by Aanand Dika
“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking” – Henry Ford *
Well, in our case then not only is the audience “looking”, they are indeed reading all that is translated on screen in the form of subtitles. So, for translators there can be no compromise in quality. But quality is not just limited to the technical aspects such as spelling or punctuation. If user experience is compromised because the subtitles are too ‘wordy’ and reading speed is negatively affected, or because a particular show or movie’s ideas and concepts are just not easily translatable in a foreign culture, then the quality of the translated subtitle language should be considered poor.
As a Hindi linguist of content produced in English for the emerging Indian audience, with millions of viewers who speak and read only Hindi but are very interested in international shows, the two issues I mention above are quite common and certainly affect user experience. I will discuss one of these issues below. The focus here is programs that are created with English as the base language and Hindi as the target translation language.
Hindi is a much more ‘wordy’ language than English. Now if the translation was just for a book or printed material, then the translator wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about the amount of words required for translation into Hindi. But on screen it is a completely different story. You may encounter a sequence of very fast dialogues or characters discussing and speaking of concepts and ideas that don’t have directly translatable words in Hindi. A much more detailed explanation is required, thereby increasing the number of words. Therefore, reading speed is negatively impacted. Since there is a finite amount of time a subtitle card can be displayed on screen, this becomes a very big problem.
In reviewing many Hindi subtitle files, I have come across translations for very fast dialogue exchanges where all the content is translated perfectly and completely, but as the scene moves forward, the viewer is unable to fully read the subtitles and within seconds has missed significant portions of the translations.
One important and detrimental side effect of this is, viewing fatigue. You have an audience who is reading subtitles and trying to keep up with the pace and short duration of the subtitles, and at the same time is also trying to capture onscreen visuals with dialogues in an unfamiliar language. Within a few minutes of the program, fatigue sets in and results in a very poor user experience. The only way to keep up is to REWIND-PAUSE-READ-PLAY, and repeat. I find myself reviewing such files more frequently than I
thought would be necessary. In addition to the issue of long and wordy subtitles there is also the possibility that the end user is not a very good or fast reader or is older and takes time to read. Translators may not be able to satisfy every kind of viewer, but I believe that an attempt must at least be made to serve all.
To achieve this one must be creative and write in simple fluid language that benefits a majority of foreign language viewers, while keeping the original idea of the content intact. But is this achievable? Yes, it is. Reducing word count and reading speed is quite achievable with short, precise and yet accurately translated sentences so the essence of the dialogue is maintained. But this takes time
And often this is where the problem lies: Time.
As translators I believe we are often not given enough time to create a file, review it fully and then get creative with portions of the program that are negatively affected by reading speed.
Once in a while, I come across a Hindi file where the translator has successfully overcome the reading speed issue. The approach is usually simple. Compared to the original dialogues, the Hindi subtitles are cleverly edited, reduced and rearranged to express only that which is most pertinent to the scene. Native analogies or jokes and in some instances even cultural references are used in place of the originals and this effectively reduces the amount of verbiage needed for the idea to come across to the viewer.
I am quite certain that such excellent and creative translations take effort, and this effort takes time. So, it is important that translators be given the right amount of time to create quality work, giving the user a great experience. The best way to bring in Hindi speaking audiences who want to watch international shows is to create quality translations that are technically and creatively perfect. But to retain them, this process will have to be repeated over and over again, every time.