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Subtitling Translation 101: All the Basics You Need to Know.

What is The subtitling Translation?

Subtitling places text on the screen to show spoken dialogue in a readable format, normally for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers or foreign-speaking audiences. The subtitling translation is a dual service that can include subtitling of an audio-visual work and translation of those subtitles into another target language. It is a process that entails technically transferring a source-language movie or audiovisual media to a target-language movie or audiovisual media, synchronized with the original verbal message.

Subtitling, however, is a demanding cognitive process that is loaded with difficulties and quantitative constraints, and textual qualitative challenges. It is a challenging task faced by many restrictions that compel subtitlers to use specific strategies to enhance the quality of subtitles. In this article, we will cover the main challenges faced by subtitlers and identify the subtitling strategies that can be adopted to overcome these subtitling challenges.

What are the challenges of subtitling?

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Translating a movie is not easy work, and there are many challenges that surround its subtitling translation process. These can be classified into three main types (Technical, Cultural, and Linguistic) challenges:

1- Technical Challenges

· The space:
Translators are restricted with a limited number of characters through the subtitling process which are about 35 characters per line with a maximum of two lines for one image. This number of characters may slightly differ from one language to another.

· Time:
Another technical limit is that the allowed time for subtitles is no longer than six seconds on the screen, therefore, the content has to be cut down to fit the limits of characters as well as the time of the subtitle shown on the screen. This may have an effect on how the viewers will be able to catch the subtitle and understand the content. Therefore, the correct word choice to present the content with a possible limited number of words may help in this issue.

· Position on screen:

Pictures on the screen is made of 720 pixels wide by 576 pixels high and the subtitle must be positioned between 10% from each frame edge to be in the central and at the bottom of the screen.


2- Cultural Challenges

· Cultural bound elements present an extra challenge for the subtitler. cultural difficulties include terms related to customs, activities, procedures, and concepts. Therefore, it’s essential to understand that every culture has a unique set of values, customs, and expressions. Subtitlers need to consider these differences to create an enjoyable experience for viewers from various backgrounds.

· Humor presents the most popular form of cultural challenge for subtitlers because sometimes laughter is more important than the meaning in certain TV series. Translating humor teasing allusion is not that much easy, as sometimes, the translator doesn’t realize that the text he/she translates contains implicit humor teasing allusion or the translator doesn’t find the appropriate equivalent meaning in the target language because the meaning of the humor is related only to the source language culture.

· Taboo and swearing words are generally culturally related words that may be kept in some subtitles and deleted from others for many reasons, for example, it is forbidden in the target culture.


3- Linguistic Challenges

· Language difficulties refer to idioms, diction, humor, and pragmatics meaning. It is very challenging to translate an idiom because of the limited equivalent meaning between the source language and the target language.


What Are The Subtitling Translation Strategies?

Subtitling strategies mean techniques adopted by the subtitler that help him/her deal with the subtitling challenges. Subtitling Strategies are divided into ten types:

1. Expansion

Expansion means giving additional meaning to the target language. For example:

SL (English): “He’s the black sheep of the family.”

TL (Spanish): “Él es el miembro de la familia que es diferente a los demás.”2.

2. Paraphrasing

The paraphrasing strategy is used when the original phrase cannot be reconstructed in the same syntactic way in the target language. It means that the target language is different syntactically from the source language. For example:

SL (English): “His skills are out of this world.”

TL (Spanish): “Sus habilidades son increíbles”

3. Transfer

The transfer strategy is done by translating the source text literally. Transfer refers to the strategy of translating the source text completely and accurately. There is no added explanation or modification because the subtitler translates the dialogue by literal wording. For example:

SL (English): “I’ll be there in a minute.”

TL (Spanish): “Estaré allí en un minuto.”

4. Imitation

The imitation strategy is done by rewriting the source text into the target text while maintaining the same form. This strategy is usually applied to people’s names, places, a title of a book, country, brand products, etc. For example:

SL (English): “The Eiffel Tower”

TL (Spanish): “La Torre Eiffel”

5. Transcription

Transcription is used in those cases where a term is unusual even in the source text, for example, the use of a third language or nonsense language. For example:

SL (English): “She exclaimed, ‘Zibberish doodle-oo!’”

TL (Spanish): “She exclaimed, ‘Zibberish doodle-oo!’”

In this example, the nonsense phrase is transcribed as is, maintaining the original quirky and playful nature of the dialogue.

6. Dislocation

Dislocation is adopted when the dialog of the source language employs some sort of special effects, such as a cartoon film that contains a silly song in it, where the translation of the effect is more important than the content. For example:

SL (English): (whispering in a mysterious tone): “The secret lies within the old oak tree.”

TL (Spanish): “El secreto yace dentro del viejo roble.”

7. Condensation

Condensation is used when there is a problem of limitation in subtitle lines, the strategy is used to solve the problem. The result of it creates efficiency by eliminating redundancies without affecting the intended message. For example:

SL (English): “The seminar covered a wide range of topics, from technology to leadership skills.”

TL (Spanish): “El seminario abarcó temas diversos: tecnología y liderazgo.”

8. Deletion

The deletion strategy means deleting some of the source texts because the translator believes that those parts are not important. Deletion refers to the total elimination of the parts of a text, e.g., repetition, question tags, and filler words. For example:

SL (English): “I was just wondering if, you know, you’d like to join us for dinner.”

TL (Spanish) “Me preguntaba si te gustaría unirte a nosotros para cenar.”


9. Taming

Taming strategy is used to translate rude or taboo words to be acceptable in the target language. For example:

SL (English): “This is a damn disaster!”

TL (Spanish): “¡Esto es un desastre!”

10. Resignation

Resignation is done when there is no solution to transfer the message from SL into TL. Automatically, the meaning of the source text is not transferred into the target language, or in other words, it is untranslatable. For example:

SL (English): (idiomatic expression): “It’s a piece of cake!”

TL (Spanish): “Es muy fácil.”


Conclusion Subtitling services play a vital role in overcoming cultural barriers and making content accessible to diverse audiences. By using various subtitling strategies, subtitlers can successfully navigate the complexities of different languages and cultures while ensuring an engaging and enjoyable viewing audio-visual experience.

For more information about subtitling translation, please reach out LatinoBridge, a one-stop shop for your translation needs, that provides industry-leading linguistic solutions for Latin American languages; Latin American Spanish, German, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Argentine Spanish, and Aymara.

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