Why are subtitles so different from the dialogues in a foreign language film? Probably many of you have asked this question when watching a foreign film with English subtitles if you knew enough of the foreign language to notice that what is said in the dialogue isn’t always the same as what’s in the subtitles. This is even worse if somebody is trying to learn a foreign language.
Why does this happen?
There are different reasons. Have a look at this list of the main reasons why subtitles may differ from one language to another:
1. Restriction of space.
The use of shorter words and synonyms is a common space-saving technique because subtitles are generally restricted by the amount of space available on the screen. It is usually two lines of text, with between 32 and 40 characters per line (including spaces and punctuation). That means an average of about 7 to 8 words per line maximum. That is why if audience hears “difícil” in a Spanish-language movie, may hear the word “hard” instead of the word “difficult”. This is just one example.
Together with the space, the restriction of time is another important point to consider. Most of the time subtitlers have to choose positive tenses instead of negative ones (I didn’t remember > I forgot), change grammar to shorter forms (John was attacked by James > James attacked John), and even omit some information completely. People generally read a text more slowly than they can follow a normal conversation. Recommended reading rates for English subtitles average about 180 words per minute. For this reason, it is often necessary to reduce the spoken text when converting it into subtitles.
3. Word-for-word translation doesn’t exist.
This is why professional translators tend to adapt the words and expressions in the text to make them easily comprehensible and appropriate in the target language. Anyway, adapting words doesn’t mean a translation is inaccurate. One practical example would be when people say “Tell me” (in their own languages) to answer the telephone. For this expression you would probably see the subtitle “Hello”?
4.One of the most difficult things to translate in any language is humour.
This is why jokes are often changed completely. This is especially true when jokes revolve around puns or pronunciation of words. It is really difficult to include some of the same words or to find a joke as close as possible to the original.
5. Subtitles serve as a useful literacy tool in countries where people have a poor access to education.
For this reason, it could be better if subtitles don’t use forms of speech such as “cos” for ‘because’. It is important to provide more standard forms of speech, to the extent that subtitles are a valuable literacy tool for society.
6. Swearing is toned down.
It has been argued that a swearword is stronger and has a more offensive value when it is read in subtitles than when it is heard. As subtitling involves the change of medium from a verbal to a written one, swearing in films is often toned down when converted into foreign subtitles. So the word “Joder!” (literally “to fuck”), which is often used to express anger or frustration, may be toned down to “Damn!” or “Shit!” when subtitled in English.
7. Cultural differences.
It happens that the use and the meaning of words that denote a person’s skin colour differ considerably from country to country and from language to language. For example in England, skin colour is often a taboo subject, whereas references to physical appearance are normal and acceptable in other countries. Due to these nuances and cultural differences, these kinds of words are often altered or even omitted and replaced with a more suitable term.
In some countries many of the verb tenses and aspects are shared, but they are often used in a very different way. This means an important difference in the conjugation of verbs and tenses when subtitled in a foreign language film.
There are many colloquial expressions whose equivalents don’t exist in English or in another language.
10. Translation workflows.
If any viewer is watching a non-English film (for example Vietnamese) with non-English subtitles (for example Norwegian), the person who created the Norwegian subtitles for the Vietnamese film may not even speak Vietnamese. This means that the translation was done twice and this may result in the workflow involved in translating a film into various languages. In this particular example, how many Norwegian people do you think are likely to speak Vietnamese? Does the person who created the subtitles know how to translate and how to produce them?
Here are some points to show how much the translation can differ from the original after going from languages to languages.
Something similar also happens when the titles of the films and audiovisual productions are translated or adapted to another language. Sometimes words don’t work well in other languages or it is not the best suited for cinema industry. Therefore, for marketing purposes, translators and marketers often change the original titles to better adapt them to the different national audiences. It is the case, for example, of the following well-known movies:
Lost in Translation (Lost in Tokyo in Israel). The best known movie related to translation.
My best friend’s wedding (Help! My Pretend Boyfriend Is Gay in Hong Kong).
Interview with the vampire (So, You’re a Lawyer in Hong Kong).
Die Hard (Jungla de Cristal – Crystal Jungle in Spanish).
By Lidia Capitan Zamora. Journalist, web editor and social media expert
Communication Trainee at TermCoord