Professional Subtitling

Since it is important for the subtitling company CristBet that viewers understand the origin of subtitling processes and their complexity, below is an excerpt from the book “Subtitles and Narratives” by Cristina Bettencourt, the first on the topic ever printed in Portugal:

“Let’s start by emphasising that until now there has been some difficulty in defining what subtitles are from a linguistic point of view, although they have existed since the beginning of the 20th century. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin legenda, “what should be read” (neuter plural of the gerund legere, “to read”).

In Portugal, one of the most widespread methods for translating films is subtitling, which consists of “inserting” a written translation/adaptation of the dialogue into the film, respecting the speed of elocution and with maximum synchronisation. Its production process, as will be seen in a separate chapter, consists of dividing up verbal sequences in order to reduce them to one or two short lines so that they form a block that is easy to read and understand. To do this, the translator has to work on transcribing dialogues (or monologues) in order to reproduce them in the target language so that they are coordinated and in sequence.

In this way, subtitles can be described as one of the communication links between the film and the audience; they convey in writing something that was initially spoken. They are the written translation of the speech that accompanies the image, and they are themselves also a visual element, as they are the printing of a written text on the footage.

The fact that this is a process of transforming speech into writing is crucial, because speech, when transcribed literally, is not legible, given the different organisation of spoken and written discourse. In general terms, it should be emphasised that writing has its own characteristic regarding the readability of the text, sentences respecting more rigid rules and norms, while speech, with its pauses, reiterations, hesitations, omissions, etc., if transcribed without reformulations, would make the enunciations difficult to understand. The operations of transforming speech into writing treat the utterances with this in mind, endeavouring to make the written text intelligible.

However, if we consider subtitles from this perspective, we can easily understand that the methods involved in subtitling are very complex, as its composition goes through a linguistic process with more stages until it reaches its final form, namely:

1.    The film is written or adapted by a scriptwriter, so its start is a script.

2.    The dialogues/speeches in the script are memorised by the actors, who reproduce them orally; in the process they often change some things, depending on their creativity, talent, and the director’s instructions.

3.    The translator translates this oral enunciation in the form of subtitles, using the written script and its comparison with the film’s dialogues; in this process he/she uses his/her creativity and linguistic mastery.

So we have a basic written text (script), which is transformed into an oral utterance (actor’s speech/performance), to be transformed back into a translated written text (the subtitles).

What emerges from this process is the great complexity of the linguistic procedures that are at play: in the transition from writing to speech and then to written translation there are various adjustments in order to achieve a clear and legible final product. On top of all this, the translators must also follow the technical rules imposed by the subtitling programmes, which require the subtitles to play with the time/space relationship simultaneously (the time timed in seconds and the space measured by the maximum number of characters allowed per line). These subtitling techniques, as well as subtitling services and the tasks to be carried out by the translator, are also covered in a separate chapter, so we won’t go into more detail at the moment.

Returning to the subtitles themselves, let’s take a look at the strategies most commonly used by audiovisual translators to carry out a translation, i.e. to transfer meanings from one linguistic code to another.

One option is word-for-word translation, in which the same categories are maintained in the same syntactic order when moving from the original language to the language of translation, using semantically identical words. For example, and using the English language as a reference, as it is the most common in this type of activity:

  • Original subtitle (OS) – He said that the girl was wonderful.
  • Translated subtitle (TS) – Ele disse que a rapariga era maravilhosa.

As you can easily see, this strategy cannot be used very often, either because it is impossible to always make these syntactic correspondences in the same order, or because of the technical specifications of the subtitling programmes mentioned above (the number of characters in the Portuguese sentence is almost always much higher than in the English sentence).

Another option is literal translation, i.e. translating while maintaining semantic fidelity, but adapting the morphosyntax of the original subtitle (OS) to the grammatical norms of the translated subtitle (TS). It is therefore this adequacy that makes it possible to distinguish word-for-word translation from literal translation. Take the following example: 

  • Original subtitle (OS) – It was late when he arrived.
  • Translated subtitle (TS) – Era tarde quando ele chegou.

The process of translation by transposition is also common, whereby a sentence or phrasal segment is translated by changing the grammatical class of its constituent elements. 

Here’s an example:

  • Original subtitle (OS) – She said apologetically (adverb)
  • Translated subtitle (TS) – Ela disse, desculpando-se (reflexive verb) / Ela disse, como justificação (adverbial adjunct)

But perhaps the most frequently used process is translation by paraphrase, which consists of reproducing the message of the original subtitle (OS) in the translated subtitle (TS), conveying the same message in other words.

On the one hand, this reflects a difference in the way languages interpret reality and, on the other, it is a consequence of the rules that translators have to follow in order not to exceed the limits of space and reading time allowed, hence the need to restructure and/or adapt the subtitle. For example, the verb “to love” in the original subtitle (OS) can be translated in the translated subtitle (TS) as “amar” or “gostar”, depending on the context in which it appears, or the expression “to fall in love” as “apaixonar-se”.

Translation by equivalence is based on a similar strategy: it doesn’t translate literally, but replaces the expression in the original subtitle (OS) with another that is functionally equivalent in the translated subtitle (TS). This procedure is often used, for example, with idioms, proverbs, popular sayings and platitudes:

  • Original subtitle (OS) – It’s raining cats and dogs.
  • Translated Subtitle (TS) – Chove a potes.
  • Original Subtitle (OS) – It’s a piece of cake!
  • TS – É canja!
  • Original subtitle (OS) – Yours faithfully
  • TS: Atentamente, cordialmente

We must also take into account omission, which is a translation strategy too, as well as its opposite, explicitation. In the first case, elements are omitted from the original subtitle that are unnecessary and repetitive in the translated subtitle – this is what happens in the translation from English to Portuguese, in the case of personal pronouns. In Portuguese, the verbal endings make it clear to whom the verb refers and so there is no need for the personal pronoun in the subject position, which is, however, obligatory in English:

The reverse process, explicitation, occurs when translating from Portuguese into English, for the reasons already mentioned.

It should also be noted that this type of work involves reconstruction, which consists of redividing and regrouping the sentences and paragraphs of the original text when translating them into the translated subtitle; it involves making improvements, not repeating any errors detected in the original; it involves transference, which consists of introducing textual material from the original subtitle into the translated subtitle (foreignisms) and also a sort of “explanation”, which may mean eliminating a foreignism and replacing it with the corresponding explanation or even keeping the foreignism and explaining it in brackets.

These are just a few thoughts on the enormous complexity of the work that CristBet has been doing every day for almost a quarter of a century.

If you want experience based on in-depth theoretical knowledge of the work carried out, then become one of our satisfied customers, such as SIC, TVI and Pris Audiovisuais, among others, for whom we produce thousands of minutes of subtitling services a year. 

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