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Languages in Film: Movie Translation Facts You Didn’t Know About

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Being one of the youngest forms of media, art, and entertainment, movies have quickly become popular around the world. Today’s blockbusters are created in only a couple of cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Mumbai, yet, get distributed widely throughout the entire world. The film industry is a huge business and it owes much of its success to movie translation and localization.

Indeed, without these two processes, China probably wouldn’t know about the Avengers, while the U.S. citizens wouldn’t even know about such classics as Solaris or Amelie. Yet, what stands behind the process of translating or localizing the movie, and how do these processes help movies to become so successful? Let’s take a look at a couple of facts about the translation and localization of the films and find out!

Goal of Movie Translation

Well, the obvious reason for the distributor to translate a movie is to market it to another country in order to gain a bigger accumulated profit. Yet, the distributor is not the only side working on film translation, so there are also various other goals. The translation of movies essentially contains two major types of processes, the creative and the linguistic. Both of them work together in order to achieve a bigger goal, which serves as a non-monetary counterpart to the major reason mentioned above. Yet, let’s take a look at the creative and linguistic goals separately first.

Creative Goal

From a creative standpoint, the translated movie must sound and look aesthetically appealing to the audience. While translating a movie, an interpreter has to organize the script in a way that would not make the characters in the film sound awkward and robotic in the first place. This in turn will allow the audiences to perceive the content of the film naturally as if they’re watching other real people. The second part of this creative/aesthetic goal relies on the visual element. Not only the translated characters have to sound natural, but also look natural. The translated speech, hence, has to be organized in the way to match the original and go in sync with the video, so that the actors would move their mouths until the sound is heard. This way, the audience will not become confused when one of the characters closes his or her mouth, while the soundtrack goes on.

Linguistic Goal

The linguistic side, on the other hand, sees conveying the original message, tone, and intent of the movie in another language as the main goal of translating movies. Now, this might be quite a challenging thing to do as to achieve such a goal, mere translation is not enough. The movie’s content has to be adapted to the cultural and linguistic specifics of a certain country or region. That’s what localization is, yet, we’ll get back to it later. The most important thing to know here is that in order to achieve this linguistic goal, simply translating the movie is not enough.

The way the translation of the film is presented varies in different countries, hence, making the work either easier or more challenging for a separate specialist, the movie translator. Yet, the most common forms of film translation remain subtitling and dubbing. The distributor might choose between these two methods depending on quite a lot of factors. They may include the political, economic, or social environment of the target country as well as the budget the distributor company is ready to invest in releasing the movie in a certain country as well as that country’s size in terms of population. The methods are largely different and directly influence the perception of the translated film, so let’s take a closer look at each of them!

Read also: Important things to know about legal document translation.

Magic of Subtitling

This method of film translation involves translating and localizing the movie script and projecting the text on the screen within the timestamps of the corresponding speech or sound. This method is much more cost-effective than voice-over and is often used for countries with smaller populations, art films, and TV movies and series for the most part. The translation industry has even got far enough to provide a translation and transcription service for those who create subtitles specifically. Just like everything in this world, subtitles have their benefits and downsides, of course.

Benefits of Subtitling

  • Cost-effectiveness. Translating the movie using text exclusively, even if this text will be adapted to appeal to the specific local audiences, is much cheaper than dubbing as the distribution companies do not have to pay the actors and dubbing directors for their work. To translate movie subtitles is affordable enough indeed as the movie script does not usually contain very much text while the translation rates per word are not high on average.
  • Authentic experience. With the movie having no sound overdubs, the viewers will be able to experience the movie as it was intended originally. So, all the pop culture references, language-specific jokes, and other elements that are usually altered by localization will not be changed at all. Today, a lot of viewers do prefer subtitles, particularly for the original experience. Interestingly enough, some countries respond to such trends positively by screening the movie both dubbed and subtitled with an original soundtrack.
  • The original message, intent, and tone are preserved. Again, the localization process can sometimes largely alter certain elements of the movie that might also influence the perception and understand of the plot. In this regard, subtitles help to preserve not only the aesthetic but also the linguistic goal of the movie translations.

Downsides of Subtitling

  • Slowing down the viewer. Subtitles appear on the screen just as the movie goes, so, they oftentimes make the viewers spend additional time and effort on reading. Not only the audience might miss something that is happening on the screen but also read the movie instead of watching it until the end.
  • Visual collision. Sometimes, subtitles may overlap with the frame in the video through color, shade, or even shape. This is quite a common problem in movie subtitling, which frustrates not only the viewers but also the subtitles’ authors and movie producers.
  • Limited space. The subtitles made for the film have to be not only translated well but also formatted correctly. The standards for subtitles are very strict and it’s quite challenging to follow them. Just think about this, subtitles can remain on screen for only 6 seconds, there are only 2 lines of subtitles allowed, and each line contains only 64 characters including spaces. In addition, different standards for the size of the video exist, either widening the space for subtitles or narrowing it. So, the subtitle translators have to translate movies they work on perfectly, to both fits in the text conveniently for the viewers and to deliver the intended message.

So, while subtitles are cost-effective, they do have their own specific issues. These issues often cause movie release delays or difficulties in watching the movie in the first place. With the mass distribution of movies, it is always reasonable to stay safe and, hence, eliminate such risks. Whenever a company spends a lot of money for a new film, it plans certain returns upon the movie’s release. That is why most major movies are still voiced over and released in a dubbed version for a specific country.

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Process of Dubbing

While not being very cost-effective, this method of film translation remains the most used one especially when it comes to the blockbusters set to hit the screens worldwide. Essentially, a voice overdub or a voice-over translation deals with the audio part of the film, rather than visual, like with subtitles. Considered to be a safer and less risky method of translation, dubbing is often used not only for the popular movies, but also for those that are to be released in major countries, such as the United States, Spain, Germany, and France, where populations are high in numbers. For certain countries, the voice dubs can also be localized in order to accommodate the film to the local dialect. For instance, the movie language translation for Spanish can be dubbed in three different variants, for Spain, Mexico, and Chile. Yet, just like with subtitling, dubbing a movie can also have its benefits and challenges. First, go to the benefits.

Upsides of Dubbing

  • Increased appeal of the local audiences. With the movie being voiced over, viewers can perceive it at much greater ease. The audience naturally feels more comfortable when the actors they are watching apparently speak the language the viewers understand and the film feels more natural and relatable overall. This means that they will get more satisfaction from such a film. Of course, such translations for movies are considered to be the safest option there is and many major distributors, in particular, prefer it.
  • Expansion by visual elements. Aside from being the least risky model for film translation, dubbing also largely adapts to the visual context of the movie, owing much to the specifics of video format. Certain contextual elements, such as physical jokes and pop culture references sometimes cannot be merely translated or even presented in the first place. That’s where dubbing helps the best. For instance, the joke in the movie might be related to the tone of the actor’s voice directly. While subtitles can only translate the text of this phrase, the voice overdub will cover the joke itself by the voice-over actor delivering a similar emotion in the translated version.
  • Vast space for localization. Similarly to the first benefit of dubbing, localization also largely increases the relatability of the movie. Pop culture references, slang specifics, proper noun jokes, or made-up words can be easily dealt with using the dubbing, yet, might be challenging when the movie is translated using only subtitles. The best translation for movies is the one involving a localization.

Downsides of Dubbing

  • Synching issues. As the movie gets dubbed, the voice of the actor in the original and voice-over actor has to match on the video. Otherwise, the viewers may be confused visually as the actors might not move their mouths but still speak. Synching is a rather delicate process and is involved not only in the voice dub post-production but also during the script translation stage and throughout the whole process at times.
  • Choosing and casting of voice actors. Aside from not being cheap, voice actors can sometimes be challenging to find. In certain countries, the famous local actors who do dubs become associated with their corresponding original actors. Then, it becomes challenging when the movie stars two actors both of who are dubbed by the same voice-over actor. This way, the distributors get stuck with a dilemma, either to confuse the audience with two characters in the film speaking in the same voice or to confuse the audiences by hiring another voice-over actor for the original actor, who will not sound the way the viewers became used to. To translate a movie under such conditions becomes truly challenging.

Nothing is perfect and voice dubbing is no exception. While it certainly does have certain advantages over subtitles, there are some downsides and issues too. This is also evident in the process of movie translation, with dubbing including more steps and being more complex regarding the needed effort.

Process of Movie Translation

Both methods of film translation are similarly complex and thorough. Yet, considering that working on the translation of subtitles is included in voice dubbing, the latter is considered to be more demanding. So, how is it done then?

How Adding Subtitles Works

1. The team of translators gathers and studies all the requirements for movie translation.

2. A time-stamped transcription of the source video in the original language is created.

3. The transcript is translated.

4. The timestamps are adjusted to fit the translated text.

5. The final translated script is tested and all the corrections are made.

6. The translated subtitles are embedded in the movie by a video engineer.

Steps of Dubbing

1. The original movie’s transcript is translated and localized.

2. The speaking time of the translated dialogue is adjusted to match the original.

3. The script is further adjusted to match the rhythm of the original actors’ speech.

4. The voice-over actors are being cast.

5. The dub is recorded in collaboration between voice-over directors and actors.

6. The final translation is tested.

7. The final dub is mixed into the general soundtrack of the video.

So, while both processes are not easy for the movie translators, dubbing seems to be somewhat bigger in volume and more demanding. While making subtitles is essentially similar to the classic text translation, dubbing is more thorough and involves more workforce, demanding greater effort. The main thing here, however, is to make sure that the final product will satisfy the viewers.

Film Translation: A Fair Part of Work

A translation of films has developed so fast and so deeply it seems like every movie has always been dubbed. Yet, what the movie industry experiences right now is only a beginning. The internet and its capabilities are constantly growing and online movie translation services might soon become a regular thing. Some of the best translation services already do professional movie translations, so, that’s more than possible.

Translating a movie might be as hard as making one. Yet, the process is usually enjoyable even though you have to rewatch a certain scene from the movie over and over again. Watching movies is fun on its own, so, working closely with them should not be a boring feat too.