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A glimpse into the subtitling endeavor

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Even though the practice of subtitling has been largely used in all non-dubbing countries, such as Greece, Portugal and Romania, ever since the appearance of the ‘talkies’ (i.e. the first films accompanied by sound) in the 1920s, there has been a significant imbalance between the practical and the theoretical framework of the field. In fact, up until recent years very little research had been conducted on the emergence of audiovisual translation and, in particular, the peculiarities of interlingual subtitling per se. In this respect, we shall attempt to take a closer look at the work of the subtitles translator and reveal why the process of transferring any audiovisual work into a different (extra)linguistic reality proves to be highly intricate.

Constrained translation?

Usually referred to as ‘constrained’ translation, subtitling is by its very nature bound to specific time- and space-related parameters, in light of which any subtitling work should be perceived. It is interesting to note that subtitling is the only case in which the source and the target language constantly coexist, though in different codes. This coexistence of sound and visual elements allows for continuous comparison from the audience, which is why Dνaz Cintas labels subtitled versions as ‘vulnerable translations’. Besides, ignorance of the parameters that shall be analyzed below has often led to overgeneralizing the subtitles translator’s incompetence or to oversimplifying the subtitling process in general.

To begin with, professional subtitling is subject to specific conventions which may vary depending on the country, the production team or the particular channel in which a work is to be broadcasted, but are certainly at the core of the translation process. The number of characters that may appear on screen are usually limited to forty per row, with a maximum of two rows. In most cases, the first row should be shorter than the second one and in each row the maximum level of coherence and self-efficiency should be achieved in terms of semantics. At the same time, the subtitler must always take into consideration that no row should stay on the screen longer than allowed, the maximum duration being usually limited to six seconds. Given the dissimilar linguistic structure between the source and the target language, the subtitler often needs to distance themselves from the grammatical and the syntactic norms underlying the original wording and creatively reconstruct the desired message from scratch.

Needless to say, both time and space factors are crucial when deciding whether a longer, more adequate rendering of the original dialog should be preferred to a more concise, easy-to-read version. In all cases, before opting for one particular version, the subtitles translator seeks to find balance at the intersection of three rhythms:

  • The visual rhythm of the scenes as predefined by the cuts
  • The rhythm of the actors’ speech
  • The audience’s reading rhythm

In respect of the third parameter, it is worth noting that the reading speed of the average viewer is considered to be slower than the talking speed of the person to be subtitled. At the same time, unlike other translation genres, the viewer normally does not have the possibility to go back and spend more time on understanding a particular utterance, nor can the subtitler take refuge in additional explanatory notes for the sake of the meaning’s transparency. Therefore, the subtitles translator has no other option than to condense and paraphrase what is actually being said in accordance with what is simultaneously being shown on the screen, since meaning emerges out of a combination of verbal, nonverbal, audio, and visual elements. It is precisely this polymorphic nature of audiovisual translation that renders subtitling such an idiosyncratic process.

Creative and literary perspectives

Even though subtitling differs diametrically from any other act of interlingual and cross-cultural transition due to the specific –and often disregarded– constraints that apply in each case, it should be pointed out that similarities may be drawn between subtitling and literary translation or even creative writing. While dealing with non-conventional audiovisual works, such as poetic films or documentaries blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality as well as between prose and poetry, the subtitles translator encounters challenges calling for creative and innovative approaches.

How to fit culture-bound references, puns, metonymies, neologisms, homonyms and idiomatic nuances typical of oral language in strictly forty characters? How can the connotative and metaphoric use of language in a poetic documentary survive the subtitling techniques of condensation, omission and paraphrasing? The figure of the translating self comes to the forefront while various considerations gradually emerge regarding the intricacy of the translation process. In an attempt to safeguard the original work’s literary value in terms of stylistic choices, the subtitler seeks ways of counterbalancing for potential semantic deviations and vice versa. In all cases, finding the appropriate language register in the target language and avoiding instances of meaning loss are two major concerns.

Concluding remarks

If the translator in general may be compared to an acrobat travelling between languages and cultures, the rope on which the subtitler walks is surely tighter. How shall this tightrope walker not lose balance on such shaky and slippery grounds? There is no fixed answer. The risk is always undertaken and sparks of creativity shall pave the way towards the other side of each endeavor. But this has always been the world of translation; “this Small World, the Great!”, to echo the voice of Odysseus Elytis.



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