By Julia Thornton
My first introduction to audiovisual translation (AVT) happened while I was growing up in the Soviet Union. I don’t remember the first foreign movie that I watched, but they were many and came from an array of countries. Premier movies and shows that were dubbed in Moscow were a work of art: I laughed at Pierre Richard and Gerard Depardieux, was enthralled with colorful scenes of India, sympathized with Michele Placido, felt at home with the Mexican and Brazilian soap operas, and was mesmerized by the enigmatic American way of life. Then came the 90s: the Iron Curtain fell, and my country was flooded with overseas movies available on video tapes. The voiceover for those movies was done by individuals whose “stage voice” was purposefully nasal and monotonous. Fast forward to today, and one of the fields I work in is subtitle translation.
Audiovisual content has been experiencing exponential growth fueled by the Internet boom: not only can we stream movies, shows, documentaries, concerts and sport events, but now there is online education and gaming. The recent development in the AVT world has been with Netflix and Amazon, as they started offering their products in many countries. Because of the volume of audiovisual content, subtitle translation has become the mode of choice, since it is the least expensive and the fastest way to localize an audiovisual event. Voiceover is more audience-friendly, but costs more, since it involves a voice talent and studio; dubbing is the most enjoyable for the audience, but it is the most expensive.
A good audiovisual translator is a person who is familiar with the culture, comfortable with slang (there is a lot of that!), and quick to adapt to the peculiarities of AVT. Here is what makes subtitle translation different from other types of translations:
- The translator is always looking for ways to make the translation shorter. There is the ever-present factor of reading speed that the translator needs to consider. Currently, the speed of 17 characters per second (CPS) is widely accepted for grown-up audience. This speed allows the viewer to read the subtitle and to have time to see what is happening on the screen. When actors talk fast or when translation into a target language is longer, it calls for re-creation: words and phrases that are not critical to the plot will be dropped, expressions reworded and repetitions omitted. The translator aims at translating maximum meaning within the tight boundaries of reading speed.
- Translation is geared toward translating emotion versus text. It is of primary importance to make the translation sound as natural in the target language as possible. Instead of staying close to the original text, substituting common expressions in the target language is normal. In a lot of cases, the shortest option will win (see point 1).
- Translating a lot of conversational speech: one might need to brush up on slang (Urban Dictionary comes in handy) and the current corresponding phrases in the target language. Punctuation in conversational speech also can be tricky.
- Working with style guides that differ slightly, and keeping in mind those differences. For instance, one client might want a space after a hyphen at the beginning of each speaker’s line in dialogs, another might not.
- The translator is usually paid per minute of runtime, not per word. This is unfortunate, as content varies in difficulty and word count: a 45-minute show can have as many as 850 subtitles and as few as 550. Netflix has a multi-language chart of per-minute prices that it pays agencies for a finished product.
- The translation needs to be as accurate as possible (tense, register, punctuation).
- The translator researches terminology (for historic films or ones dealing with a particular field, e.g. medicine or law, and especially documentaries).
- Sometimes translators work alone, other times they works in a team of other translators (when there are several seasons of the same show, for example). Some agencies provide platforms for translators to collaborate in order to unify their efforts, others do not.
While I do other types of translation and hope to keep it that way, so my skills are more balanced, I enjoy audiovisual translation, and here is why:
- a good translation can bridge a cultural gap for the audience;
- watching a show or a movie and translating it helps with the boredom that naturally comes when translating documents;
- it’s a thrill to find a good equivalent in the target language that fits into the reading speed!
- when working for an agency, the software is provided on the agency’s site: no need to buy yet another CAT tool.
Challenges of audiovisual translation:
- relatively low pay, if counted per word;
- getting stuck with translation because all the words are plot-pertinent, yet they don’t fit the reading speed;
- tight deadlines: a 45-minute show is usually translated in 2 days or less.
Now is a good time to get into the field for anyone who wants to give it a try. While it is possible to work for direct clients who regularly produce audiovisual content (government organizations, religious groups, educational websites), most audiovisual translators work for agencies who are subcontractors of major content providers. A narrowed-down search in the ATA directory will yield names of companies that work with subtitles. Most of these companies require a prospective translator to take an unpaid test. If you want to build your subtitle translation skills, you can learn them as you volunteer (for instance, on the TED Project). Acquiring this new skill will help you see translated movies in a new light and gain appreciation for the work audiovisual translators do. You might like it so much you will want to continue!
Julia Thornton is a certified EN-RU translator (ATA). She grew up in Russia and graduated from the Nizhny Novgorod State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages. She then moved to the USA and earned a master’s degree in theological studies. Her other experiences and interests are in interpreting and education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.