Preliminary Study on Tactics of Translating Film’s Subtitles

Preliminary Study on Tactics of Translating Film’s Subtitles


This essay firstly gives a brief introduction of the status quo of subtitling practice. By elaborating the characteristics and functions of subtitling translation, analyzing the time and space constraints by using concrete examples exerted from Forrest Gump, Waterloo Bridges, Friends, Rain Man, Shrek, You’ve Got Mail, Liar Liar, Mind of Beauty, Schindler’s List, Pride and Prejudice, American Beauty, Out of Africa, After the Sunset for illustration, the author puts forward six workable strategies for subtitling translation, namely, the avoidance of mistakes on common sense, the application of condensation, due attention of cultural factors, the adoption of colloquial words with the natural and fluent tone, the achievement of harmony between speed and visual pictures, good consideration of context. Finally, the importance of improving translation skills and the work ethic of subtitle translators is high lightened with the hope for perfecting the subtitle translator’s practice in an efficient way.

Keywords: subtitling; characteristics; constraints; strategies; subtitle translators Preliminary Study on Tactics of Translating Film’s Subtitles Outline

Thesis Statement: Translation of the film’s subtitles, which plays a very important role in cross-cultural communication, is noteworthy of due attention in order to convey the accurate meaning of the original films to its audience.

Introduction: The Status Quo, Characteristics, and Functions of Subtitling Translation.

Two Limiting Factors of Subtitling Translation

  • A. Time Constraint in Subtitling Translation
  • B. Space Constraint in Subtitling Translation

Tactics Drew From the Analysis of Some Movies

  • A. The Avoidance of Mistakes on Common Sense
  • B. The Application of Condensation
  • C. Due Attention of Cultural Factors
  • D. The Adoption of Colloquial Words with Natural and Fluent Speed
  • E. The Achievement of Harmony between Speed and Visual Pictures
  • F. Good Consideration of Context


Preliminary Study on Tactics of Translating Film’s Subtitles.


  • A. The Status Quo of Subtitling Translation With the widening opening-up and deepening reformation as well as the increasing contact with other countries, English original films become more and more popular in our entertainment industry. When Americans are crazy with The Lord of the Rings, laughing with Shrek, arguing about Fahrenheit 9/11, and holding their breath at appreciating Spider-man, Chinese people also want to have a comprehensive understanding of them. However, not all Chinese people could understand English, so they have to turn to subtitles to gain a sense of satisfaction. Therefore, subtitling translation, which plays a very important role in cross-cultural communication, is noteworthy of due attention in order to convey the accurate meaning of the original films to its audience.
  • B. Characteristics of Subtitling Translation Subtitles are the words that printed at the bottom part of the screen in the form of the target language, following the sound of the source language.

Hedegaard-Larsen, Birgit once put subtitling translation as a type of special language conversion: the condensed written translation of the original oral speech.

Shuttleworth and Cowie also put it in this way—subtitling translation was a process that provides simultaneous instruction to the verbal activities that happened in films and television programs. Gottlieb once concluded the features of subtitling translation into five aspects:

  1. written
  2. addible
  3. instantaneous
  4. simultaneous
  5. multimedia.

And personally speaking, there are at least three apparent features:

  1. Proper condensation of original context: When a film is going, its viewers need to have heed of the subtitles while listening to the original sound and appreciating the animated pictures. So subtitling translation not only needs accuracy but also has to attach equal importance to the density of words in each line and the actor’s speaking speed, of which the complexity can be adjusted in accordance with the viewer acceptance. Therefore, proper condensation becomes the key point of subtitling translation. Let’s take a short conversation in Friends as an example, Rachel said: “Chandler, I gotta tell you, I love your mom’s books! I love her books! I cannot get on a plane without one”.
  2. Conversion from written speech to colloquial form: Usually, the subtitles only stay on the screen for only a very little while. To make sure that the viewer can grasp the main idea easily, the style of the translated version should avoid unreadability. So the control of realization and readability outshine other factors. The translation of subtitles should to the most extent choose oral and easy-understanding words and phrases, avoiding redundant words, repetitive expressions much foreignized set phrases and idioms as well as foreign allusions that Chinese people cannot understand. The sentence should not be tedious and lengthy, but be simple and easy-understanding, also the translation should avoid parenthesis, gerunds, and clauses.
  3. Being compatible with multimedia: For ordinary written works, information can be conveyed only through the form of characters, while for subtitles, it can convey the message altogether with visual information (movie pictures) and sound information (original sound, music, and other stage sounds). Therefore, when the subtitles fail to convey the exact meaning, its viewers can get information from the extra-linguistic message. Let’s take “Shrek” for example, Shrek’s anger can be shown by a contorted face; Princess Fiona’s tenderness and kindness can be shown through her gentle smile; the subtle effect can be sensed through its beautiful or soft or exciting music. All of these important extra-linguistic messages can be expressed by mere written characters, and these messages can aid subtitles to bring its functions into full play.
  • C. Functions of Subtitling Translation.

When mentioning the functions of subtitling translation, usually I would like to conclude them into the following points:

  1. Subtitling translation can facilitate its viewers to maximize their understanding of the original films. Because many Chinese viewers cannot understand English, they need some facilitating tools to help them to comprehend and appreciate them. After trying many methods, researchers find that subtitle is a very effective way to achieve this. It can convey the maximum message to the audience.
  2. Subtitling translation serves as an aid to visual pictures and sound effects. A subtitle is a type of special conversion between translation and consecutive interpretation. Because in simultaneous interpretation and translation, readers and listeners receive the message in a constant way, while in consecutive interpretation, a time difference exists in the process, which is like the subtitle translation’s function in movies. And for the subtitle, it must work with pictures and sounds when conveying its information, and in this process, viewers need to scan one line and then another to grasp the main idea, also a time difference happens, but this difference is much shorter than that in consecutive interpretation.
  3. Subtitling translation can help its movie viewers to appreciate the original impact brought by the genuine effect. Viewers need just have a glimpse of the subtitles appearing at the bottom part of the screen while listening to the original sound.
  4. Good subtitling translation can be a good way for people to learn English. When people listen to English, they can see the Chinese.  In the process, they may not only improve their English listening proficiency but also enhance their English translation skills.

Limiting Factors of Subtitling Translation

  • A. Time Constraint in Subtitling Translation Time constraint means that the picture movement and sound effect should be mutually accordant. Although film subtitle is not so strict as film dubbing, it should also convey the exact meaning by using a similar amount of time as it is used in the source language. Furthermore, subtitles should stay on the screen long enough for viewers to scan. Usually, the time is not less than two seconds and not more than seven seconds (except for song lyrics). If translators ignore the time constraint in subtitling translation, some troubles might be caused by viewers to gain a total understanding. So specifically, sometimes translators need to use condensation and colloquial words to achieve the time harmony with other factors, such as the background music, characters’ facial expressions, and so forth.
  • B. Space Constraint in Subtitling Translation Space constraint means that the words and punctuations of subtitles appeared on the screen at one time should not be too many. According to Gottlieb’s study, the words that appeared in each line of the subtitle are not more than thirty-five, and at most, two lines can be on at the same time. Therefore, if the subtitles in original movies are very long, the translators should adopt the condensation of words in order to present the viewers with the proper and complete meaning within a limited space on the screen. For these parts, the detailed expatriation will be unfolded in the following strategies.

Workable Strategies Dealing With the Above Constraints

  • A. The Avoidance of Mistakes on Common Sense

Example 1: — Is there a Mr. Gump, Mrs. Gump? — He is on vocation. (Chosen from Forrest Gump). The second sentence is Forrest Gump’s mother’s euphemistic response to the school’s principal’s question. In this sentence, “on a vocation” does not mean Forrest Gump’s father was really having a vocation or holiday, but means Forrest Gump’s father was dead. So when translating this phrase, translators should do a careful consideration, avoiding mistranslation in order to convey the exact meaning to its appreciators. Therefore, I personally think this sentence can be translated into.

Example 2: Myra: Nice of you to come and see me. Roy: Not at all. (Chosen from Waterloo Bridge) This concise dialogue shows that the two major characters are very excited at meeting each other, while the subtitles in aversion, which obviously are very confusing. However, in another version, the translation. I think the latter translation is much better.

Example 3: Myra: … What time is it? Kitty: It’s… er… almost eleven. Chosen from Waterloo Bridge) Kitty’s answer is very simple, but the subtitle is “ ????? ”, and I think this trivial mistranslation is caused by the translator’s carelessness, which seems to be a little bit irresponsible.

Example 4: Joey: I gotta tell you. You’re the best in the business. Girl: Get out. (Chosen from Friends) The translation of “ Get out” in the subtitle is “?? ”, which is really absurd. Suppose we put it in this way, that means when the girl heard Joey’s praise to her, she did not say “thanks” to show her politeness, contrarily she asked Joey to leave, which is not proper in that context. Also, this scene happened on the platform, where there was no door, how a person could get out. So I think “ Get out” should be translated into “??? ” rather than “ ?? ”.

Example 5: I’m ready to pop. (Chosen from Liar Liar) The subtitle of this actor’s lines in a version is “ ????? ”, which is really weird and makes the audience puzzled. In fact, this sentence is the person’s response to the waiter, and it is a kind of euphemistic refusal. So it should be translated into “ ???? ” or “ ???????? ”. So to conclude, Chinese is a parataxis language while English is a hypo-taxis language, so the rooting solution of mistranslation is that the subtitle translators should have a good command of English and Chinese.

  • B. The Application of Condensation

Because of the space constraint, sometimes subtitles should be condensed and translators may eliminate some parts which can be easily sensed through the movie’s context. But this elimination should be proper and correct.

Example 1: Momma always says there’s an awful lot you could tell about a person by their shoes. Personally speaking, this Chinese translation seems a little bit longer, and we might have a try to condense it into. Also, the modified translation could achieve the beautiful effect which is similar to a movie’s name Scent of Women.

Example 2: I turn on my computer, I wait impatiently as it connects, I go online and my breath catches in my chest until I hear the three little words: “You’ve got mail! ” I hear nothing, not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beat of my own heart. I have mail! From you! ” In this translation, two places applied condensation.

  1. “You’ve got mail”. If we translate this sentence according to its literal meaning of each word, then the translation could be “ ???? ”, but apparently, compared with the first translation “ ??? , the second one is inferior, because, in the original speech, there is a clue “ three little words”. So eliminating “ ? ” and translating it into “ ??? ” is quite splendid.
  2. “I have mail! From you! ” Translating it into is much better than translating it into, following the original order of each word. Furthermore, the original translation can give a vivid description of the major female character’s eager and excited.

Example 3: Shrek: It’s on my to-do list now, come on! Fiona: But this isn’t right. You’re meant to charge in, sword drop, banner flying, that’s what all other knights did. (Chosen from Shrek)

English is a kind of hypotaxis language while Chinese is a parataxis one. So when translating English into Chinese, translators should omit such unnecessary parts as some conjunctions.

  • C. Due Attention of Cultural Factors

In the source language, unavoidably there are many culture-loaded words containing special cultural meaning which cannot be easily sensed by its readers. These culture-loaded words, coming from religious books, historical stories or literary works, and so forth, which are not familiar to its target language readers, sometimes may cause cultural clash and cultural vacuum. Considering the space constraint, adding notes is not feasible. So at this time, subtitle translators should adopt “ liberal translation” on the basis of comprehending the cultural factors.

Example 1: Don’t you take the Lord’s name in vain with me, you understand? (Chosen from Ghost) This sentence is the conjuration of Oda Mae’s dissatisfactory response to Sam’s words. And “ in vain” in this sentence was translated into “ ?? ”. But this idiom, if we put it into Chinese, means “ ?? ”, “ ?? ” in this context. This meaning can be dated back to the Bible, in which there is a sentence that goes “ Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Therefore, the translation there should be modified.

Example 2: Shall we say swords, gentlemen? Pistols at dawn? (Chosen from Mind of Beauty) This sentence was said by a person who was drinking with his friends and Nash when a beautiful blond came in, then they began to talk about who had the advantage to talk with this girl first. Actually, this line contains the cultural content that in the middle century in western countries, the upper-class nobles usually gain their lovers by fighting, in which the tools are swords or pistols. We can see obviously this sentence is wisecrack. To make Chinese viewers understand and avoid additional explanation, subtitle translators had better omit the meanings of “ swords” and “ pistols” and translate it into. There is quite appropriate, for it can not only express these gentlemen’s meaning but also keep the original meaning of gaining lovers through swords and pistols. In addition, this translation showcases the theory of functional equivalence proposed by Neda.

Example 3: Shrek: What should we do with him? Donkey: Take the sword and neuter him right here. Give him the Bob Barker treatment (Chosen from Shrek). In a famous American entertainment program The Price is Right, the host Bob Barker always says “ Help control the population, have your pets spayed or neutered at the end of the program. “Spray” is used to describe the female one, and “ neuter” the male one. We can see the translation of this dialogue has expressed its cultural content fully.

  • D. Adoption of Colloquial

Words Subtitling translation of films is quite different from literature translation. Because when appreciating literature works, readers can adjust their reading speed according to their liking, capability of understanding as well as the works’ degree of complexity. When readers meet uncommon-used words or particular interesting chapters, they could slow down or read them repetitively; when they meet easy or tedious parts, they also could choose to speed up or just omit them. However, when people see movies, they are in the position of being passive, for they are the information receivers. In the process of appreciating a movie, time for digesting subtitles is short, and each scene is closely related, so the translation of subtitles is not allowed to have vague points. To achieve this, subtitle translators should adopt colloquial expressions.

Example 1: My house is in the hills above Trujillo. A very simple place… pink stones that warm in the sun… that smells of herbs in the day… jasmine in the evening. Through the gate is giant popular. Figs, apples, pears. The soil, Marcus, black…black like my wife’s hair. Grapes on the south slopes, olives on the north. Wild ponies play near my house, they tease my son. He wants to be one of them. Although this sentence is right, the translating accent is very English, and it is not quite acceptable by Chinese people. So the translator changed it into, which sounds natural, colloquial, and easy-understanding.

  • E. The Achievement of Harmony between Sounds and Visual Pictures

The film is a kind of comprehensive art combine with listening and watching. Visual pictures and sounds are mutually complemented to each other. So to achieve the harmony between them is quite essential.

Example 1: Lester: So, Janie. How was school? Janie: It’s ok! Lester: Just okay? (dissatisfied) Janie: No, Dad. It was spectacular! (impatient) (Chosen from American Beauty). There “ spectacular” is a relatively long word, and the Chinese translation” is a little bit short. When the subtitle has completed displayed to the viewers, the actor could probably not stop moving her lips. So to achieve the agreement, the translation had better be also could express Janie’s impatient feelings.

Example 2: Ah, there it is. (Chosen from Mind of Beauty) When Nash was playing checks with his rival, several students were watching, and in the end, one of them said that sentence. If we translate it literally, the translation should be which is very vague. And in the movie, we can see, following this sentence, Nash smiled. So this sentence contains the hidden meaning that Nash would win the competition.

  • F. Good Consideration of Context

Each exciting moment in the film is established through dialogues, and their meanings should be coherent, so the context of the film stands in an important position. Subtitle translators should know the actors’ purpose very well through the context. Only thus could the translated subtitles be understood by the viewers.

Example 1: Go to the mattress. (Chosen from You’ve Got Mail). This sentence is originated from the actor’s line in the movie The Godfather, and it means that it is the time for fighting, because this scene happened in the context that the sinister gang would sleep together temporarily on several beds before fighting in the next day. Therefore, the translation of this should be. But if the subtitle translators don not know its origination, they are likely to put it into the way of which is really ridiculous and probably causes misunderstanding to its viewers about the two major characters’ relationships.

Example 2: Karen: And you? How is it with the fighting? Denys: Were taking a beating. It’s likely to last for a while. (Chosen from Out of Africa). In this version, the translation for “ taking a beating” is not proper, though, from the literal meaning, it is accordant with the later part “ It’s likely to last for a while”. However, if we do a careful analysis, we will find Denys’ answer is not acceptable to Karen’s question. Because Karen asked Denys how the fighting was going on, and she needs a description, while Denys just answered Karen there was a beating. In our daily life, we do not answer others’ questions in this way. In fact, “ taking a beating” is an English idiom, and it means “ difficult to surpass”, so why don’t we translate it in this way. I think it will be much better.

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