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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

What Does Subtitling Have in Common with Conducting an Orchestra

Creating the optimal viewer experience in subtitling is something I'm absolutely passionate about, and I'm immensely grateful for the opportunities that have allowed me to share my perspectives. Following an internal workshop on September 15 with the Simplified Chinese team at GloZ, a multinational localization company I collaborate with, I presented a session for the Chicago Area Translators and Interpreters Association (CHICATA) the following weekend on September 23.

In both presentations, I introduced a new analogy to illustrate the kind of role I advocate for subtitlers to play: one akin to that of an orchestra conductor. Similar to how a conductor is not merely a timekeeper but a musical interpreter, a subtitler is not simply a transcriber who fills out subtitle boxes, but an active participant engaged with the creative intent. Here are some key aspects of how this analogy plays out in the subtitling world.

Active interpretation

The conductor interprets the composer's score and breathes life into it through their own artistic vision. They decide on the tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and other expressive elements of the music. Similarly, as subtitlers, we also interpret the creative intent of the movie or show, paying attention to the line delivery tempo, camerawork dynamics, character development, dialogue phrasing, and other components that weave a three-dimensional, immersive story.

Imagine a scene where a love interest appears at the front door and says, "I have a gift for you," before reaching into his pocket and presenting the gift with "for your birthday." These two utterances should be timed as two separate subtitle events to preserve the storytelling flow, rather than prematurely revealing the entire interaction with "I have a gift for your birthday," or even worse, translating it as "I have a birthday gift for you," which completely disrupts the original tempo.

Unified command

Just as the conductor leads the orchestra, providing unified direction for the musicians to ensure synchronized and balanced performance, subtitlers must have a keen sense of how every element—on-screen imagery, dialogue delivery, and storytelling sequence—fits together with their timing and segmentation decisions. Each decision serves as a cue for the musicians, or, in subtitling, for the translation, phrasing, timing, length, and structure, all tailored to harmonize with the narrative flow.

For example, if one person angrily questions another's whereabouts and then seizes the latter by the collar while shouting, "Answer me!" after having failed to solicite a response, the two utterances need to be segmented into separate boxes. This way, "Answer me!" flows as a reaction to the other person's silence and captures the explosive energy of the second question. Conversely, if we put "Where were you? Answer me!" as one subtitle, it almost feels like missing a beat in the middle.

Strategic control

All instruments going on full blast at once does not a delightful orchestra performance make. Conductors use cues to signal the musicians to play, pause, or modulate the intensity. This is crucial for maintaining precise timing and coordination in complex pieces of music. In the same way, in subtitling, there's tremendous power in withholding information and not releasing everything at once.

Consider the statement, "We love hanging out with each other," followed by the sarcastic addition, "most of the time." It benefits the audience to give the second part its own moment. As all examples have shown so far, subtitling is not about creating an empty box, filling it up to the brim, and then moving on to another. As a subtitler, we should always be asking ourselves: should I release all this information all at once, or should I play with the timing more, so that we can minimize the spoiling effect?

Creative Expertise

A conductor has a deep understanding of the historical and cultural context of the music they are performing. This knowledge informs their interpretation and helps convey the intended emotions and meaning of the music. Similarly, a subtitle translator must possess profound linguistic and cultural knowledge to not only understand the content but also render it into another language that feels natural to the target language audience, much like a scriptwriter.

Additionally, the subtitler must adopt a perspective akin to that of a movie critic or director, discerning the intentionality behind cinematography, acting, and storytelling. Imagine a detective show where a book on a bookshelf will reveal a crucial clue. Instead of subtitling the book title the moment it's in frame, a seasoned subtitler will wait until the camera zooms in to provide the satisfying eureka moment.

In summary, much like orchestra conducting, subtitle translation is a discipline that requires both technical expertise and artistic sensibility. The conductor serves as a focal point for the audience, helping to guide their listening experience and providing a visual representation of the music's emotional and expressive content. Subtitlers need to realize that they hold the same power in shaping their viewer's experience with their timing and segmentation decisions.


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