The challenge of foreign language subtitling

By Kelly O’Donovan
In Subtitling
Dec 5th, 2016
1 Comment

The challenge of foreign language subtitling


Foreign language subtitling involves converting spoken dialogue into a written format with time codes in a foreign language, a complex process which requires many factors to be considered.

When subtitling a movie, we need to convey the message in the most efficient way possible – meaning that basic translations are not preferred. The titles should subtly give people the impression that they are understanding the characters speaking, not reading words on the screen. Translators must understand what they translate to provide an accurate translation.Foreign language subtitling

In subtitling, we translate the meaning, not the words. At times we may find that it is sometimes hard to get the meaning across when translating something from a different language. Subtitles are 2/3 of the spoken dialogue. Although it is challenging, we need to summarize what the speaker is saying and clearly translate their meaning, not just their words.

Hesitations or self-corrections should be omitted in foreign language subtitles. They are sometimes confusing for the viewer and can hinder direct understanding. The same is true for redundancies and repetitions. 


Here are some key elements to take into account:


1. Subtitles must be easy to read. Line breaks can be challenging, but if you know and follow the basic line-break rules, you add value to the viewing experience immensely.


2. They must stay on the screen long enough to be read and processed, but not too long that they are distracting. Don’t exceed maximum duration.


3. The most important aspect for you to keep in mind when subtitling a project is your audience. This is a vital factor so that you can tailor the subtitles suitably.


4. You do not want a literal translation. A word-for-word translation normally has no meaning.  


5. You need to know the culture into which the video is being translated so that the audience believes that the translation is what the character would say.


6. Remember! If there are bad subtitles, the audience’s impression of the video could completely change, so getting the subtitles right is crucial for your success and that of all the people who worked hard on producing the film.


7. Vocabulary: Your choice of vocabulary should maintain the speaker’s style of speech, taking into account register, nationality, era, etc.


8. Simplify the text (without losing the meaning) so the subtitles are easy to read and the viewers can understand them at first sight.


9. Give the subtitle enough time: this is especially important of a line which is spoken just before a scene change or fade-out.


10. While creating great subtitles may sometimes be challenging, it is always rewarding. This is true, not only for yourself, the creator of great subtitles, but also for the viewer and everyone who has been involved in the creation of the film and title.



About the author:

Kelly O’Donovan is the creator of – An education in the art of subtitling.

GOSUB was born from a passion and enthusiasm for subtitling and teaching.

Having started as a linguistic teacher and then moving on to become the Operations Manager of a leading subtitling agency, Kelly used her know-how, affection, and savvy to create efficient and exciting audiovisual courses.

From her years of experience working with producers, dubbing agencies, video-on-demand platforms, entertainment distributors, encoding houses and more, she has learnt a mountain of information about subtitling and closed captioning. She decided to couple this involvement with her other skill set, which is teaching. GOSUB was created for you, and we hope that you will find her courses of value.

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