Translating Subtitles and Screenwriting

August 21, 2013 in Best Of, On Writing by pacejmiller


I broke my promise to post at least once a day the last few days because I took on an emergency freelance case translating subtitles for a Taiwanese film trying to make a film festival deadline. It was a brutal grind, a 110-minute film with around 14,000 Chinese characters to translate within basically a 24-hour deadline.

On some level, I quite enjoyed the experience. When you love movies as much as I do, translating film subtitles is actually quite the dream job, as long as the deadlines aren’t so tight. The pay isn’t great (as with most jobs in Taiwan), but if I could do a couple a month it would be fine and an acceptable supplement to the income. That said, I do realize that if this really happened I would probably get sick of it in a hurry.

The act of translating subtitles is an art in itself, and the choices that translators make are capable of dramatically impacting how the film is received by the audience.  It’s more than simply grabbing the script and doing a direct translation, as I thought it entailed in the beginning. It’s all about interpretation.

This, for example, is pretty good, in my humble opinion.

Context is crucial, so it’s important to actually watch the footage to see how the characters deliver the lines and how they interact with each other. Apart from being factually accurate, the getting the tone of the conversations right is also important, which is why word choice must be carefully considered.

On top of that, there is the length of the sentences. Some projects have a limited character length per line, but even if there isn’t, it’s always a good idea to keep the lines short and snappy, without losing their effectiveness. There is nothing worse than a line that is too long for audiences to read in time. We’re not all speed readers.

Further, there is the problem of local cultural references and word play, which elevate the difficulty to another level. Do you offer a brief explanation in parenthesis, as I have seen done before, or do you come up with a completely different line that is as close to the meaning as possible for the target audience of the language you are translating it to?

However you approach it, translating subtitles is a thought-provoking process that tests not only language but also problem-solving skills and creativity. In that sense, I’ve come to realize that translating subtitles bears parallels to the act of screenwriting itself. It’s essentially like editing a screenplay that has been written in another language. In fact, I am almost treating my translation projects as screenwriting exercises, which will put me in a good position if and when I start penning my own screenplays (soon, I hope).

The bigger question is, what will this screenplay (or these screenplays) be about? I have no idea, and that is the real problem. I envy writers who have the audacity to think big and have the ability to come up with original and complex plots with confidence. A lot of the Hollywood tripe that gets churned out these days instills optimism, but at least those writers are getting stuff done, unlike me.

The key, of course, is practice, and plenty of it. Don’t be afraid of what people will think and write under the assumption that no one else will see it. Write lots of bad screenplays and good ones will eventually start to emerge. On that note, I will conclude with this awesome video from Paul Haggis, who wrote/adapted Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Casino Royale, and Quantum of Solace. His latest film (writer and director) is Third Person, a romantic drama starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger and Casey Affleck. It has a release date of September 2013.