chinese shows and movies come with the subtitles embedded. We are most used to one-liners with usual punctuation marks replaced by a single space as this is the conventional practice. As long as the audio length and timing allow, I always try to fit my subtitles in one line.  


Second, in regular translation tasks, we switch syntax all the time to ensure a natural and idiomatic rendition. "I need this done by tomorrow morning," for example, would be 这个我明天早上之前就要 ("this I by tomorrow morning need done"). While this sort of reordering is a must, we should explore ways to stay close to the original syntax whenever possible, that is, without sacrificing readability. Since our subtitles roll while the audio plays, there's an added layer of pleasingness when they are in sync, as demonstrated in the third option. 


Third, apart from the audio, there's also the on-screen visual that we need to consider. Show producers and editors put a lot of thought into how the audio and visual work together, and it's our job to bring out the most authentic experience in another language. Imagine in the first scene, the actor says to the camera, "Nothing brings me more pleasure." And then the camera pans to a bath scene as she says, "than taking a hot bath after a stressful day at work." Option 3 is the best to preserve the intricacy of the scene transition. 

Make your subtitles dance


The audio-visual-subtitle sync example is a good segue into my next point: subtitle timing. After all, getting the translation right is only half the battle. It goes without saying that the display time of a subtitle should be roughly the same with the audio, but there's more to consider to get the tempo right and elevate the viewer experience even more.


First, no spoilers. Take stand-up comedy special as an example. I'm a stickler for timing the punchline so that the viewers of my subtitles can laugh at the same time as the live audience. If the comedian says, "then the guy goes, '[punchline],'" and there's a pause in between, I would split it into two subtitles, instead of showing the whole sentence as a whole. We must keep in mind that the goal of subtitle translation is to replicate the same experience the viewers would have if they understood the original language. 


Second, don't confuse. Imagine a woman opens the door and says, "come in." And then she turns to the person who is already in the room and says, "you may go now." We want to make two separate subtitles for this so that it doesn't create a jarring experience for the viewers. 


Third, work with the visual. Let's say we are working on a music documentary, and it's listing a bunch of popular albums while the corresponding album covers are displayed on the screen one by one. While it's acceptable to make the subtitle read "albums such as [A, B, C, D, E]," I think it's more effective and pleasing to split it up and show [A] the same time album A is on the screen, and so on and so forth. 


I need to point out this practice is recommended for Chinese because short, one-line subtitles are optimal and conventional for the language, whereas American viewers might be more used to longer subtitles that are two lines long. 


In my next post, I will share some tips for creating natural and idiomatic subtitles and some pitfalls to avoid. 

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