How does subtitling work?

June 10, 2015 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Screenshot 2015-06-10 07.41.46Watching a movie in a foreign language is not something new for anyone I don’t think. If you live in the U.S., you have access to tons of foreign films if you know where to look or are willing to do a bit of digging. On the other hand, the U.S. film industry may just be one of the biggest in the world, and so you have people from all over the world watching the latest blockbuster, even if it’s in English. How does this work though? How do we manage to bridge the language gap and share in the cultural phenomenon that is the cinema?

One method filmmakers use to get around the language barrier is to add subtitles to their work. To anyone who may not be familiar with them, subtitles are the sentences you see at the bottom of the screen when watching a movie in a foreign language that hasn’t been dubbed. They can also be used for same language productions, to help those who are hard of hearing or who have trouble understanding certain accents. The most common use, however, is for the translation of a film into another language.

Subtitling actually dates as far back as the early 1900s, when silent films had frames between scenes to explain what was going on or provide dialogue. These were easy to translate into a different language, as you only needed to change those particular frames rather than modify the whole movie to accommodate the subtitles. Nowadays, there are entire software programs and other technology devoted to creating subtitles and working them perfectly into the film. Still, most filmmakers want to work with a certified translator who has experience with subtitling.

The actual process of creating translated subtitles today has been streamlined thanks to modern technology, but it can still be a rather tedious process. It’s actually very different from translating a written document, as you have to keep in mind several things. First, people can only read at a certain speed, so you can’t put a lot of text when it will only be seen for, say, three seconds.

This means translators have to get the meaning and main idea of the original six lines of dialogue, for example, into two lines that will fit on the screen without covering up the scene and can be read and understood in the time they are up on the screen. This is why if you are bilingual and are watching a movie in one language you know and subtitled in another, you will notice some differences in the dialogue that may annoy you.

Screenshot 2015-06-10 07.41.31To further complicate matters, many translators who work with subtitles do not have a copy of the original dialogue to work with. They are just sent the original film and have to either copy down the original text as they watch it to use for later reference, or replay scenes again and again until they figure out the best way to translate it into subtitles.

Though it may seem like a lot of work, creating subtitles for a film is the cheapest and most effective solution if you want your film to be appreciated by speakers of other languages.

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