Subtitling is a form of art; by means of subtitles we can recreate and express both people’s voices and whole communicative contexts. As audiovisual products have reached a great amount of people by means of subtitles, subtitles have had a huge impact on society in the last years. What’s more, they’ve made it possible for us to access different sources of entertainment (movies, video games, and series). So, it’s very important to create them and to translate subtitles (if needed) as best as we can.
Subtitling: Here you’ll find 10 things you should avoid when creating subtitles
1) Translating literally most of the content:
Literal translation is applied wherever possible in subtitle creation, but in certain circumstances it may not be the best choice. It won’t be a good idea to translate idioms literally, for instance.
Or, considering that there are certain languages that require more words than others to express ideas, we might need to find the best way to express what’s being said reducing the original, and literal translation won’t allow us to do so.
2) Too many characters in a line:
This one goes hand in hand with literal translation. Reading speed and screen space are constraints that we are faced with when subtitling. So, we should try not to overload subtitles as it won’t help spectators read the text. So by avoiding literal translation, we will be applying a fundamental principle in subtitling: reduction. This way, we’ll be using fewer characters and contributing to spectators’ understanding and enjoyment.
3) Keeping a useless foreign sense:
The translation of subtitles implies jumping from one language and culture to another, and dealing with the differences between them. Keeping unshared aspects (unless they are relevant to the topic) will most probably lead to confusion. Because of the constraints mentioned above and language differences, it might not be possible to keep certain cultural aspects. Translators will instead have to try and find a simplified but equally meaningful equivalent in the target language, using their creativity and knowledge.
4) Using machine subtitles translation:
Machine translation like Google Translate is not an option here. Using it won’t be a good idea because machines can’t manage to identify certain idiomatic expressions or intertextual references. For example, the Spanish version for “Your guess is as good as mine" that Google Translate gives is: ‘Tu invitado es tan bueno como el mío’, not to mention the translation of irony or puns... While machine translation might be useful for certain purposes, they are not trustworthy.
5) Including interjections:
As the number of characters that can be used is limited, interjections occupy precious space, so we should avoid translating or including those expressions which are not crucial for understanding. Moreover, the visual and audio support is a great help; most interjections can be recovered from the audiovisual output, so as we won’t be missing anything that hinders comprehension there is no need to translate them.
6) Conveying the wrong speech style:
By means of subtitle translation, we are giving voice and personality to speakers in other languages, so failure to use the appropriate style changes the essence of the speaker’s voice.
This will result in a lack of coherence between what we see and listen, and what we read. For instance, if we are listening to an 80-year old woman speaking, the subtitle should not reflect a 15-year old girl ─unless that’s is actually reflected in the audiovisual product, of course.
7) Creating the subtitles without the audio visual material:
The previous kind of error may be a result of this one, for example. Subtitles made by people who are translating without the original audiovisual material can carry different kinds of mistakes related to reference or accuracy because of lack of context. This may lead to some conflict between the subtitles and the visual information when running the subtitles.
8) Wrong timing:
Always run the subtitles on the video to check timing and cueing. Subtitles should enter when the speaker begins talking and not before they do so. Subtitles which appear before or after that are confusing and may lead spectators to think something is missing or wrong.
9) More than two lines:
It is in very special cases that we use more than two lines. More than two lines are typically allowed when the text doesn’t obscure the image that is in the screen. In general we use two lines and they should be in the bottom of the screen, centered.
10) Line breaks issues:
Last, but not least, subtitles should be semantically self-contained. Line and subtitles breaks will be greatly determined by semantics and syntax and also by the rhythm of speakers’ speech. Punctuation is also an aspect to consider; it should be consistent. If there is a shot change, there should be a change of subtitle as well.
Finally, truth to tell, there are no rules to cover all situations, so common sense, good judgement, and a thorough analysis of the content are essential in the process of subtitle creation. Also, make sure you always check your work. Otherwise, most probably, you’ll end up with poor quality subtitles with too many lines, unnecessary spaces, too long subtitles, misspellings, etc. There are always things to improve!