• Sijin Xian

Thoughts on Subtitle Translation (Part III)

Updated: Sep 4

Imagine yourself as the scriptwriter 


As subtitle translators, our job is to move the plotline forward in the most seamless and pleasurable way possible. It's important to note that while foreign movies or dramas often contain cultural references specific to the original language, storytelling--the emotions, the ideas, the jokes, and the arguments--is universal. An essential element for well-executed subtitles is natural and idiomatic rendition: the words you put on the screen need to go down smooth and easy. In my daily practice, I like to imagine how I would phrase something to achieve the same effect as if I were the Chinese scriptwriter. (This kind of "role play" applies well to other types of translation, too!)

Here are some examples I've collected: 


"You shouldn't have" (upon receiving a gift): 你太破费了/太客气了

"Viewers at home" 电视机前的观众

"Failure is not an option." 只许成功,不许失败

"I can hear the dueling banjos from here." 乡村气息真是扑面而来啊

"Wait till you see the rest." 精彩的还在后头呢

"It's an accident waiting to happen." 早晚会出事的

"I know what I'm doing." 我心里有数

"I thought you, of all people, would believe me!" 我做梦都没想到你会怀疑我

"Let's put a pin in this." 这事儿先缓缓吧

"Stop being such a smart-ass." 你少给我抖机灵

"You are no fun." 你这个可真没劲


My go-to translation mantra is "translate the meaning, not the words." And the more context-dependent and less formulaic the text is, the more important this rule becomes. (This is how we beat machine translation, my friend!) 


Know what's plot-pertinent and what's distracting


Speaking of not getting bogged down in the source text's specific wording, I want to discuss something unique to subtitle translation: you don't need to translate everything, especially not at the expense of disrupting the viewer's experience. Here's an example, albeit a little contrived, to illustrate my point. 


Let's say a woman is missing in Manhattan, and her friend says, "I've looked for her everywhere, from Lexington Avenue to 9th." Circling back to my point in Part I about treating character space as prime real estate, "Lexington Avenue" alone would take up six characters (莱克星顿大道), which is quite pricey. So instead, we want to render it along the line of searching across the borough: 我在曼哈顿从东到西找了个遍. Just compare this to the monstrosity of the word-for-word rendition: 我四处找她 从莱克星顿大道找到第九大道. 


Now, let's assume the drama has previously established that the missing woman works at Lexington Avenue and lives at 9th Avenue. Then it'd be more natural to phrase it as searching around her home and company: 她家和公司附近我都找过了. 


Here's another example. Someone is shopping and asks the cashier, "Do you take Discover?" Chinese viewers might not be familiar with Discover. So unless Discover is plot-pertinent and must be specified for the plotline to evolve, we can simply translate it as a credit card because we don't need the viewer to pay attention and try to comprehend unimportant details. After all, viewers consume media entertainment to sit back and relax.  


Other best practices


1) Proofread after some time has passed 

This tip goes for all proofreading. When you are in the moment of translating, your brain is in a familiar cognitive bubble prone to blind spots. Proofreading is most effective when you can approach your translation with a fresh set of eyes as if you were reading it for the first time, as your target audience would. 

2) Play the whole video through

The best way to ensure the quality of your subtitle translation is by watching the entire video. You want to check whether everything is correctly timed to the audio and on-screen imagery, whether the subtitles can be easily read and comprehended before it disappears from the screen, and whether everything flows smoothly.


3) Watch out for sentence flow

In subtitling, especially in the case of Chinese subtitles, a complete sentence is often broken up into multiple events. The segmentation can sometimes make you overlook the overall structure, so it's crucial to check how things look in sequence. A typical scenario might look like this: 


Subtitle 1 (What I wanted to tell you is that,) 我想跟你说的是

Subtitle 2 (before he left,) 他离开之前

Subtitle 3 (he had come to see me.) 他来找过我


In a segmented view, the translation seems to match the source text, but if you play the video through, you will notice the flow is more natural if Subtitle 3 is changed to 曾经来找过我. 


Alright, this should conclude my three-parter on subtitle translation. Like everything else, it takes practice and reflection. I approached things very differently when I first started subtitling, and it took constant tweaking and experimenting to hone my craft. If I were to distill everything into one sentence, it would be this: don't just do repetitions; always strive to do a better job. 

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