I’m clearly writing this post in affect, so please forgive my bluntness and at times harshness, but I think we need to discuss several key issues when it comes to translating.
Viki has recently put a lot of effort to increase the number of subtitles and subtitlers, particularly for languages spoken in smaller communities. (Remember the race for the highest number of subtitles?)
However, recently I took over an abandoned project and came across some very bad, bad, awful subtitles! It made me think, shouldn’t there be a healthier balance between the quantity and quality of subtitles? Do we insist too much on speed of translation, on the expense of understandability of subtitles?
So, even though I’m really not a pro at it, I think there are some basic rules in subtitling (from English to another language) which a lot of us apply to our work on a daily basis, but others seem to have no clue about. And, please, feel free to correct me on any major or minor points you feel are not true, or add to this story.
1. Stay true to the content/meaning of the subtitle. Don’t invent your own story, just because you are not sure if you understand the subtitle or not. If uncertain what the exact meaning is, leave the subtitle blank and ask for an explanation. I’m sure your team members, who wrote the particular subtitle, would be willing to help you out.
2. Avoid direct translations. Unless your language is in essence quite similar to the original subtitle language (sibling language, same language family), you are creating a confusing and artificial piece of text, difficult to follow. Try asking yourself “How would I tell this to a family member or a friend? Would I change the word order? Would I use a different phrase? Would I use active instead of passive verb form?” Make the translation more natural, make your language flow. Be proud of the beauty and uniqueness of your mother tongue.
3. Be succinct/brief. Subtitles are instantaneous pieces of text which need to be read by the viewer in a limited amount of time. Don’t overburden your viewer with a complex sentence, if you can somehow shorten it down. However, don’t shorten the translation if you believe the meaning and spirit of the original text will be lost.
4. Proof-read and correct your own text. Nothing screams lazy more than an episode with a whole bunch of typing errors. Typos happen to everyone, even after proof-reading your own work. But, large amount of such errors is annoying and distracts the viewer.
5. Keep some of the culture of the original language. This rule of mine comes from translating Korean dramas and trying to keep cute and sometimes untranslatable words such as hyung, eonnie, donseng, ahjusshi and ahjumma in their “original” form (original at least pronunciation-wise). Why not engage your viewer into exploring further the culture of the original drama language? Don’t forget to explain the meaning of the word the first time it appears in a drama. Also, unfortunately, English language doesn’t use any polite forms of speech, so that part of Asian culture may forever be lost to a less experienced subtitler. This may be irrelevant if your own language doesn’t have any polite forms, as well. But for others, I found, if in doubt, use a polite form. Odds will be in your favour.
Additionally, I think we should consider if there is a way to peer-review translations as a community. Anonymously and randomly check translations of even the “more experienced” translators. The point of peer-review process is to increase the quality of work, not to hinder the productivity of the work itself. So, with humbleness, learn from our sunbaes.