Translating fiction: how to sire the right subtitles


“I get paid to have fun”. This is one of the controversial statements made by Cristina Macía, the official Spanish translator of A Song of Ice and Fire (the series of books Games of Thrones is based on) during her conference at the University of Salamanca. Macía has a point. For many readers and spectators, fantasy is in fact one of the most “fun”, fascinating and freeing genres of storytelling, both in written and in audio-visual form. In fact, much like science fiction, fantasy tales are able to generate an unparalleled number of devotees who are motivated to participate in conferences, online discussions, and analyses. And, of course, they are willing to make their own amateur translations. For professional linguists, however, the work may be entertaining, but challenging.

The first thing we need to consider is that the genre focuses on creating new worlds by deconstructing objective realities through the use of various tools, one of which is language. This means that the supernatural beings depicted by literature, TV, and cinema can only exist through the use of a specific jargon, a specific narrative structure, a specific way of describing new universes. In addition, we must remember that a significant part of the loyal fans that these stories attract can also be considered “experts” in the field. They may have read previous books by the author, watched previous episodes of the TV show, and meticulously studied previous movies by the same creator. As a result, they may be harsh and detail-oriented critics.

Secondly, the supernatural beings depicted in these stories may originate in folklore, as well as in literary and audio-visual traditions and history. Vampire shows, for example, are always compared to classic books and movies with similar motifs. Some television series make references to their “predecessors”, and they do so mainly through the use of similar expressions. We also have to remember that the lines between written works and audio-visual productions are frequently blurred, as literary volumes are adapted to scripts and vice versa. For translators, this poses certain challenges because we need to have a thorough understanding of the genre and the subgenre as well as the lore behind the characters depicted. Moreover, if our project is a TV show, for example, our subtitles cannot have descriptive footnotes, so we have to find terms that will be understood by general audiences and recognized and accepted by “specialized” ones.

dracula2 The legacy of folklore and history can also be seen in certain restrictions we may face concerning the names of supernatural creatures. For a show such as Lost Girl, one key word subtitlers have to translate over and over is “succubus”, since the story is centred on the life of one of these beings. The myth behind these creatures states that they are demons in the body of seductive women. The word “demonio” in Spanish is masculine, and “súcubo” is a masculine noun. The fact that the demon takes female form does not change the gender of the word. While in English we may refer to the creature as an “it” in a pejorative way (highlighting its lack of humanity) or as a “she”, in Spanish we can only use masculine articles and pronouns (“el súcubo”, “él”). However, the series mentioned is about a woman who is a succubus and thus, instinctively, we feel we should use female pronouns. One possibility would be to change the noun into an adjective modifying a female noun (chica súcubo), but due to space restriction in subtitles, this could be counterproductive. Another option would be to use a female article (la súcubo), but this would be considered wrong by the Real Academia Española.

Another difficulty subtitlers encounter when translating fantasy fiction is that many of the specific “terms” used by a certain storyline may come from common language. They are not just the names of creatures but also ordinary verbs used to describe a specific action performed by these monsters. For instance, in a show like The Vampire Diaries, “compel” and “sire” have very precise meanings that differ from their general use and even from their denotations in other works related to vampirism. In Lost Girl, the verb “to feed” means the act of absorbing chi energy from another person, and is not related to human food.

To make matters worse, unfortunately, many times, in the case of TV programs, each episode is translated by a different subtitler, and show-specific glossaries are not always available. The result is that, to the fan´s dismay, the translation of these expressions is not consistent throughout the show. Additionally, for languages with regional variations, each variety may have its own version of the term.

Of course, describing all of these obstacles is not meant to imply fantasy works are impossible to translate. It really is one of the most fun jobs in the world, but a great effort on the translator´s part is required to achieve subtitles that can please the general audience, the fandom and, obviously, the client.


Written by Maria Julia Frances
Study visitor at TermCoord
Postgraduate student at University of Barcelona