The Art of Subtitling: 10 challenges an audiovisual translation team must face

by Bruno Rotondo

Today, communication through audiovisual media is stronger than ever. To keep up with the latest work opportunities, many translators have chosen to break into this yet-very-young translation area, without being truly prepared.

The Art of Subtitling

A colleague has recently mentioned that he was thinking about sitting for the entrance examinations for an important international company looking for subtitlers. I told him that I thought it was a great idea, but that I was unaware that he was doing audiovisual translations. Without hesitating, he said that it would be his first time working in this area but that he thought it’d be fun. Needless to say, he did not pass the entrance examination. However, there are many translators like him that underestimate the specialty and, also, there are many unprepared companies that fail to acknowledge this risk.

Next, we’ll cover some of the main challenges that an audiovisual translation team must face every day:

1. Exposed Translation

Public will be constantly exposed to source language. As a result, they are aware at all times that they are dealing with a translation. This doesn’t happen when they read a book, for example. If on top of this we consider that public may not be aware of the technical aspects of this type of work, we’ll be able to understand why it is common to hear more complaints about subtitle translations than literary translations. For this reason, subtitle invisibility is the top goal of an audiovisual translator.

2. Time Restrictions

Translation must appear on screen during the time equivalent to its utterance. Here is where one of the essential subtitling parameters comes into play: reading speed. No matter how good a translation may be, it is useless if the public can’t read fast enough to understand it, right?

3. Space Restrictions

Translation must not cover more screen space than necessary. As a result, there are limits regarding the number of characters per line and location on the screen.

4. Syntheses Ability

Having so many restrictions, this kind of translations results in the inability to translate the whole of the original text. Audiovisual translators must know how to prioritize information and translate only what is necessary to convey the message without covering the screen with text or forcing the public to read too fast.

5. Reading Flow Conservation

It is important that each subtitle line has the longest meaning or semantic unit possible. That means that translators must avoid splitting articles or adjectives from their respective nouns, or leaving isolated prepositions, etc. Once more, its purpose is to naturalize subtitle reading to make translation invisible.

6. Inter-semiotic and Inter-linguistic Translation

Audiovisual translators are not limited to translating a message from one language into the other; they must also consider that the message is being converted from oral into written form. As if this weren’t enough, we also have visual marks (such as looks or gestures) that may potentially affect the message.

7. Contemporary Culture

There are many types of texts that pose challenges related to informal language and contemporary culture, but such difficulties are even greater in the oral language. For example, audiovisual translators may have to subtitle a song trying to keep its humor, rhyme and making sure it matches what’s being shown on screen.

8. Audiovisual Rhythm Conservation

Each scene in a TV show or movie has been meticulously planned by many people to achieve the perfect rhythm. If we can make subtitles merge naturally into the audiovisual rhythm, we can help the public forget they are facing a translation and our work will become invisible.

9. Cut Sync

Translators must avoid creating subtitles that do not match shots or scene changes. This is one of the most time-consuming technical aspects for the translator, but it is crucial to guarantee subtitle invisibility.

10. Technical Support

Audiovisual translation is intrinsically linked to technology. Unlike other types of translations, where technology becomes just added value, in this case it is a mandatory requirement. There commonly are format and audio problems, among many others. For this reason, translators and Project Managers must be in touch constantly to avoid running into errors when it’s already too late.

Audiovisual translation poses an exciting challenge and it’s encouraging that there are so many colleagues looking to engage in it, but it must not be underestimated. As Donald Kendall has said: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Customers must also understand this, as they shouldn’t give work to unprepared translators.

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