Some rules for translating subtitles
Accurately translating subtitles is a complex task which involves not only the linguistic element (providing a proper and correct translation) but also the practical function of subtitles since they will become a part of the picture even if they have an auxiliary function.
We work according to international standards for subtitle translation along with which there are many nuances to be found. As a rule, we are working on the translation of subtitles from Russian into English for Russian films and multimedia projects. We also translate subtitles into Russian for foreign pictures.
We share below some of the fundamental rules for translating subtitles and embedding them in the video sequence. They relate to various aspects of the work:
- Translation process (where the rules are very important yet often ignored)
- Understanding the principles involved in this kind of translation
- Technical realization, taking into account the laws and psychology of perception
So, some of the main rules for subtitle translation are:
- The translator working with the text and the actual video
- Accurate transmission of all idiomatic and lexical features
- Use of simple sentence constructions
- Full conformity with the language register used [We should add that this is a basic problem encountered when regular translators are brought in to translate subtitles.]
- Translation of all significant visual elements of the picture (inscriptions, signs, indicators, etc., anything that is absent from the dialogue but present on the screen and important for the viewer to understand the plot)
- Translating the lyrics to songs when important for the plot
- The start and stop of the subtitle display necessarily corresponding to the flow of speech in the dialogue, taking into account pauses and sound effects without disrupting the drama of the frame but rather aligning with it completely
- A subtitle appearing on screen for no less than 1 but not more than 7 seconds
- The minimum acceptable pause between subtitles being 4 frames (what the human eye needs to separate successive subtitles from each other and notice the appearance of a new one)
- the maximum number of lines in a subtitle being 2 with the top line as short as possible and the bottom one longer to avoid cluttering up the main image
Of course, there are more technical and linguistic nuances to translating subtitles and integrating them into the picture. But, unfortunately, even the above listed basic rules are frequently ignored by (or unfamiliar to) translators with purely philological experience.
One of the reasons for problems in this area is that people simply underestimate the importance of the process of translating and embedding subtitles, which authors and producers outsource, thinking it is “just a technical,” or optional, issue. (This is why we get so many subtitles à la Google Translate at film festivals.) This is all the more difficult to understand since we are talking about an inseparable visual order where new text elements are superimposed over the original picture, becoming part of it and conveying all the information about what is happening to the foreign viewer.
We think that a film’s reception by the viewer depends on correct work with subtitles, and it is not yet rare to have the impression ruined by poor quality subtitles.