Subtitle translation – my other kind of writing


In the last few months I’ve been rather busy with my “other” writing career, the one that involves translating subtitles for movies and TV-shows. I’ve been doing this work for a couple of years now, and it’s a lot of fun.

I translate from English into Swedish, for shows of every type: sit-coms, dramas, reality shows, and the occasional movie. With the rise of on-demand TV like Netflix, there’s a growing need for subtitle translators it seems. And since I don’t actually watch a lot of TV myself (Game of Thrones is the only show I never, ever miss), this is really the most TV-watching I ever do on a regular basis.

Translating subtitles is a bit different than literary translations. Usually when you translate something, you try to convey exactly what the original text says without omitting, changing, or adding anything. With subtitles however, there are other factors to consider.

Each subtitle can only contain a certain amount of characters per line (usually 37). Also, each subtitle can only stay on-screen for a certain amount of time, and how many characters total you can use depends on how long that is (reading speed is a factor here). What this means is that when people say a lot in a very short scene (I really don’t like fast talkers, let me tell you!), the subtitle translator has to do some heavy editing.

The end result is that sometimes you’re not able to include everything a person is saying, and instead you have to condense dialogue, omit superfluous words and phrases, and really focus on getting across the essence of what the character means – even if you can’t actually translate every word.

These challenges are part of what makes this work so much fun. It’s like a puzzle where you first have to figure out how to translate the dialogue, and then how to fit that into the space provided. It’s also rather satisfying because it’s a type of work that can’t be done by a computer program: if you’ve ever tried out Google-translator you know what I mean!

What I’m shooting for as a subtitle-translator is to be unobtrusive: if I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, then you won’t notice what I’m doing. Bad subtitle translations, however, stand out like a very sore thumb. I can remember watching a period drama on TV when I was visiting Sweden one year. It was set in the middle ages, and a king mentioned putting on his “hose”. The Swedish subtitle translator had translated this as though he was referring to a garden hose, rather than leg-wear… Oops.

For even worse examples of subtitles, check out these ones from the Lord of the Rings-movies. Nuance, grammar, and knowledge of the source material is vital, as you can see.

Good old Gandalf: somewhat lacking in his bedside manners…
All those condos without a king… Definitely a problem for Middle-earth’s real estate market.

2 thoughts on “Subtitle translation – my other kind of writing”

    1. I think some translators rush their work, and aren’t experienced or qualified enough. I also think that with so many streaming content sites, and pirated material, there’s a HUGE market for subtitles, but maybe not the patience to do it right! Unfortunately, because like you say: it can get BAD!


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