by Daniela Costa
The growth of streaming isn’t surprising. From music and audiovisual content to podcasts, technology has helped these new platforms showcase original works. In recent years, there has been a surge in Netflix’s non-English materials. 50% of subscribers watch foreign-language shows when only 30% of viewers did so a couple of years ago¹. Other streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video are also featuring content in languages other than English.
Of course, this brings the audience an array of options, but how is it dealt with by subtitle localization companies?
English Template: Friend or foe?
Subtitlers who translate from English and have to work with non-English content rely on a template; that is, the audio is translated into English, segmented and timed. I mostly work with English templates or EMTs (English master templates), even when translating material spoken in English. But when you don’t understand a word of what a character is saying, it’s a different story.
In audiovisual translation, the context is given by two main factors: image and sound. As opposed to literary translation, non-textual elements take precedence when creating and translating subtitles.
When you translate from a second source language, that is, your source text is a translation of the original, there is a greater loss of meaning. Unfortunately, this is inevitable. Why do localization companies take such a risk?
I’d venture to say that it’s easier to find translators from English into multiple languages than finding a Norwegian-Greek one, for example. One of the reasons could be that English is the most common language in the world, with more than 1.13 billion speakers². This is a reality we cannot ignore, and the aim of directors, producers and studios is to reach as broad an audience as possible.
But we have to be careful when translating from an English template, especially if the audio is in a foreign language. These templates should be created by experienced translators who understand the nuances of the original language and how to denote them in English, and not everybody is up to that task. Being a native speaker is not enough. The professional behind the English template must not only have an excellent command of the English language but should also understand the underlying layers in the tone and naturalness of spoken language in different contexts and situations. Furthermore, the message must be condensed and clear without exceeding the character per second (CPS) and character per line (CPL) values and shot changes.
A resourceful translator will probably make the most of it and deliver a final product that is understandable, relatable and impactful.
This would be the ideal scenario, but it’s not always the norm. Sometimes, English templates are not clear enough, and are plagued with grammar mistakes or typos, or the tone is inappropriate or awkward.
Breaking the language barrier
When we translate non-English content from a template, we lack a major element of audiovisual content: audio. Of course, we can hear the words, but we don’t understand them at all. We rely solely on the English text in the template. But we also have to focus on other elements that are left out, sometimes unintentionally, when we base our translation process solely on English audio: gestures, tone of voice, how a character reacts, and the reactions of the people surrounding that character. I’m not saying that subtitlers don’t pay attention to these elements when they translate from English audio, but sometimes we get too overconfident and may only notice them when spotted by a quality check specialist, especially under stressful working conditions and tight deadlines.
There are different levels of translation: textual, referential, cohesive and level of naturalness³. When translating subtitles, special attention should be paid to the referential level and the level of naturalness. The translator should always bear in mind what the speaker is saying, how he or she is speaking, and to whom the words are directed. Understanding a speaker’s true intentions will help deliver the exact message. But our translations should also sound natural. This level of naturalness can be achieved by “disengaging” from the original text. Read your subtitles as if no original existed. Try to interact with the image and sound, and read aloud if necessary, bearing in mind the CPS and CLP values. We may feel lost or even desperate sometimes, but it’s a great exercise to test our translation abilities.
Also, don’t underestimate your audience. Cultural equivalents are not always recommended in subtitling, and when you’re out of your element, i.e., you don’t understand the spoken words, this
could be a slippery slope. Sometimes it’s better to paraphrase an idea in order to render it more clearly, but that’s not always the case. If the audience is engaged in non-English content, they would probably be more comfortable reading some words in a foreign language, e.g., names of food, than trying to associate what they see onscreen with an element of their own culture. There’s a fine line between over adaptation and oversimplification, and we have to be very careful.
Tackling cultural differences
Another aspect to take into account when translating non-English content is cultural differences. That’s why we have to get out of our comfort zone; we’re working with cultural elements far from what we are used to, away from Hollywood standards.
If we accept these tasks, we have to devote more time to researching than we are used to. And we have to be aware that we’ll need longer deadlines. While there is an abundance of information on the Internet, one must be quite thorough and base research on reliable sources. We may also consult other colleagues or friends; everything counts.
But there is another major barrier that we have to overcome when taking up these kind of projects: not to judge the original content and see it from another perspective. For instance, the role of women and men in society differs in a series like Dollar (Lebanon), Tokyo Midnight Diner (Japan), The Family Man (India) or Ragnarok (Norway). Brush all your preconceptions off and try to immerse yourself into the culture; read about it and explore. All in all, we have to embrace our cultural differences and use these opportunities to learn more about the world we live in.
³Peter Newmark. A Textbook of Translation (Phoenix ELT, 1995), 19-29.
Daniela Costa is an Argentine English>Spanish translator and attorney at law. She has been working as a freelance subtitle translator for major subtitle localization companies since 2000, and has taken part in blockbuster theatrical projects, series and films for DVD and streaming. She is currently taking a masters in audiovisual translation at the University of Cadiz. Contact: email@example.com.