Subtitling is in very high demand at the moment, thanks primarily to the success of platforms such as Netflix. The content available on streaming sites reaches millions and millions of people around the world, all of whom speak dozens of different languages. A lot of this content is made available to the public in dubbed format, but many people also prefer to watch films and TV series in their original language with subtitles.
As such, the demand for subtitle translators has increased exponentially. But just like any branch of translation, subtitling comes with a set of specific issues that professionals must be ready to address. So, what are they and, most importantly, how do you get around them?
Subtitling in the same language involves so much more than transcription
In order to grasp just how tricky subtitling work can be, let us first reflect on the difficulties that come with subtitling content in the same language. Subtitlers working in the same language often find themselves having to rephrase lines due to word length or the average reading speed.
Reading subtitles while watching a film requires a lot more brain power and takes us longer to process than simply listening to a conversation. As such, subtitlers often have to modify certain phrases in order to shorten them and facilitate readers.
Translating subtitles: a question of depth
Along with the difficulties that come with ensuring subtitles fit in with the length of the scene, subtitle translators also come across lots of obstacles relating to adaptation. One of the biggest obstacles for subtitle translators has to do with translating word play. The most famous example in recent years was ‘hold the door’, a phrase uttered by the character Hodor in a memorable episode of Game of Thrones.
In the original English language version, the name Hodor derives from the contraction of ‘hold the door’, which the character obsessively repeats throughout his life. Translators all over the world struggled a great deal to find solutions that worked in their mother tongues. Professional translation often leaves subtitlers in this sort of quandary, and idiomatic phrases and puns tend to stick out more in text form. If a translation is weak when dubbed, it’s going to be appear even weaker and out place when displayed in subtitle format.
What’s more, translators must be incredibly familiar with the context in question. Let us return to Game of Thrones for a moment. Translators of this particular TV series needed to learn everything they could about the characters, their back stories, and even the phrases they tended to use, so that they could create effective subtitles that were consistent with the characters and context. Obviously, subtitling a series such as Game of Thrones is very different to subtitling a nature documentary or a modern TV series such as The Get Down, where the characters use slang that is very specific to their context. But even in those cases, subtitle translators have to carry out a great deal of research before getting started!