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What to take note in the translation of subtitles

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Subtitles: Simple process. NOT!

Like it or not, subtitles are here to stay.

If you come in contact with any form of onscreen media, you will inevitably find subtitles being thrown right at your face. Subtitles can be used to enhance viewer experience as some audio may not be intelligible. Subtitles can also be used as a marketing support tool to extend marketers’ reach to more audiences especially in crowded and noisy places like malls, public transport, outdoor spaces etc.

Subtitling provided in support of the audio or the source language is rather straight forward. Whatever is said by the speaker is presented on the screen verbatim.

It starts to get difficult and confusing when subtitles are done in different languages. You might have seen hilarious subtitles before and shared those funny moments with your friends. But seriously, when you think about it, did it not disrupt the enjoyment and understand of the film you were watching? Did you not feel short-changed that translation was not done properly? Did you not feel insulted and disgusted that not enough effort put into translating the subtitles into your language and thus the lack of respect for your language and culture?

From the point of view of audiovisual translation or AVT, subtitling is conditioned by a very specific context the translators have to relate to. This uniqueness of film subtitles originates from the following factors:

  1. For the spoken text of the source languages to be translation into a written form in the target language, at some level, the informality inherent in the speech of source language can be lost through translation.
  2. As it is, subtitles act as support to the already existing spoken text in the source language. As such, the subtitles in the target language will always be perceived as subordinate to the text of the source language.
  3. The subtitles are instantaneous, as are the unfolding events on screen over which the viewer has no control;
  4. The subtitles of the target language and the text in the source language must be synchronous. Given the various circumstances such as space limitation, expansion or reduction in the translated text, subtitling may sometimes prove to be a somewhat daunting task;

In addition, special care needs to be taken so that the users of the target language can understand the translated text. This in itself, would require that subtitler possess a high level of language awareness and a great deal of linguistic sensitivity.

Despite its importance, linguistic correctness is not the only focus of a subtitler. The translation also needs to comply with other formal and pragmatic requirements, amongst them the readability of the subtitled text seems to be of utter importance.

Unlike other translation type, subtitles must to be kept simple and easy to follow. They should also not contain anything in any forms which may irritate or confuse the potential viewer. Following the simplicity rule, subtitles should not include archaic or literary forms, and, preferably, they should bear resemblance to the contemporary spoken language. Another crucial requirement set for the subtitler is the constant need for brevity.

*source: Subtitling Standards In Norway by Witoslaw Awedyk

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