Have you ever watched a foreign movie or TV programme and noticed a strange phrase used in the subtitles? Something that doesn’t sound quite right or doesn’t fit in with how a particular character would speak, for example?
These are the kinds of subtleties that subtitle translators are dealing with all the time, and getting it right has enormous importance to both audience enjoyment and filmmaker satisfaction, and indeed, a film’s success.
Inaccurate subtitles are irritating and at their worst insulting
The issue of subtitle inaccuracies and even the politics surrounding subtitling has been a much bigger story in the news over the past 18 months or so. The trigger for this was, perhaps, last year’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Roma.
Roma is a Mexican film that has been widely subtitled for international distribution. It is likely to be one of the most-watched subtitled films of recent times and this has brought the issue to the forefront of movie-goers’ minds.
The first translation problem it encountered was when Spanish viewers complained about Netflix’s decision to provide Spanish – Castilian subtitles to the already Spanish-language film. Alfonso Cuarón, the film’s director reacted to the decision, saying it was insulting. It is, indeed, a questionable decision. A bit like providing subtitles to a Scottish film for English viewers. The Spanish – Castilian subtitles were swiftly removed after the complaints.
Later came a whole raft of grumbles about the quality of the French subtitles provided by Netflix, including claims that the grammar and general translations were riddled with errors. These claims came from the Association des Traducteurs/Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel (ATAA), whose Chairperson, Ian Burley, also examined the English subtitles and found similar problems.
Smooth translation leads to smooth watching
Some of the errors are more mechanical and simply break the reader’s concentration. For example, if there is a clumsy line break in the text, or a punctuation mark out of place, this prevents the reader from barely noticing the translation and this is problematic.
Filmmakers want to ensure that their viewers have the same experience when watching with subtitles as they do when they are watching in their native language and the only way to deliver this is to ensure a smooth read. So much so that the reader forgets they are having to ‘read’ at all.
Other problems are even more annoying and distracting. For example, there is a scene where a woman is desperately cradling the head of a dying man and exclaims ‘vamos!’.
This is translated to ‘let’s go!’. Even as an English speaker, it’s easy to see that this direct translation is sorely out of context. Perhaps ‘come on’ may have been a better translation, as it would at least reflect something you may utter in desperation to a dying friend you hope will survive.
What’s the solution?
The Audio Visual Translators Europe (AVTE) is now calling for subtitle translators to communicate more closely with the writers and producers of films in order to ensure that meaning is more accurately conveyed, and that subtleties are not lost in translation.
This focus on human to human contact and discussion when trying to get a translation just right is exactly how we work as a language translation service provider for business clients. Language is an ever-evolving, highly political and nuanced phenomenon and we should always treat a translation job with the respect it deserves.
Whether you are talking about translating a piece of art or a marketing email or brochure, if someone has put their heart and soul into creating a piece of writing, the least a translator can do is their utmost to respect the original meaning of every word that is written.