Toward Intelligent Subtitling
Part 3: Translation
When exploring the do’s and the dont’s of subtitling — in a book, a classroom, an online course, or elsewhere — we learn a fair bit about text translation: how to write concisely, how to render jokes, how to convey wordplay and cultural elements, and so on. Yet, based on my experience, some of its finer aspects often get overlooked, slip through the cracks in the study process — and the result of that is countless mistakes.
In this third part of the Intelligent Subtitling series, I’d like to shed light on such mistakes and give guidance, to both students and pros, through the ten instructions that I list below.
1. Omit the obvious and the unnecessary
One of the things we subtitlers must do — and, alas, many don’t — is trust the audience. Namely, their ability to gather the meaning of dialogue and on-screen text not only from our subs but also from a movie’s image and soundtrack. Such trust enables us to leave out what’s already understood and thus avoid redundant translations, helping the viewer to focus on what matters.
Now, of course, almost everyone has the sense to not subtitle things like this...
...but I still see a lot of unnecessary text in files. Consider this example from the film Snatch (click/tap to play):
We all know what robbers say in such situations, and much of the dialogue gets repeated ad-nauseum anyway, so it would be better to skip some of the subs and let people enjoy the crazy, explosive visuals.
Next, there’s the following real-life example of how to break the audience’s immersion by over-subtitling things, taken from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The file includes every single horse cue by the cab driver:
Quite jarring, isn’t it? Background chatter ought to be added sparingly — and only when pertinent to the story. It is pertinent in this case, of course, as the cues indirectly urge the moustache guy to strike up a conversation,
since he’s rather hesitant himself, but there’s no need to subtitle each and every “Yah!” in the entire movie.
So yes: repetitions, onomatopoeia, some interjections, as well as words, phrases and whole dialogue lines with a clear meaning or little relevance — they all should be omitted for a better viewing experience.
2. Keep the references
There are two main types of references for us to translate: ones that point to something within the film’s world, e.g. to a scene, action, character or idea, and ones that reach outside the boundaries of cinema to connect with real things, like famous people, well-known events, elements of popular culture, various works of art, and so on. Both types can be quite simple — e.g. a tape recording of previous dialogue or an allusion to, say, Elvis Presley — but at times they’ll present a real challenge.
Internal references can be tricky to deal with when they’re implied or allegorical. Rendering these will require a deep understanding of the film. Let me give you an example from The Dig, a 2021 movie about archaeology and personal relationships. In one of the scenes, we see several people digging up an excavation site, hoping to unearth an Anglo-Saxon ship. As two of them start moving a fragile wooden plank, their male supervisor — somewhat jokingly — urges them to exercise caution:
The camera briefly focuses on a woman in the background, Peggy Piggott, who’s looking at one of the lifters — her husband Stuart — with an unhappy expression.
You see, throughout the film, Stuart keeps neglecting Peggy over and over again — via his words, body language, actions and priorities. He lives and breathes his work and doesn’t treat her as a woman, someone to love, desire and respect. Because of such lack of passion, Peggy grows frustrated, and when she hears this word, “cavalier”, she realizes that that’s exactly her husband’s attitude toward her — and gives him this disapproving, critical look. It’s a subtle reference to a few scenes in the film, hidden in plain sight and revealed only by the peculiar phrasing, the camera focus and the overall plot.
What this means for us, however, is that our translation for “cavalier” here should work on two different levels: the literal one, for the lifting, and also the second one, for the attitude. And the file I QCed didn’t get the latter.
Now, direct references can be challenging too, especially when veiled or otherwise unapparent. In particular, you should pay close attention to instances of foreshadowing, where a character says something and then, much later in the movie, it happens. Shaun of the Dead, a zombie comedy flick, is a perfect example of this; it’s chock-full of them — e.g. when Ed outlines a plan to drown his friend’s sorrows in alcohol:
And that’s exactly what ends up happening, except not quite how they imagined it:
“We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing [they kill a zombie named Mary], a bite at the King’s Head [the guy’s stepdad gets bitten in the head], couple at the Little Princess [they pick up his ex, Liz, and two of her flatmates], stagger back here [they imitate zombies to safely get through a horde of the undead], and bang, back at the bar for shots [they shoot zombies in the pub].”
As a translator, you have to find precise wording that not only describes the drinking plan but also connects it to the future events. Quite a task, huh?
When it comes to external references, the difficulty there is twofold: First, you must have lots of world knowledge, erudition and news/trends awareness to be able to spot them. Take a look at this clip from La Haine:
Can you tell what film this alludes to? Of course, it’s that legendary scene from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver!
Which means there’s only one correct translation from French into English in this case, and to be able to find it you need to get the reference. (Yeah, being a subtitler ain’t easy!)
The second difficulty with external references lies in having to be proficient in both source and target cultures — to not inadvertently disrespect local sensitivities and to correctly convey ideas. Plus, some things or concepts might simply not exist in the latter, so you have to translate via the best approximation that will be understood by the audience. Like in Everything Everywhere All at Once:
In some countries, many people don’t even know what a bagel is, let alone an everything bagel, so you might want to go with an “all-toppings donut” instead, or something else along those lines. (Though some references will get lost in translation no matter what, and it’s always a balancing act. Alas!)
3. Stick to the grammar (but sometimes don’t!)
Yes, we all need to observe grammar rules, I get it. But you know what? I take a Shakespearean approach: I make up new words where needed, I transliterate a bit differently every now and then, I do funny things with formatting and punctuation, and so on — because ultimately a subtitler’s job is to convey meanings and deliver the best translations; not to be “technically correct” all the time, like some linguistic snob.
Controversial, I know, but let me demonstrate. I’ll start with RuPaul’s Drag Race:
Nowhere in the books does it say that you can capitalize letters like this willy-nilly. Yet, since the viewer could easily confuse the word with “congratulations”, it is better to do ALL CAPS to improve readability.
Or here’s Bigbug:
This is in English. In Russian, we don’t use hyphens in such cases, we mash the words together, so something like “ultra-nano-mega-robot” turns into “ультрананомегаробот”, an impenetrable forest of letters which is so hard to read. So, what I often do is... add the hyphens anyway! Haha, yeah, I’m a bit of a rebel }:D
And my last example here comes from A Clockwork Orange, where the main characters sprinkle their speech with exotic Russian-sounding words that feel foreign but remain somewhat understandable in the context:
(droog = друг = friend)
My question is this: If you were to translate this movie into Russian, how would you preserve the foreignness of such lingo, for viewers who already know what these words mean? Personally, I can think of three options: either you keep them in English, or use some loan words from another language, such as Dutch or Swedish, thus risking to cause the feedback effect (more on this later), or you kind of pseudo-transliterate creatively — and not in a very grammatical way!
4. Render the cadence
When translating a film, we should focus on not only what is said but also on how it is said. The rhyme, rhythm, intensity, word stress, songfulness and many other aspects of vocal performance should be kept via phrasing, word order, punctuation, format, etc. So, for instance, the following jingly, melodic line from Game of Thrones ought to roll off the tongue in your subs when read by the viewer:
And this linguistic outburst in V for Vendetta should be as alliterative and rhythmical as the source:
Rendering speech cadence helps the audience to teleport into the film’s universe, remain immersed in the story, and enjoy the whole experience much more. It’s not always possible, but whenever it is, you should go for it.
5. Follow the narrative logic
As a subtitler, you need to always stay focused on the film and make sure your translations don’t run against its creative ideas and the logic of what’s going on. Yet, I often encounter files that feel like whoever worked on them either didn’t watch the video or paid no attention to the scene. Exhibit #1, from The Lighthouse:
The sound mixing is very deliberate here: it’s slightly muffled, drowned out by the noise of the machinery. Just like Ephraim, the guy with a shovel, we’re not supposed to make out what Thomas says the first time around, so there shouldn’t be a subtitle there. By adding it, you introduce a micro-spoiler — and also ruin the authors’ intent.
Next, exhibit #2, from The Shining:
But... hold on a minute. He did finish that sentence, right? It had a full stop! What’s going on?
Well, the subtitler got confused here. If we consult to Stanley Kubrick’s original screenplay, we will see that the closing quote mark isn’t where it needs to be, plus the ellipses went missing in two subs. Instead of
I said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I’m just going to bash your brains in.
It should be
I said, “I’m not going to hurt you...
I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
And that’s the sentence she didn’t let him finish.
6. Preserve the subtext
Almost everyone knows what subtext is, yet only few consistently get it and translate it accordingly. Oh, well. As far as examples, let’s bring out a classic: the Sideways scene where Miles Raymond explains why he’s into pinot noir wine and simultaneously describes his own character:
You’ll need a lot of word-choice precision here to kill two birds — the literal and the figurative — with one stone. Machine translation, anyone? ... No? Haha, yeah, didn’t think so.
7. Avoid the feedback effect
We touched upon this earlier when talking about A Clockwork Orange. The feedback effect disrupts your viewing; it arises when the audience feels like something’s off in the subs, that they’re somehow wrong and don’t reflect the original dialogue correctly. Maybe lots of speech gets translated into just a few words, maybe the opposite, maybe the syntax and the pause distribution are far too different from the source, or there’s a word or phrase that you can clearly hear but cannot see it in the subtitle text (e.g. 👂🏻 “droog” versus 👀 some Swedish word). Clumsy translation of dialects and speech defects as well as over-domestication are also two common culprits.
Here’s an example from La Haine:
You can hear “Asterix” but only see “Snoopy” instead, which, if you know about the French comic book series, will likely make you question the subtitles’ accuracy. If you don’t, however, the translation will work just fine, so it’s up to the subtitler to find out whether the target audience has any such knowledge.
8. Convey the film’s motifs and themes
This has to be the most difficult one, as it requires a good understanding of the movie you’re working on at the deepest level — the symbolism, the overarching ideas, the repeating elements, etc. And no matter how experienced you are in deciphering art, it’s always going to be a challenge.
Since I have covered this topic in great detail previously, instead of expounding on it here, let me give you a concrete example from Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for which I did sub QC back in 2021.
The film, an exploration of repressed sexuality, toxic masculinity and human nature, follows several characters, including a hyper-manly, alpha-male rancher Phil Burbank. He is sensitive and secretly gay but tries to conceal it by putting on a mask of someone he isn’t. After his brother marries Rose, an inn owner, Phil starts resenting her as well as her lanky, effeminate son Peter, seeing that they can afford to be who they really are without needing to live a double life (or so he thinks). Then he proceeds to belittle them and to give them hell, thus externalizing his own insecurity.
Now, there’s a recurrent visual motif in this movie — the dog. It appears in the form of the animal...
As a shadow:
In a bible verse:
And, of course, in the movie’s title.
What the dog symbolizes in the film is the inner monster we can develop when trying to repress our real selves, pressured into it by our unhealthy environment. It reappers multiple times and always connects, in some way, to the themes explored. So, the bible verse mentioned above — shown in the last scene — matters a great deal; it ties up the motif and serves as a metaphor for what happened in the end: Peter saved his mother (“darling”) from Phil’s oppression (“the power of the dog”).
Now, as I was doing sub QC, I did some research and found we’ve a few translations of the Bible into Russian. And for this particular verse, some worked rather well, while others didn’t whatsoever, as they would make it way too difficult for the viewer to link the text with its figurative meaning. So, you need to choose carefully, with the film’s themes in mind.
9. Consider the cognitive load
As you know, subtitles make it harder to watch movies — not only do you need to absorb the soundtrack and the image but to also pay attention to the text at the bottom. When the going gets particularly tough, when there’s just too much information coming through, the viewer can get a sensory overload of sorts and start skipping your subs (or the visuals) — which, of course, would be no bueno. I’ve a nice example:
Oof, that’s a lot to process, isn’t it?
This clip is from David Fincher’s The Social Network, and it has it all: a barrage of shots, rapid-fire dialogue, some IT terminology, and on top of that there’s a subtle visual parallel running throughout the sequence — Mark objectifies girls through making Facemash, a website for comparing their level of “hotness”, and jokes about likening them to “farm animals”, while the girls objectify themselves by behaving like, well, “animals”: getting driven to the party like cattle, drinking excessively, and, later in the scene, undressing and engaging in various kinds of debauchery...
This parralel adds nuance and depth to Mark’s character by showing us that his apparent misogyny doesn’t come out of nowhere — rather, it’s shaped by what surrounds him.
So yeah, not only do we have another “two-in-one” here — “animal” as a living creature and also as a person with unseemly behaviour — but there’s just too much going on in this clip, it’s hard to keep up with everything, so my advice would be to use slightly shorter and simpler phrasing in your subs to make watching such scenes a bit more manageable.
10. Intuit the eye movements
I’m not asking you to consciously think of how the audience’s gaze is supposed to travel within every single shot — that would be insanity. No, what I am asking, though, is to listen to your intuition, try and feel it when something doesn’t seem right — when your eyes stumble upon a certain word, or they’ve to jump somewhere uncomfortably, or go back in the subtitle text to reread a difficult (or ambiguous) section, etc. And once you figure out that there’s an issue, you can start pondering over the why, and the what, and the how, and all those things.
Take a look at this sub from Mr. Turner, for instance:
Here, the word “славно” (= splendidly) looks very similar to “словно” (= as though). Since the former gets used much, much less frequently in everyday life, our mind is likely to misread it as the latter — the more common one. Then, after reaching the end of the sub, you realize that something’s off, so you jump back to take another look, which disrupts the viewing process.
So, how do we fix this? Easy-peasy: just replace the word “славно” with a synonym that works well in the context but doesn’t have such a problem, e.g. “замечательно”, “великолепно”, or similar — whichever fits the character and the reading speed limits. Yup — no eye tracker needed!
All right, this is it for now. I hope you’ve learned something new and were reminded that there’s much more nuance to subtitling than most people think. As always, if you’ve any questions, thoughts, or remarks, feel free to write them in a comment below.