The Challenges of Translating Subtitles (Especially in Japanese)
“Voice-over or subtitle?” This has long been a debate among international film fans. Voice-over tends to diminish the authenticity of the acting, while subtitles distract your eyes from the scene. Both of them make for some damn hard writing!
As a professional translator, I rarely watch a film without admiring the skills of the translators. Whether for voice or for subtitles, translating movie scripts offers a unique set of challenges. In my work at Wix, I often translate the subtitles of our YouTube videos and tutorials. Over the years, I’ve realized that this type of translation requires more than a mastery of two languages. There are other considerations to keep in mind, and translating those subtitles requires special skill and dedication.
Here are some translating tips I’ve gathered along the way:
1. Keep it concise
Research shows that the human eye takes 6 seconds to comfortably read the maximum length of English subtitles (2 lines, 37 characters per line). This translates to 12 characters per second. In Japanese, the rule of thumb is 4 characters per second. However, I’ve come across many movies where the scenes are cut rapidly and the viewer barely has time to scan the subtitles, let alone comprehend them. If you’re translating, it’s important to watch the footage as you translate so you can adjust the length of the text accordingly.
When I add subtitles to Wix video tutorials, I always put myself in the user’s position. If the subtitle is too long, they’ll be distracted and might miss an important part of the video. I always try to keep my text to a minimum, so that the viewer doesn’t need to pause the video to read it.
For me, the hardest part of subtitle translation is the character limitation. Japanese translation tends to get lengthy. Here is an example from the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was translated by the famous Japanese subtitle translator, Natsuko Toda. The following dialogue is spoken in about 5 seconds.
Indiana Jones: “I did what I did. You don't have to be happy about it, but maybe we could help each other out now.”
Here is what the literal translation looks like in Japanese:
“俺は俺のやり方でやった あんたが気に入らなくても仕方がない これからはお互い助け合っていこう” (44 characters)
Based on the 4 characters per second rule, this translation is 24 characters over the limit. You don’t need to understand Japanese to know that it’s way too long. How did the translator solve the problem?
Here it the actual translation in the film:
“昔の事は水に流して力になってくれ” (16 characters)
It reads “Leave the past in the past and lend me your help.” In this example, the translator used a creative subtitle that took into consideration both the purpose of the scene and the entire plot of the film.
2. Don’t be too creative
The example above demonstrates that you need to be very creative when working with subtitle translations. However, being too creative can also harm the film’s quality.
Here is a rather extreme example:
Stanley Kubrick is known for being a perfectionist. In fact, he even wanted to weigh in on how his films were translated. During the localization of the film Full Metal Jacket, which is partially famous for the over-the-top profanities spoken by the drill instructor Hartman, Kubrick insisted that the English be translated literally, word-for-word. This posed a problem for Japanese translators, since the language doesn’t have equivalent words for many of the profanities.
The translator—who happens to be the same person I mentioned in the example above—tried her best to “localize” and tone-down the profanities. But Kubrick rejected the translation and demanded that someone else re-translate the entire script from scratch. It’s debatable whether Kubrick’s request was reasonable, but this anecdote reminds me that the subtitle can affect the quality of the film. As a localization writer, we have to be true to the script, but also make sure that we follow the directors’ instructions.
3. Watch a lot of movies
If you translate subtitles, the best way to improve your skills is to watch as many films as possible, with the subtitles turned on. Unlike YouTube’s closed captions, films are professionally translated. You can learn new techniques from watching films and carefully reading their subtitle translations. To make it fun, keep an eye out for translation mistakes! (It happens more often than you might think!) The best part is, you’ll be enjoying lots of movies while honing your translation skills.
When I was writing the subtitles for Wix’s Kung Fu Panda Super Bowl ad, I watched the entire film before starting the translation. I wanted to be sure I accurately captured the character’s personality and tone of voice.
4. Learn the language
If you work as a freelance translator, it’s far easier to find work localizing online videos rather than creating subtitles for feature films. I myself often work with YouTube videos and strongly suggest you to learn the SubRip (.srt) formatting. SubRip formatting only require basic timing information and can be edited using any text editing software. You can create the .srt file and then upload it to YouTube video to display the subtitles. If you’re a freelancer, it’s an easy way to add extra value to the service you provide.
Example of the SubRip formatting:
00:00:00,973 --> 00:00:06,784
>> Hi, my name is Kazu and I built my website on Wix.com
This will show the subtitle “Hi, my name is Kazu and I built my website on Wix.com.” The time stamp will show 00:00:00,973 to 00:00:06,784.
Writing video subtitles is still a small genre in the field of localization, but it’s becoming more relevant in the age of video-driven content and online streaming services. There is a big opportunity for the translators to advance their career by combining the language skill and subtitling knowledge.
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Kazu Mori, Japanese Marketing Writer at Wix