Translator Tuesdays: Subtitling ‘Leviathan’

It’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie. This article first came out in 2015. It explains the subtitling process in detail, based on the example of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. But as we didn’t have a blog back then, we decided it could be featured here again, for good measure.



Leviathan’s Curiously Good Subtitles


By Thatcher Mines & Will Hackett-Jones





Subtitling is a much-criticised art form, and rightly so: people go to a film expecting to watch and hear it, not to read it.

However, discounting the other three options – dubbing, the invention of the babel fish, or spending 10 years living abroad and learning languages well enough to watch films in the original – it is the best available option.





Good subtitles mean that a film viewer spends the most time watching, and the least time reading, as possible.

This must also be balanced with three other things: fidelity of translation; creating a realistic ‘voice’ for each character; and clarifying cultural nuance.

It is a labour-intensive, time-consuming, highly skilled task. It requires input from numerous different professionals, and may seem to a film producer to be unnecessarily expensive. However, with films that we* have worked on winning awards at Sundance, Cannes, the Golden Globes, and being Oscar-nominated (among many, many other awards), it seems that the process we have developed is worth the time and expense.





We start by creating Russian subtitles of all the dialogue in the film and other elements that need to be translated (signs, letters, background TV noise, etc.). This helps give shape to the first translation of English subtitles; but it also helps us to keep track of changes the filmmakers may make in post-production, so that we can more easily introduce the changes to our translation.

For example, in Leviathan at the beginning of the film, Kolya is watching TV, and flipping through channels. The original version of the film that we worked on had two TV channels saying:

“У нас в гостях всегда молодой и всегда модный певец, народный артист России Валерий Леонтьев…“


“…но животных могут пичкать не только гормонами и антибиотиками, но еще и давать им генно-модифицированные…”


In translation this was rendered as:

“Joining us today is the forever young and popular pop artist Valery Leontyev, an honorary People’s Artist of Russia…”


“Animals are being stuffed not only full of hormones and antibiotics, but now also genetically modified…”


The director later changed the text on the second TV channel to:

“Банки неплохо заработали на россиянах: судя по отчетности, в виде штрафов и комиссий, они получили…”


Which we translated and submitted. However, during the considerable amount of dialogue between the producers and our team, the decision was made by the producers to cut the subtitles from the TV altogether. Quite possibly they decided to do so because nobody outside Russia knows who Valery Leontyev is, but I suspect it’s because it creates an unnecessary burden on the viewer – they are asking themselves questions all the time: Is this typical of these people? Are these the things they’re worried about? Why do I need to know this, is it endophoric?


Valery Leontyev’s Peter Pan complex, and banks making money on commissions, are unnecessary cultural nuance for a foreign viewer.





The first translation is always done by one native English speaker who has a personal/professional connection to the material. Of the seven translators in our creative pool, six are published authors, screenwriters, copywriters, and filmmakers, who happen to know Russian. These translations always have mistakes, and that is fine: we believe that creative translated content, carefully edited, and then polished, will always be stronger than a highly accurate translation.


The real magic happens when the translation returns to our in-house team: the adaptation from dialogue to subtitle text. This is done in a team of two people: a native speaker of English and a native speaker of Russian, both of whom have excellent knowledge of the other language. They focus on style, tone, adjusting timing, and rewriting complex and wordy dialogue, with the main aim of allowing the viewer to watch the film, not… Yeah, you got it.


For example, when Kolya is flagged down by the traffic policeman and he is asked to fix his copbuddy’s  car for free, he retorts frustratedly:

“Ну что я вам, бюро добрых услуг, что ли?”


The original translation has this as:

“What am I, your friendly neighbourhood charity?”


While this is an accurate translation, it has two principle problems – its length, and its ‘voice’. It is 46 characters long, which is too much for the screen time allocated. And it just sounds… Foreign, not in character for the fairly straight-talking Kolya. There is no record of how many different variants were considered, but we can safely assume 3-5 were bandied about, before we settled on the perfect:


Five words. 25 characters. And in Kolya’s terse voice.


As well as reducing the number of words or characters to make subtitles easier to read, we also try to reduce the actual number of lines of subtitles. This can be by cutting out repetitions, or by removing semi-formed parts of speech. For example, later in the same dialogue, Kolya is told that the guy who wants his car fixed for free will make it up to him in kind with food, fuel, ammunition (!), and drinks for a party. Kolya is not impressed. He replies with:

“Ну и чё?

Чё мне теперь, обоссаться от счастья, что ли?!”


The original translation has two subtitles:

“So what?

Do I piss myself from joy now?”


Apart from it not sounding very native English (the use of multiple questions in this format to convey sarcasm is a very Russian trait), it also requires the viewer to read two different subtitles. Instead we went with:


Turning it from a question into a statement keeps the sarcasm, while making it sound natural, and renders it in one subtitle not two.





We have to strive wherever possible to shorten subtitles, so that where it is not possible, we have the time, and the viewer has the energy, to absorb something longer.


When the guy who wants his car fixed for free turns up at Kolya’s house and is told to come back the next day, he doesn’t take it too well, but agrees anyway. Kolya reports on this to his friend with the terse, very Russian:



Literally, this means “He got offended”. But we don’t use this expression so freely in English: it’s a bigger, more serious thing.


The initial translation was:

“He didn’t like that”, which morphed into the slightly more colloquial:


Five words, instead of one, but the most accurate rendition of what was said, in a place where we had the screen space and time to take that liberty.





Where budgets and time allow, we like to employ yet another (three-step) process of OCD-style perfectionism, which simulates an international audience screening experience:


  1. A native English speaker with exceptional Russian watches the film for the first time and gives notes: “That was rougher/ruder in Russian”, “He’s not educated enough to use that word”, “That’s an Americanism!”
  2. A non-native English speaker who understands no Russian watches the film for the first time and gives notes: “That was too fast to read”, “I’m not sure what this means”, “Why would she say that?”
  3. These notes are then reviewed by the aforementioned in-house translation duo (the very same team who worked on the adaptation of dialogue to subtitle text). They then make amendments to the subtitles as necessary.


The changes that we make in this final process are generally very small, but they are what make the difference between good subtitles, and curiously good subtitles.


As a final example, Kolya and Lilia, his wife, discuss whose friends are better because they are/aren’t coming to support them at a court hearing:

“Друзья твои, между прочим.”

“А твои нет?”

“А мои вот рядом.”

“Ладно, Коль, согласна: твои друзья – золото, а мои – говно.”

“А чё, не говно что ли?”


The translation, faithful to the original, came in as:

“Some friends you’ve got”

“What about your friends?”

“Mine are right here beside me”

“OK, Nikolai, you win. Your friends are gold, and mine are shit”

“Well, aren’t they?!”


However, the speed of the exchanges meant some significant shortening and filtering, using the endophora of the scene and the visual cues to fill in the gaps left by missing words:

“Some friends!”

“What about yours?”

“Mine are right here.”

“OK, Kolya, you win.

My friends are shit.”

“Sure are!”


Nineteen words instead of 29. A viewer who gets to watch the film, instead of read it. And a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film – that would not have happened if the jury had not been able to understand what was going on in the film.





One last thing to note about subtitles. The English has to be natural and native, but also clear and even more importantly, accessible. Idioms that work for a Brit often don’t work for American audiences, and even less likely for Korean, French, or other non-native English speakers. The selection committees and buyers at film festivals and markets are the people who determine if a foreign market will ever see these films. Help them to love it, and the film is bought, translated into other languages, and seen by a world of people. Similarly, creating subtitles for a release in the US or New Zealand, requires another revision of the subtitles, working together with the local distributor.


It has been intimated that if you see breasts in the first five minutes – it’s a French film. Sex in the first five minutes? Spanish. Confused and want to leave the cinema in the first five minutes? Russian.


We’re trying to change that, and judging by the awards won of late, it seems it’s working.


* In the interests of transparency, we should divulge that Thatcher and Will are co-founders of Eclectic Translations, the company that created the subtitles for Leviathan, and that we were part of the team that worked on the subtitles to the film.

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Will Hackett-Jones

Co-Founder & Partner

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