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There are many ways to go about translating various materials. For example, while subtitling videos from a different language into english, is it better to (or more acceptable) to do a literal translation of what is said, or to change it and write it in a way that is more appropriate for english? Or is this usually subjective to the person writing the translation?

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The Star Wreck: In the Pirkining Annotated Translation seems to provide some good insights for writing subtitles (and is fun, at least if you like the movie). –  Paul A. Clayton Nov 5 '13 at 16:28

4 Answers 4

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There are two special issues regarding subtitles:

  1. space limitations, i.e. you cannot put enough letters in a row (or two) to cover everything that's said;
  2. time limitations, i.e. you cannot translate everything literally as you have to expect that viewers can't read fast enough to read all those words, especially not when someone is talking fast.

Most of the times, you'll have to summarize a bit when writing subtitles, without losing the meaning and emotion of what's been said.


There's a classic example of a Dutch subtitle that went wrong: in an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful someone said over the phone:

After all he put you through.

In Dutch, this was translated as

Hij heeft je tenslotte doorverbonden.

That is, someone connects someone to somebody else on the phone. Of course, it was about an emotional affair (don't know what) and someone helped her to cope with it.

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I would always go the way of changing it and writing it in a way that is more appropriate for English. Literal translation could confuse the viewer.

And a clever translation of a saying or an idiom will delight viewer who understands both languages (spoken and subtitled).

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I believe that what was done for Princess Mononoke is what should be done more, hire a author (Neil Gaiman in that case) to re-interpret the story rather than a translator to translate the text. Having an interpreted version as the primary and a secondary literal translation version of subtitles and an would satisfy both the purist and the average viewer.

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It's 3 years since the question was posted, but I just stumbled across it.

I read something by Martin Luther many years ago where he discussed his efforts to translate the Bible into German. He said that he first made a word-for-word translation. Then he made a free translation that he felt conveyed the sense of the original. Then he took the two translation and tried to reconcile them, in an effort to convey the intended meaning while retaining as much of the original phrasing as possible.

Okay, the translations you're talking about probably bring less of a sense of weighty responsibility than Luther likely felt about translating scripture.

But any translation has to balance a word-for-word translation to rigorously preserve the original writer's words with a free translation to capture the sense and avoid confusing the reader with idioms from another language.

If the work is scholarly or technical, I'd lean more toward the word-for-word to avoid losing potentially important technical distinctions. Likewise if it's political, religious, or controversial, I'd lean toward the word-for-word to avoid putting your words and ideas in someone else's mouth.

But if it's more light and popular -- like the title of a video of a comedy -- I'd lean more toward capturing the sense. No one is going to be carefully studying these words and critiquing them. They just want to know what the movie is about.

A particular problem with titles is that they often involve word-play or other poetic elements, which are notoriously difficult to translate. Some of these don't even make it between two different cultures that speak (theoretically) the same language. I recall that when the British movie "The Madness of George V" was released in the US, they changed the title to "The Madness of King George", out of fear that an American audience might not recognize "George V" as the name of a monarch, and think that this was the fifth installment in a "Madness of George" series. (Like "Fast and Furious 2", etc.) Or even within a single nation, when I first heard the song title, "It's All About the Benjamins, Baby", I had no idea what a "Benjamin" was.

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