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Common Challenges Faced when Captioning/Subtitling

One of the areas in which translators are most visible within the localization industry is captioning/subtitling. This is in part driven by the global nature of films. Also, there is a desire of people around the world to be able to enjoy both films and television series in languages spoken in countries other than their native ones. Moreover, as there are constantly new productions being produced around the world, many of which are translated into a variety of different languages, it is probable that most translators will have the opportunity to translate subtitles at some point. However, translating subtitles has unique challenges, despite the language usually not being as technically difficult as what many translators might be used to.

Tone/register: In films and television shows, the dialog tends to be informal, rather than formal, technical language. While this may make translating subtitles seem easier, it isn’t necessarily so.

Cultural adaptation/localization: As mentioned above, the dialog also usually contains a lot of region-specific slang, idioms and cultural references, which can make it a real headache to localize. However, if the translator has specific knowledge regarding the regionalisms and culture of the country or region where the film was produced, they will have a competitive edge. For example, a Spanish to English translator with a very strong knowledge of Mexican culture and informal language, but who has very little knowledge of these aspects regarding other Spanish-speaking countries, will be able to translate a Mexican film much better than he or she could do with one from another country, such as Spain or Argentina.

Length: Another challenge to translating subtitles is keeping each subtitle short enough to comfortably fit on the screen so that it may be read easily and quickly by viewers. In order to do this, translators should be aware of limitations regarding the amount of characters appropriate for each line of subtitles and do their best to adhere to them. This often means opting for shorter words or simpler language in order to keep the character count down.

Style: Also, when translating subtitles, an extra effort should be made to not include any literal translations. A literal style of translation will confuse the audience and will stand out as poor writing, which can greatly impair the viewing experience. This also includes making the appropriate conversions of things like weight, length and time based on the region and language of the intended audience. Language in subtitles should have a natural flow and be easy to read so that the viewer does not have to divert focus from the movie or TV show they are watching, just to try to understand the subtitles. A literal translation of subtitles, or one which does not flow naturally, can turn a fantastic movie into an experience that is much less enjoyable.