What is your definition of a good subtitle?

I was wondering what the general consensus among the translators here on Viki is, regarding what constitutes a proper subtitle?

I ask because having watched a few shows here, before deciding to contribute myself, I have noticed that most of the subtitles are literal translations.

For me most of the time and effort is used, finding a sentence that conveys the same message as the original, but is natural to the target language and short enough, that it can be read in the allotted time.

An example could be what in chinese was “do not look for corners” would be translated to the danish equivalent of “Do not be shy”.

What do you guys think? Is this blasphemy and ruining the true intent and purity of the source language? or is this what is generally considered a proper subtitle translation?


I do try to find a similar idiom when I translate. I think it is more understandable and it doesn’t need further explanations, especially when subtitles are running fast on the screen.

But, sometimes, due to lack of time, I just leave as it is. I still don’t know what’s the better choice.

Thinking about how the US movies have changed the Italian language within the years, mainly because all the films that are aired on Italian TV are dubbed, I think that it’s not bad to contaminate the languages with new idioms. We all agree that a language evolves just like a living being, so, in my opinion, both ways have their rights and wrongs.

This is an excellent question that we, the subbers and editors, ask ourselves over and over again.

I think there should be a good balance and the answer differs case by cases. In your example of “do not look for corners”, I think it should be translated by the meaning because I would have never thought “do not look for corners” as “do not be shy”. I would have thought it meant something like “don’t cut corners” or something to that effect.

Having said that, I do try to translate as literally as possible most of the time in order not to lose any original wording or meaning. However, in doing so, the subbing could get a bit wordy.

When I first started subbing, I used to use English equivalent idiom when I saw a Korean idiom. For example, if in Korean, it says, “It’s like eating a cold porridge!” then I would translate it as “it’s a piece of cake!” because both means “It’s a really easy task.” But since then, I’ve been asked to keep the original Korean literal translations because a lot of viewers actually want to learn Korean phrases and/or idioms/culture. So what I and some of the Ko-En translators now do is to write the literal translation first and then write the meaning in parenthesis. So for example, we had to translated 된장녀 (Dduen Jang Nyeo) in one of the dramas. So we used “Soybean Paste Woman (A materialistic woman who spends beyond her means to obtain luxury brand items)” when Deun Jang Nyeo was first mentioned. Then going forward, we used “Soybean Paste Woman”. I know it’s a bit long but at least this way, non-Koreans would learn something about a specific term that’s only used in Korea. In addition, those people who are trying to learn Korean would know that Dden Jang means Soybean paste.

I don’t think there is one right way and each person can have different subbing style. But as long as it’s accurate and keeps the meaning, I think it’s good.

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it’s from Kdrama Mimi e2,

line 1 : Erase all memory of me,
line 2 : from Min Woo’s mind.

i just wondering if it’s switched-line?

Compared to how it is originally said? Most likely, but that is as discussed in this thread, because saying it the other way round is completely unnatural, to an english speaking person.

All that being said, I do not understand korean, so I can’t really say…

in my opinion a good subtitle is to sub what they mean not what they wrote

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No blasphemy at all.
Ruin the damn thing and reconstruct it into something that makes sense in your language and your language’s daily speaking.

That’s what most english-to-other-languages subtitlers do not seem to underastand and make it ultra hard for the viewers to watch the show in their own language!

Kudos to the english subbers for having so many editors and subbers and in the end, offer us excellent subtitles.

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“Do not look for corners”? What’s that?

I hope someone answers this. I’m curious to know too since it makes no sense to me. lol

The “Do not look for corners” was the apparently literal English translation written in the subtitle, I was translating 3 years ago, when this was being discussed.

However, in context of the conversation and scene “Do not be shy” was a more fitting and natural sentence.

Thus I asked for clarification on what constituted a proper subtitle: the literal translation of what was actually said? Or a fitting colloquialism in the target language being translated to?


A good subtitle in my opinion should:

  • bring to the target language all the information of the original without adding anything and without missing anything. (Note: all the information, not all the exact words)
  • Adapt the language to the speaker’s status, age, historical or geographical position, hierarchy relative to the person he speaks to…
  • be immediately understandable to most people in the time provided to read it.
  • be perfectly natural/fluent in the target language, as fluent as it would be if it were originally written in that language. No compromise on this.

How I deal with the following particular cases

Sayings, proverbs and expressions

  1. If the segment is long enough and the overall dialogue is short, then I leave the idiom translated as it is with an asterisk and a note.
  2. If the segment is short and there’s a lot of dialogue, and I would risk going to three lines or more, then I just substitute with an English equivalent.
  3. If the saying/proverb’s meaning is obvious, I don’t bother explaining.

Geographical and historical
Always explain with a note whenever there is space/time

I always leave the original. With a note if there is space/time
I would never translate “mandu” as “ravioli” in Italian, or kimchi as “sauerkraut”.
Even in English, “rice cakes” is too vague. We don’t know whether they are spicy or sweet, if they have sauce or not…

Korean word order
I always savagely change the order, and put the verb at the beginning so that it sounds like good English. You cannot compromise on this, and leave sentences like the following:

“This person, I will definitely do my best to protect”
“A long, long time ago, a man called Legendary Go Nan Gil lived”.
“Director, so that you can travel on the path of righteousness, to tell you good things, isn’t that my duty?”

Have a good laugh on this page: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/BlindIdiotTranslation/RealLife

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Sadly, here at viki I see the literal translation way too often and left in the drama as a ‘‘good subtitle’’

Brilliant answer!

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I think new collaborators should read such discussions.