Frankly, my dear, eso no me importa: The Art of Subtitle Translation

Category: Language, Multimedia

14545082_ccfce5b766_zWhat’s the secret behind a film that’s able to make viewers laugh, cry, screech or sit in quiet reflection at the very same moment in theaters across the globe, irrespective of language and culture?

Besides blood, sweat and tears, the quick answer is: talented translators (and voice talents). Movie translators truly do make or break a film.

It’s not an easy job. Many films are often simultaneously available on various media (called a day-and-date release) in every country. Deadlines are hard and fast. The international public is waiting, and expectations are high. Cinematic translators have tight time constraints, small screen real estate, multiple target audiences to account for within their language, challenging vocal/visual synching around dialogue, slang and popular culture references, and a story rooted in a very particular source culture.

And they often have to watch the same movie thousands of times to get it right.

We salute these translators who remain behind the scenes all too often, dwelling in the shadows of their film’s success. Let’s look at a few of the challenges they face in their day-to-day and gain an appreciation for this amazing profession.

Challenge #1 Itsy-bitsy real estate—editing out non-essentials in dialogue.

Have you ever noticed that subtitles are often in a drab color, shoved in an awkward periphery of the screen? Apparently they are meant to be read but not noticed. In an effort to avoid competing with the visuals, cinematographers give subtitles very little real estate. And these constraints translate into mandatory script edits. For back-and-forth dialogues, subtitles have to flash quickly across the screen, so translators end up cutting the fluff to keep up.

A great example of this phenomenon is found in this brief scene from Mon Beau-Père Et Nous, a.k.a. Little Fockers in French. The father-in-law from hell (played by Robert DeNiro) is asking his son-in-law (Ben Stiller) some grueling questions. Even if you don’t speak French, you can appreciate the cuts.

Connectors that make dialogue flow i.e. “oh, yeah, you know…”, first names (Jack, Greg, Pam) and other non-essential bits of conversation are cut in order to keep pace with the English dialogue. The result is a more succinct, direct script in French; however, the gist of the exchange between Greg and Jack, in both meaning and humor, is still conveyed.

Challenge #2 To censure or not to censure—handling swearing and slang.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” One of the most popular movie lines of all time, this Clark Gable phrase from Gone with the Wind has timeless impact in English—but due to censorship and other factors, it was diluted for Spanish and French-speaking markets.

In Lo Que El Viento Llevó, the Spanish version of Gone with the Wind, Rhett’s line was rendered somewhat blandly: “Francamente querida, eso no me importa”, or “Frankly, my dear, this doesn’t matter to me.” This careful language is accommodating of Central and Latin American markets where movie viewers are more sensitive to obscenities. We can’t get all fancy and embed this one per the poster’s request, so instead of crying and running to our room, here’s a link to the scene (dubbed into Castilian Spanish) on YouTube.

The French version, Autant En Emporte Le Vent, is no better in terms of conveying the true impact of this famous phrase: “Franchement, ma chère, c’est le cadet de mes soucis,”—“Frankly, my dear, it’s the least of my worries.” Known for their comfort level with a rich vocabulary of vulgarities, the French may have been surprised by this formal, somewhat stiff version of Rhett’s famous line. You can watch the scene here (again, not embeddable, but here’s the YouTube link).

Translating obscenities is especially challenging when creating one international language version of a film. Swear words are rarely universal (in Spanish, for example, they differ greatly from one neighboring country to another); achieving the right tone and impact for all audiences while respecting the original “soul” of the script is an arduous task.

Challenge #3: Adapting culture – finding references that resonate locally.

Some aspects of culture are nearly impossible to translate and often need to be reinvented for international audiences. Take Mater from Cars 2. A redneck, country bumpkin with an accent and jargon firmly rooted in American culture, Mater presented a difficult case for translators.

Pixar addressed this challenge in the German market by selecting a region where the population was generally considered uneducated, and using that vocal style for Mater’s character.

How would you translate the concept of a valley girl, Goth, nerd, frat boy, kiss-up or prom queen for, say, the Turkish market, where such stereotypes and references don’t exist? It’s far from easy, but tried-and-true movie translators make it happen.

Another illustration of the challenges inherent to translating culture can be found in Potiche, a French blockbuster starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. The concept of a potiche does not render well in English; the translator went back and forth between the terms “trophy housewife”, and “trophy wife” throughout the film, but neither really conveys the idea of a good-for-nothing bimbo, which is closer to the original French. Was the concept too derogatory for the U.S.? Perhaps—especially since it’s in the title of the film.

This liberal adaptation of the film’s central theme teaches us that perfect apples-to-apples translations can’t and shouldn’t always be achieved. What’s more important than exactitude in this context is market knowledge. The ultimate measure of success is a translation that resonates with international audiences—making them laugh and cry—without offending, or straying too far from the original script.

While the same movies may draw crowds from Cannes to China, part of the reason is the hard work of the translators and voice talents behind the scenes who make sure the audience gets every nuance of a movie—even when the movie was created half a world away.

Photo attribution: Do u remember