Quality over quantity: how to avoid bad translations in subtitling


Hello, all.

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.

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And I would like to add, don’t translate a drama/movie only by bulk translation without ever watching the content. Your translation will be lacking, the pace, intensity, and in some rare moments you might translate something that was original in another language, maybe even your own, with totally wrong words.
Like you I try to stay as close to the content of the subtitles by not translating the subtitle word by word.
About 2. - I rather ask, what would that character say, or how, than myself.
But that is only me, and I can’t even tell how many times I proof read over and over again, first in the sub editor, than in the bulk translation, later watching the episode on the “big” screen, since sometimes not all the lines will show (I would love, if subs would appear in the subtitle editor like they will on the screen later, but well … I can dream, right?)
Oh, the polite forms, I must confirm, I can’t watch any dramas with subtitles in my language, that ignore, that a boss might talk down to someone but the employee, normally doesn’t. If everyone is friends, than there is a lot of suspense missing at time.
I could go on and on, but I am in unisono with you. I prefer someone translating and putting their hearts and heads in it and not just plain controlled vocabulary.


Oh, absolutely! The only few times Bulk translation should be used are proof-reading for typos and finding exact wording from that episode to copy-paste it into the recap at the beginning of next episode.

And (need I really say this?) watch the episode in its entirety before translating it. The parts where there isn’t any conversation may be crucial to the story and your translation.

To give personalised manners of speech to different characters is very difficult. I’m glad you brought it up. It belongs to a higher category of translation, I think, because it requires quite a bit of experience and effort.

I forgot one point, as well, concerning specialised text (medical, legal, scientific, etc). Use Wikipedia and Urban dictionary, alongside a dictionary/Google Translate. Not only does it make it easier to translate a phrase you’ve never heard in your life, but it can also help you avoid englifying subtitles in your own language.

There are so many things to consider! :scream_cat: :smile_cat:


What an excellent topic and so well explained. So much is lost in translation when the points you have made here are ignored. Well done, loved reading this.


I know it is difficult, I have a big affinity for language, so of course my standards for translations are somewhat higher than others. I have managed some teams in the past, and I never set the bar for the team that high. But at least I set up some rules, because I am getting easily frustrated editing too much.


Looking for a project, I found an old cartoon with supposedly finished subs and when I looked the sub was a dash (-). This used just put a dash instead of translating and the system counted it as a sub. That is infuriating to be honest. So many people work hard in doing the best translations they can, and here is this person just adding dashes. Ugh!


That is just awful! How hard can it be to build into the subtitle editor an automatic detector for these cheats?

Unfortunately, you will never be able to undo this person’s subtitle count. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t particularly like Viki’s translation marathons - they stimulate this type of deviant behaviour.

However, I believe such persons must suffer some repercussions for their actions. So, perhaps you may want to report an issue to the Viki help center.


I tried to report it but I couldn’t figure out how exactly. I was in a bit of a rush but I will take the time to do it. It is really frustrating when you are trying to find a project to work on and do it in an ethical way and then find people like this. Ugh! So infuriating.


I totally get you, cuz in my language I went on to rate oneliners and found some of them just did what you said, i.e. putting some kind of a punctuation mark and some just wrote the name of the language, in actuality this sub was not subbed at all, but of course it counted. Subbers who are registered as subbers of a show normally only do that once in a blue moon and sometimes they leave those marks for the editors, but unfortunately there is no way to mark a sub “in need of editing” or something like that on the subtitle editor, maybe in the next update if we suggest it or something.
Once upon a time when I used to sub somewhere else, I subbed with someone episodes of this show and each of us acted as the editor for the other, so we used Asterisk as a mark for a sub we didn’t feel was good or something was missing from, in other words, one that needed editing. All you had to do when you came to edit was 1st of all search for Asterisks [ctrl+f in windows] (of course, after that you would go and check everything, but I was thinking if there was something similar on Viki, it would make life easier, especially since sometimes you sub a sub and then you decide it’s not good enough, but erasing what you did comletely and having it not count as a subbed sub is a bit difficult and not every1 knows how to do it.)
I still use these Asterisks and that’s how I know I need to get back to that particular sub even on Viki, thus avoiding cases of mis or half translated subs that are unattended for.



I met this problem too. I reported a subber to the VIKI staff with a PM. She made subtitles with google translate. This was really horrible. And I wrote to the channel manager, too, I asked her delete the subtitles. I became the moderator in my language. And I locked the subtitles. So now anyone can’t creating false subtitles.


I like this solution of yours to double as both a subtitler and editor for the other subtitler in the team. Quite ingenious actually.


I think a lot of small-team subbing works like that. Since it’s rare to come across a “perfect translation,” it’s always nice for other translators to check and edit work. I was about to make a comment on not understanding why it seems so many channels discourage editing by translators if they see something wrong… But I guess it has to do with staying organized or something.

That is clever~ I always ended up writing things down on paper and searching for those parts later >.<
I think a feature like that would be awesome. Not only would it make it easier for current subbers, it would encourage more people to join as well maybe.


Thanks. I forgot to mention, I can’t take credit for it, it was the friend’s I subbed with idea. The best advice I got for editting was from a person I used to know and who worked as an editor: If you must edit your own work, check it on a different da,y if possible, if not, try to put some sort of a barrier between the moment you finished subbing and the moment you started editing, in other words, try to edit it when the subbing isn’t that much fresh in your mind, cuz you might miss the little mistakes otherwise. I try to scheduale (hope I spelled this word correctly, always had trouble with it) my meals according to when I assume I finish subbing an ep or I stop to watch some other series, if I have the time, etc. Hope it helps.


Thanks. Yeah, hopefully someone on Viki staff would read this and create such a feature on the next update, in the meanwhile, I would continue using the astrerik, with no other good option that I know off [though I thought of using the hashtag as it’s used for comment on some programs, but old habbits die hard]. I would sure love it if more people would join, cuz we all know there’s always need for more hands on Viki projects.


There’s a great quote I read in an article while learning about translation work, and I hope it’s helpful, “Translation work is only as good as the intent of the author and the comprehension of the reader.” If you change what the author meant or make it difficult for the reader to understand, then it’s a poor translation. Translation work is both science and an art!


I am glad this problem is getting addressed and noticed by others because sometimes the subtitles just don’t make any sense and I would rather wait for an episode than have to watch a horribly translated one ruining the experience that should have been me fangirling all over the place to me pausing and checking if that is actually right.


That’s why a rating system could work well. For e.g. if you could rate the completed subs in your language, then even the CMs could see if a sub is problematic. I frequently bump into bad quality subs, but I’m just too nice to complain about them ><" (thus I don’t wanna hurt anyone), and actually the CMs won’t know if I’m right, if they don’t speak my language and can’t check it themselves. Also a “please fix it” button could be added to that rating (or it could exist instead of the rating), with a notification to the respective language moderators/translators. So the identity of the reporter would stay anonymous, but the respective translator team could get a response on the quality of their work.


If the subs are so bad that the viewer cannot understand the plot of an episode, the CM should be notified. By not complaining, we are instead hurting all the viewers, who rightfully get annoyed and disappointed by someone’s sloppy work. This dilemma is something Editors face every day. But the best Editors are the ones who respect both their viewers and the subbers by assuming no one works perfectly and everyone has room for improvement. Feedback is essential, whether it’s positive or negative.


@bozoli: If the subs are so bad that the viewer cannot understand the plot of an episode, the CM should be notified. By not complaining, we are instead hurting all the viewers, who rightfully get annoyed and disappointed by someone’s sloppy work. This dilemma is something Editors face every day. But the best Editors are the ones who respect both their viewers and the subbers by assuming no one works perfectly and everyone has room for improvement. Feedback is essential, whether it’s positive or negative.

Actually there is a really popular drama and I’ve been thinking of messaging its CM about sub quality and I’d also offer my “services”. Do you think it’s enough if I just contact CM? It feels a bit unethical for me if I try avoid the original subber, but I’m kinda “afraid” of other subbers, since I had some bad experiences back then, when I tried to help the not so skilled manga translators in a community and they took it as an offend when I told them what they should be aware of or what they should fix/avoid in their translations. Is there any “professional” (or advised) way to do it? :confused:


If you have permission from CM or Mod to edit it and you believe you have better translation,
IMHO, it’s somethin you have to do it… :wink:

given some advice to a community that i not part of it, i better not to do it…