The art and science of subtitling

In a globalized world where movies and television series from the United States invade our screens, the art of subtitling has become essential.

While literary translation dates back to Saint Jerome and his translations of Biblical texts, other areas of translation—like audiovisual translation—have emerged in response to today’s world. It is indisputable that the paper format is currently limited in scope, which is why it is almost impossible to go even a single day without seeing a screen and the audiovisual content it conveys. This is especially true in an increasingly global world, where movies and television series from the United States invade screens both large and small.

Subtitling services, humanly codified translation

Three methods are currently used in the translation of audiovisual contents:

  • Dubbing, where the original voices are replaced by voices in the target language
  • Voice-over, where voices in the target language are heard over the original voices (this method is used mainly in documentaries and interviews)
  • Subtitling, where a transcription of dialogues in the target language appears in the lower section of the screen

Today, we will focus on subtitling services. Though it may appear simple, subtitling is a complex task. Subtitling adds a new dimension to translation insofar as it entails the technical and human adaptation of the content. On the technical side, subtitles are limited by the space available on the screen. On the human side, they are limited by the time it takes viewers to read. To balance those two factors and to ensure that the viewer is able to incorporate sound, image, and text at the same time, a number of techniques must be applied and stages in the process respected.

The three stages of subtitling

  1. The spotter is responsible for the time coding and for determining the beginning and end of each phrase of dialogue. The aim at this stage is to synchronize the appearance of the subtitles with the words in the dialogue and to ensure legibility
  1. The translator translates the subtitles prepared by the spotter and adapts them to the target language
  1. The simulator (visualization tester) corrects any mistakes made in the previous stages and incorporates the subtitles into the final project

Literal translation is the subtitle’s worst enemy

By nature, translation revolves around messages, not words. The foundation of translation is particularly important when it comes to translating spoken content, which is much more idiomatic than written content. Literal translation must be avoided at all costs. It can lead to confusing or even absurd subtitles. Be careful with using Google translate—it can become your worst enemy!

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