Curiously good subtitles are complicated to make. They are labour-intensive. They require a team of Russian and English native speakers to write, and rewrite, and revise, and check, and double check them.
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The Curiously Good Subtitling Process
Films are not made for subtitles – they’re always an after-thought. Which is probably a good thing, else films would be interminably slow.
However, this does mean subtitlers have to choose what to lose. On average, about 30% of the text of a film will not make it into the subtitles. This is a great source of frustration to filmmakers, who have carefully chosen every frame and every word.
The ability to choose what to lose is the skill that makes for curiously good subtitles: the ability to understand the filmmaker’s message, reduce that to its constituent parts, and then re-create it in a new language, with the least possible words.
The basic process involves four stages, with additional optional stages, depending on the intended audience of the film.
Stage 1: Spotting
The film is uploaded into a subtitling program. Each of the actors’ lines is taken from the dialogue sheets of the film, and inserted into the correct place in the film. This means that the translator can see exactly what is said, when, by whom, and how much screen time each line gets.
Stage 2: Translation
The film, with subtitles in its original language, is given to the translator, a specialist in film subtitle translation. They work directly in a special subtitling programme, translating every line as faithfully as they can, to ensure that all meaning is retained. At this stage, all the text is retained.
Stage 3: Editing
The translated subtitles are sent on to the editor, whose difficult task it is to cut out all of the text which does not fit – either in terms of literal space on the screen, or in screen time. The editor, a native speaker of the target language, will work alongside a native speaker of the source language, to ensure that no significant cultural or linguistic meaning is lost.
Stage 4: Checking
The edited subtitles are sent on for a final check, where further changes are made to ensure comprehension and succinctness.
Optional stage 5: Market Adaptation
A Russian film subtitled into English for the UK will contain slang, expressions, and some vocabulary which will not be known to a film buyer from China or Korea, for example. Therefore, the subtitles must be further adapted to ensure strong international sales.
This process consists of a non-native speaker of English, who has no knowledge of the source language (Russian), watching the subtitles, and highlighting those which they do not understand. These individual subtitles are then revised for ease of comprehension.