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The Art of Subtitling

April 28, 2011

Yes, it’s that time again. Time for me to come off as some kind of pretentious tool who thinks she knows better than the people who produce or subtitle works of visual media. Well, all I can really say is that it’s not my intention to try and force anyone who enjoys subtitling to change the way they do things. But I will say that there is a reason media gets translated; so that people in other languages and cultures can understand it. But quite frankly, I feel like many times these subtitlers aren’t quite doing their jobs.

Now, you may jump down my throat and say that I’m picking apart fansubbers, specifically. Well, I’m not gonna lie, I started noticing awful subtitling trends in the anime fansubbing circles. I don’t want to gripe about this too terribly much, because honestly, it’s not only the fansubbers with this issue. Even the official industry has some translation issues. There’s a very specific series of videos from a guy who calls himself the Otaking (which I’m more than certain is a reference to Otaku no Video) who is a resident of the UK and is a professional translator. He covers many issues I’ve personally taken notice of within modern-day fansubbing circles. I find the videos very interesting, personally, and it may be of some interest to those of you who follow my blogs (note: it has several parts, and I’m only going to embed the first part) –

Anyway, a few points mentioned in this video series are things I agree very much with. For example, often times, it seems as though Japanese is one of those languages that’s treated like it’s a special code for a certain kind of in-crowd. Words are just so often left in Japanese, mostly in fansubs. Like, you’re expected to know what a “baka” or a “nakama” or a “tetsumaki senpukyaku” is. If you’re a huge fan and have been around the Japanese tv/movie/anime fandom long enough, sure, you’re gonna pick up on words. If you’re a big enough Street Fighter fan, okay, you might figure out that “tetsumaki senpukyaku” is what Ryu yells when he spins his leg around a whole bunch and you just think of it in Japanese, but you don’t think of it in an English equivalent. In that sense, I suppose you’ve started picking up on the Japanese language. But how long does that take for a complete newbie to understand? How about all of the honorifics in the language? How long does it take for a complete noob to understand that there’s a difference between “san” and “chan” and “kun” and “senpai”, or that you’ll commonly call people you respect “older brother” or “older sister” even if you aren’t related to them? These aren’t things that translate perfectly in our language and culture. Sure, you can translate something as “Older Brother Tanaka”, but why would we in English speaking countries ever call Tanaka our older brother? For this, for someone who doesn’t know any better about the Japanese language, it’s really important to give the viewer some kind of English language equivalent. Especially if said person doesn’t plan on diving further into Japanese media and culture. Why would he or she have any use for the knowledge of why the Japanese use the word “senpai”? Or, for those who are incredibly anal, fine, use translators notes (though I’m a fan of not having a huge paragraph of text pop up on the screen when I’m trying to watch a movie, but giving me line notes that I can read elsewhere might be nice).

But, really, what I REALLY wanted to point out was something else outside of Japanese media. I’ve actually always had a very slight interest in Bollywood films, but I’ve hardly given myself time to sit down with it and get acquainted. Well, this past week, I’ve watched a number of Bollywood films. Most recently, just today, I watched a movie titled Tees Maar Khan, a musical comedy about an incredibly famous thief who plans on pulling off a train robbery by pretending to film a movie in a small town next to some train tracks and tricking them all into robbing the train for him under the assumption that it’s all part of the movie. The movie is mostly pretty good, so stream it instantly from Netflix if you get the chance.

Now, look, I’m gonna admit – I know absolutely NOTHING about Hindi. Their language entirely escapes me. The only time I’ve spent with the language has been with a small handful of Bollywood movies. For this reason, a good set of subtitles is required in order to keep me with the film. For example, the phrase, “The Khan of Khans, Tees Maar Khan!” comes up frequently throughout the movie. Well… what does that mean? Khan? Like Shere Khan? Seriously, that’s the only “Khan” I’m familiar with.

Well, upon doing research, it’s a title that was passed across Asia from Mongols and such, and has held a meaning of something like “leader” or “ruler” or something of that equivalent. Oh. Okay. So, Tees Maar Khan is, like, the King of Kings? I guess that kind of makes sense. At least, in his circle. He’s pretty much the most famous and successful thief ever, and he even heads up his own little gang. Huh. Well, it would have been nice for me to not have to waste my time figuring that out.

Hindi also seems to be very similar to Japanese in that there are multiple honorifics, as well as frequently calling someone “brother”, “sister”, or “uncle”, etc., even if you aren’t related to them at all and in fact don’t even know said individual. It took me a number of listens to finally figure out this equivalent. But I figure, if I didn’t know that some languages did that already since I’ve studied Japanese, I may not have understood this about Hindi at all. So like, there were tons of times when women were being called sister, and I was like, “Wait, is she really his sister? Oh, no, wait, I get it, that’s just a thing.” But, see, there’s just no equivalent to that in English. I mean, I get that the literal translation of whatever the word for “sister” may indeed just equate to “sister”, but what does that mean to a native English speaker who doesn’t speak a lick of Hindi? It means that they consider that person to be their relative. That didn’t get across to me for quite some time. Are we, the viewer, just expected to already know this piece of information before diving in? Because I didn’t. And as much as I am entertained by Bollywood movies, this isn’t going to get me to want to necessarily just start picking up Hindi in my spare time. I don’t have any desire to start teaching myself how to read and write Sanskrit.

And finally, there were several times during this movie where some words just weren’t even translated at all. I can’t even tell you what they were. Again, I don’t speak Hindi. So, our main characters have gone out to some desert village to pretend to shoot a fake movie, and suddenly some Hindi words come up in the subtitles. Then suddenly, I have no idea what’s happening in the movie anymore for about five minutes, and I’m completely lost. Were these common words that come up all the time? Were these words I should have already known? You know, like “baka” (Translator’s Note: Baka means “stupid”.)? I mean, sure, I figured out what was happening in the plot a little while later, but the audience should never be lost, especially when the director intended you to already understand what’s going on by this point. And, note here, I didn’t watch a fansub of this movie. This is the legitimate professional subtitle job from the DVD, streaming via Netflix. So, you know, these pros out there are just sort of partially doing their job.

Honestly, I firmly believe that a subtitler has a very important job. Not only does he or she have to get across an accurate translation, but they need to be able to write their subs in such a way that someone within a completely different culture is going to be able to understand the impact of what is happening on screen. If the literal translation gives us something that we have no way of relating to in a Western culture, then write it so that we have some sort of emotional equivalent. Don’t expect me to understand all these subtle nuances to the Hindi language and Indian culture because, news flash, I’m not Indian. And I’m most certainly not going to start learning Hindi just so I can authentically understand a few Bollywood movies.

Wait, learning another language just so that you can start reading their comics, watching their movies, and playing their video games? That sounds familiar…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. blackmamba permalink
    April 28, 2011 2:30 PM

    you are a very smart woman

  2. Kaily Young permalink
    April 28, 2011 2:32 PM

    Translating is a very delicate art. There’s essentially a line, and one extreme is having the subtitles so accurate and true to the original language that you pretty much have to know the language to follow them (and, therefore, may as well watch it in the original language). The other extreme is just to completely take out anything that isn’t in the target language’s equivalency or culture, resulting in something that really isn’t very accurate at all.

    A translator has to find a comfortable spot between these two extremes every time he does any translating whatsoever.

    Obviously, you have every right to choose what *your favorite spot on that line, but so does everyone else.

    Admittedly, in professional translations, there really shouldn’t be anything that couldn’t be explained or whatever easily. If a translator feels a need to use a foreign word, put a *short footnote about it, but, in fansubbing, they don’t necessarily have to comply to this convention.

    My reasoning for this is that, when fansubbers are, well, fansubbing, generally their audience are *not people new to the genre (in this case, anime in general). That’s not to say that they should go all the way to the extreme, but, usually, the -chan, -kun, -san, etc. can be left in because, more than likely, their audience will be able to follow.

    tl;dr: I agree with you in terms of official subs, because you can’t assume your audience will have ever watched anything in your genre before (be it bollywood movies, anime, or Street Fighter), but, for fansubbing, I disagree. Always know your audience when doing translation, because it makes a difference, and can give you more or less freedom in what you’re writing.

    Of course… this is really just my chosen spot on the translation line, and everyone is entitled to their own. If you really don’t like how others are doing translations and subtitling, become a translator. Then, subtitlers will have to do it your way, since all they do is put the words in the right place. If you don’t want to do that… please don’t put down people who choose to do translation differently than you would prefer.

    PS: I’ve studied translation in about five different languages (mainly in Japanese, Norwegian, and Old English), so I have some experience doing it.

  3. Fiery Little One permalink
    April 28, 2011 3:47 PM

    I can relate to something I did just last night actually, but for me it was Japanese. I decided to watch an episode of Transformers Energon and the same episode in its Japanese equivalent, Superlink. It was an interesting experience, our dub seemed mostly accurate to the Japanese, something Energon isn’t known for, but the honorifics came up in the Japanese version and while I was familiar with ‘sama,’ I didn’t know the other one they used ‘dono,’ and the paragraph explaining it came and went too quickly for me to read what the subbers had to say about it, took me about half the episode to figure out roughly what ‘dono’ meant.

    • Kaily Young permalink
      April 28, 2011 4:50 PM

      That’s definitely one problem I have with fansubbing and translator’s notes. It’s pretty much a given that I’ll pause the video just to read, to make sure that I get it all. Obviously, this, in part, ruins the experience, but, at the same time, using an endnote means you’ll watch the entire episode not knowing what something means, and *then you’ll the explanation. Opening notes are a way to solve this, but not everyone wants to read them.

  4. Abhishek Joseph permalink
    May 9, 2011 3:12 PM

    i am Indian but sadly there are many(almost 50) different languages in India and Hindi is a hard one.

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