ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING.

Ever wonder who writes the subtitles and how it works? Guy La Roche is happy to tell you:

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough….

Lots of interesting stuff, including a long disquisition on the surprising problems of translating porn (“In this case the story was about some bimbo trying to make it through college…. to my great horror, she mentioned a 15th century Spanish book. And she gave the title in Spanish. … I was so upset that I made it a point of honour to find that book. And I did. After several hours trawling the internet I found exactly ONE webpage that mentioned the book and its Spanish title. That one subtitle alone, invoice value seventy eurocents, cost me hours of work and precious time”). Thanks for the link go to frequent commenter Kári Tulinius.

Comments

  1. The short sentences make sense–the pace would conflict with the visuals.

  2. “people process spoken information faster than written information…amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced”
    This is a truism in the subtitling industry.
    However, for closed captioned programs they seem to transcribe almost everything that is said, real time.
    So if the assertion is true for subtitling, why is it not true for closed captioning?
    In fact, if I want to go through a 30-minute interview in 15 minutes, I’ll just read a transcript, so I don’t think this is the real reason.

  3. “”people process spoken information faster than written information…amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced””
    I don’t know about this. I never listen to podcasts because I get irritated by how long they take. I’m like denske in choosing to read a transcript instead.
    I watch a lot of Hindi movies, and in general the subtitiling is pretty good. One quirk I’ve noticed is thta if the spoken dialog is in English, the subtitles will very often use different English words to those being used by the actors. It seems kind of strange and pointless to me.

  4. rootlesscosmo says:

    Pauline Kael once lamented the loss of material in having to read subtitles in a language you don’t know–I think she had in mind Japanese–suggesting that Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, rendered into subtitles, would be three successive screens reading
    I can’t decide
    Whether or not
    To kill myself

  5. michael farris says:

    Random notes:
    Poland is firmly in the grip of the voice over (single male variety). One poll listed that only about 5% of the population would prefer subtitles.
    For me, the voice over (on non-documentary films) is the worst of dubbing and subtitles combined.
    The original is lost (despite some people thinking that hearing the beginning and ending of some sentences is the same as hearing the original).
    And, for various reasons, the voice over translation is every bit as time-constrained as subtitles, so interesting original language is compressed into uninteresting literal abbreviations.
    I know that dubbing has low prestige among quality folks (will there be a things white people like entry on ‘subtitles’?) but often it’s the best choice. Despite mouth shape constraints, it’s the only form of translation that allows real expression. Plus, both subtitles and voice-over facilitate bad translation in a way that dubbing doesn’t. Since actors, good or bad, are responsible for dubbing the dialogue has to mean _something_. Dubbing and voice over lend themselves to what I call meaningless translation (where the translation is essentially gibberish). Dubbing translations have to hold together in a way that subtitled (or voice over) translations don’t.
    Finally countries that use subtitles tend to quickly settle into almost exclusively English language non-native productions.
    Countries that use audio translation (dubbing and/or voice-over) tend to be much more cosmopolitan. As much as I hate voice overs for English language movies, Polish tv shows a fair amount of French, German, Spanish, Japanese and other non-English movies as well. AFAICT subtitling countries are far more to just show American crap (with the occasional British entry).

  6. Hi, and thanks for the link.
    I have had a lot of comments regarding the reading speed. The comparison with captioning is an interesting one.
    I have never done captioning, so I can only speculate, but captioning (I believe) is done for deaf people and people with hearing difficulties. They do not have all the audio input (or audio information) other people have. So, I suppose they need the extra information.
    The reading speed is set to accommodate the “average” viewer and can change from client to client. Also, viewers can not fastforward to the next subtitle when they are done reading (as you can with transcriptions). The subtitle pops up, the brain needs to register this first and then start to read. And then the subtitle disappears again to make room, after an interval, for the next one. At the same time there are the visuals. All this combined makes the reading experience a bit more complicated than usual.
    Using more lines could be an option, but then some people may spend more time reading than watching. And it screws up the image even more.
    Another thing, very important when it comes to reducing, is the fact that English is more concise than my own native language Dutch. About ten percent. And sentence structure of the target audience.
    It is best to see subtitles as a guideline posing as a dialogue. A little crutch to help people understand what happens on screen.

  7. michael farris says:

    Warning, incoming anecdotal evidence:
    Deaf people who use sign language* appear to see differently than hearing folks. While there’s no difference in the percentage of deaf people and hearing people who need glasses, IME deaf people seem to be able to take in more information visually over a signficantly larger field than hearing people can (examples supplied on request).
    This makes me think that they don’t have to shift their gaze from picture to caption the way I have to. So, they’re able to take in the whole thing at the same time which would mean they can handle more written information (controlling for the fact that they might not have native fluency in the written language).
    On the other hand:
    My experience with same language captions on dvds is that they’re just as abbreviated as subtitles. I’ve also been watching A Spanish channel with occasional captions (preparing for trip to Spain next week) and they’re also abbreviated.
    And, finally, is there evidence that typical viewers of every-word-complete captions are actually reading and understanding everything?
    *hearing people who’ve learned a sign language natively also, but that’s a different topic

  8. mollymooly says:

    Theory: Closed captioning is mostly used for formal language: news bulletins, weather forecast, interviews. People speak slower than in the informal contexts replicated by subtitled fiction. Therefore there is less need to jettison excess verbal baggage.
    Reading same-language subtitles gives an easy insight into the kinds of decisions all subtitlers face.
    “countries that use subtitles tend to quickly settle into almost exclusively English language non-native productions.” That tallies with my experience, but I don’t see any reason why it should be so. Any suggestions?

  9. Another anecdote on subtitling. I’m a tech translator, but have worked a door away from subtitlers. Once, they had a “queen fish” (I think) at a party, and wondered whether that particular species had some special significance. In those days, I was more into AltaVista’ing than them, so after a couplke of hours, I found what might be sufficiently close to its Latin name.
    Two of those colleagues researched at the local municipal library (probably Sweden’s largest), and found no strange thing about that fish or its probale relatives, or their behaviour or cultural significance. Result: it was referred to as “the fish”.

  10. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    “countries that use subtitles tend to quickly settle into almost exclusively English language non-native productions.”
    I don’t know. Germany uses, mostly, awful voice overs, and they don’t show much else besides US reruns.
    I learnt to read fast in Norwegian by watching Swedish and Danish detective shows that are subtitled in Norwegian.

  11. michael farris says:

    On Germany, the satellite commercial channels yeah it’s just american crap 24-7, but the public channels local and national (I used to get about 20 on cabel) and a few others have more variety. It’s also possible that multi-national programming is a more Eastern European thing.
    And I’m not sure if I count Swedish and Danish programming (in Norway) as adventurous international fare.

  12. michael farris says:

    oops almost forgot, German tv doesn’t use voice overs (distinguished by the original soundtrack in the background and mostly restricted to Eastern Europe) but dubs. I’ve heard it from a German or two that the voices chosen, while often very different from the originals (and bizarre for non-Germans) are mostly appropriate for Germany (that is they carry the same sorts of connotations as the originals). The original German language programs I’ve seen make me tend to believe that.

  13. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Interesting. For foreigners (i.e. me), the German voices are bizarre incongruous choices.
    not sure if I count Swedish and Danish programming (in Norway) as adventurous international fare
    No, but they’re not bad. There have been a couple of Danish detective things over the years that have been very good (can’t remember the names), and there’s one Swedish so-so one. called (I think) Walländer. In general, I must say I hate tv.

  14. and there’s one Swedish so-so one. called (I think) Walländer
    Wallander, after the main protagonist, Kurt Wallander, based on a bunch of novels by that Swedish mystery writer of the unspeakable name. Both the books and the movies are really pretty good.
    For foreigners (i.e. me), the German voices are bizarre incongruous choices.
    Do you understand German? I find that the people who have at least some knowledge of the language a movie has been dubbed find most of the voice talent choices oddly appropriate. An English friend of mine who’s been living in Slovakia for about 7 years and is quite fluent in Slovak hates action flicks, but has seen every Schwarzenegger movie in Czech. She says she finds the voice of the Czech actor (Viktor Preis I believe) quite sexy :)
    One more area where subtitling is very common is the European warez scene. Sites like opensubtitles.org or titulky.com contain thousands of subtitles for screeners and dvd-rips in a surprisingly high number of languages. As with most of the warez scene, these are usually made by the users the moment first copies hit the torrent sites and though the quality varies greatly, I’ve seen some very good translations recently. That applies to Polish (which are usually the first out there) as well as Czech / Slovak subtitles. More often than not, Czech and Slovak subs are based on earlier Polish versions, which means that the kids who create, edit and review subtitles are actually learning Polish the fun way and that’s gotta be a good thing.

  15. As a person who is not deaf but is gradually losing his hearing, I rely increasingly on closed captioning for both TV and DVDs. In my experience, the DVDs and some fiction TV shows display virtually the entire screenplay in the captions; if a few words are cut out, I’ve always assumed that it’s a function of physical space and not an inability to match the rate of speech. (For example, “in a few days” might be rendered as “soon” to save nine characters.)
    I’m bilingual in English and German, and watching dubbed films is different from watching captioned ones. I’m usually able to successfully ignore the dubbing, but when I do pay attention, it usually strikes me as a paraphrase rather than as a translation.
    A few years ago the New Yorker had a Talk of the Town piece about a caption stenographer, I think in connection with either the Oscars or a political event. She emphasized the difficulty of having to transcribe, for example, foreign names or unexpected turns of phrase. And when I watch a news broadcast with the captioning on, it’s evident that the transcription sometimes simply breaks down.

  16. Captions are easier to read than subtitles; they have a black background and usually are larger.
    Captions are often based off a script rather than what’s on film.
    Reduction is less blatant when you are translating, rather than just transcribing.
    People often don’t bother to tell the deaf “unimportant” things; having the TV captions do the same thing would be maddening.
    Some captioning is funded by the government. Bureaucracies prefer evaluative criteria like “accurately transcribes the dialog” to “provides the best possible aesthetic experience”.

  17. Sorry, in my second paragraph I meant subtitled rather than dubbed. In other words, the subtitles are more like paraphrases than are the captions. And I ignore the subtitles.
    And as long as I’ve started a new comment, I’ll mention that watching a TV broadcast of Der Zauberer von Os was one of the artistic high points of my life. The actors who dubbed (and hear I do mean dubbed) the dialogue sounded just like Judy and Billie and Burt and even the Munchkins! (The songs were the originals.)

  18. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Yes, when I lived there, I knew German (fifteen years ago now). My biggest dubbing criticism (as a foreigner) is with African American actors who are portraying, say, some kids in Brooklyn with a very distinctive way of talking, and you hear the the film dub and it’s totally clueless. It is as bad in the (very rare) Norwegian dubbing I’ve seen/heard. Now, this kind of dubbing — something that is very local to one culture, a kind of shibboleth — is, I imagine, very difficult on many levels, and in the end I think the only answer is to subtitle instead of dub.
    Subtitles are great. I too am losing my hearing, and so I read the Norwegian subtitles on US/Brit. films. I pick up the odd new Norwegian word that way. Sometimes you see errors, too, though not often; it’s usually something like the actor says ‘six dogs’ and the subtitle transcribes it as ‘five dogs’. Then I wonder if the subtitler has been translating a script that was subsequently changed during shooting.

  19. michael farris says:

    I have to say, I really enjoy Spongebob Schwammkopf in German.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-TkEO7cGkA&

  20. A habit I picked up watching subtitled films on my TiVo, and now apply to closed-captioned films, is turning on the text and watching the movie at double speed (fast forward on). It works great on TiVo but is hit or miss on DVDs.
    I think the average reader of LanguageHat likely reads fast enough (in one or more languages) to keep up at double speed for many movies. Saves a lot of time, too.

  21. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    turning on the text and watching the movie at double speed
    My God. I’m having a Zeitgeist moment.

  22. Watching a movie at double speed sounds like speedreading a novel—sure, it saves time, but it would save even more time not to bother watching or reading in the first place. If you’re not going to have the aesthetic experience intended, what’s the point?

  23. mollymooly says:

    Zeitgeist schmeitgeist. That was in Microserfs 15 years ago. To be fair it only worked in foreign-language VHS then.

  24. @”If you’re not going to have the aesthetic experience intended, what’s the point?”
    I’ve done this double-speed subtitle reading on a handful of particularly dire Hindi films. The point in each case was that, even though the film was so bad I couldn’t stomach watching it for the full 2.5-3hrs, I wanrted to see how the story played out to find out what happened at the end.

  25. OK, in that context it makes sense.

  26. I’ve heard it from a German or two that the voices chosen, while often very different from the originals (and bizarre for non-Germans) are mostly appropriate for Germany (that is they carry the same sorts of connotations as the originals).
    I recall, when I was in Germany, watching a Jarmusch movie that had one of those people who insert “f***ing” before every fifth word etc., and the translator had a great deal of difficulty finding an equivalent style in German. The result was really a bit strange. That was subtitled, though — don’t know what they would have done for dubbing.

  27. As a kid, I used to watch a few Japanese-dubbed American TV series, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and later Bonanza. (It was in B&W, and before remotes with mute buttons, so I still remember some of the commercial jingles–for Ribbon Juice and Mitsuwa Soap.) It was a shock to me when I first heard Hoss Cartwright (Dan Blocker) speak English. His real voice wasn’t quite that of the bumbling chucklehead he sounded like in Japanese.
    As an inveterate dilettante language-learner, I much prefer subtitling to dubbing. I often need the crutch, even for languages I know fairly well, and hearing the original language often tells a lot more about the sociolinguistics of particular usages.
    For instance, I learned the officious/bureaucratic 2nd-person pronoun dumneata in Army language school, but never much heard it in Romania, where I might use tu with language classmates but only dumneavoastra for everyone else. But a Romanian film I saw recently had several middle-aged men on talk show panel address each other with dumneata. I’m sure film-watching is a much less painful way to get a sense of when one might use dumneata than to work as a Romanian bureaucrat (or soldier).

  28. There have been a couple of Danish detective things over the years that have been very good (can’t remember the names)
    Rejseholdet, Ørnen, and most recently Forbrydelsen. I credit my watching those shows (at first with Danish subtitles) on DVD with improving my Danish so much I lost my fear of making phone calls to Denmark…

  29. A.J.P.,
    My biggest dubbing criticism (as a foreigner) is with African American actors who are portraying, say, some kids in Brooklyn
    Same with Southern Accent, I imagine. I know exactly what you mean – Slovak version of Law and Order SVU had Finn (played by Ice T) speaking perfect standard Slovak, it was almost painful to watch. Even his references to Munch’s (Richard Beltzer)’bony ass’ were replace by something much more polite.
    Anne,
    thank you for the tips.

  30. Jonathan Mayhew says:

    You can read silently faster than you can read aloud, even speaking very quickly, so the idea that abbreviated subtitles have anything to do with the idea that people process spoken language faster is absurd on the face of it. It’s more about the visual space available for the subtitles than the speed of reading.

  31. This reminds me about how Chinese films and TV programmes are subtitled in the Greater China (and probably Chinese cultural circle which includes not only mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong/Macau but also Singapore and Malaysia): they’re captioned ad verbatim: that means they are seldom truncated, but pretty much followed what the actor said (mostly, sometimes exclamations and interjections might be glossed over). This is needed as the differences of accents or even language is so great that some people would find the dialogues incomprehensible if not for the captioning. Of course, in Hong Kong English TV programmes and films are often subtitled into Chinese as well.
    Though, that said, captioning is seldom done in real time, probably due to the difficulty to decode what one said into comprehensive syllables then convert into Chinese characters, so unless there is a script, anything broadcast live are seldom captioned. For example, news reports are *not* captioned in China, except ironically enough, off-the-air interviews. Though watching Olympics lately in China and Hong Kong, I found a fundamental differences for interviewee whose language of reply is not Chinese: in China (CCTV at least), it would only be subtitled, but not glossed over, no matter one speaks English, French, Spanish, Japanese or even Arabic. For Hong Kong television stations though, anything other than Cantonese, English and these days Mandarin would be glossed over by the voiceover without fail.
    That means sometimes the captions/subtitles appear rather quickly in order to show the full screenplay (of course, in case of Cantonese TV programmes but less so in Cantonese films, the captioning is in Standard Written Chinese). So, as someone who grew up in Hong Kong, this is a very good crutch, one could almost be unconsciously reading the subtitles without missing out the bigger picture. It was almost a shock when I first went to the cinema in the UK and found that there’s no subtitles or captioning!

  32. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Lots of interesting comments here.
    One thing about swearing. Norway, like Germany, has difficulty finding equivalents for English swear words, so stuff like mo’fo’, motherfucker and cunt would probably all be translated as torsk (cod, the fish) or idiot!, as would, of course, idiot itself. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that English has so many swear words, perhaps it’s neither.

  33. You can read silently faster than you can read aloud, even speaking very quickly, so the idea that abbreviated subtitles have anything to do with the idea that people process spoken language faster is absurd on the face of it.
    I’m not sure I can read that much faster than this person speaks…. More seriously, though: if reading were the only thing you were doing, that might well be true. But as Guy mentioned above, there’s the issue of “the visuals”. In fact, I think that’s maybe the key point: dramatic films and TV shows put enough emphasis on complex, rapidly changing visuals as part of the storytelling that trying to read at the same time is a distracting and inefficient process.
    My guess would be that human brains are somewhat adapted to processing spoken language while simultaneously paying attention to visuals, since that’s something we do every time we have or listen to a real-life conversation. Even in one-on-one conversations, we’re paying attention to the other person’s facial and body language — and a one-on-one conversation in a film or TV show involves keeping track of two people, along with whatever additional visual developments the director throws in. (“Say, what’s that menacing shadow in the background that the characters haven’t noticed, and what is it doing?”) But our brains are less well adapated to paying attention to a changing visual scene and reading at the same time….
    It depends on the format, of course, and how important or rapidly changing the visuals are. You could probably get away with lengthy subtitles for a Tarkovsky movie, and in stereotyped interviews — where we don’t expect any drama, and there’s little or no information conveyed by the speakers’ expressions — the visuals really don’t matter.
    (I’ve noticed that if I’m watching a foreign-language movie which starts off with voiceover narration, I can often read the subtitles faster than the narration proceeds… but if there are complex scenes with rapid conversation later on in the same movie, I sometimes have trouble reading fast enough to keep up with what’s going on.)

  34. You can read silently faster than you can read aloud
    There are many, many people of whom this is not true.
    Norway, like Germany, has difficulty finding equivalents for English swear words, so stuff like mo’fo’, motherfucker and cunt would probably all be translated as torsk (cod, the fish) or idiot!
    Huh? What about faen, fitte, and jævla, to take three obvious candidates? What kind of lame-ass, watered-down Norwegian are you talking about?

  35. Arthur J. Krone says:

    Well fa’en is ok for fuck, but fitte won’t do for BritEng ‘you cunt’. Translators use torsk, or maybe jævla torsk. In my opinion ‘You devilish codfish’ is a bit stilted for ‘you fucking cunt’, which was very common speech when I was at school (the sixties). By the way it’s all coming out this week, isn’t it? Half Norwegian, six years in Japan. Do you come from a whaling family, or what?

  36. Torsk? I have never heard anyone use that as a curseword. It sounds extremely strange to me.
    I think “you fucking cunt” could very well be translated as din jævla fitte.

  37. Watching a movie at double speed sounds like speedreading a novel—sure, it saves time, but it would save even more time not to bother watching or reading in the first place. If you’re not going to have the aesthetic experience intended, what’s the point?
    I’m having the aesthetic experience I want to have. I only do it for certain films that I’m only sorta partly-interested in. I want to know what happens, the basic outline of the story, but I’m willing to sacrifice the finer aesthetic details to find out in half the time. I watch a lot of movies, and many of them are enjoyable, but not great works of art. Often there aren’t finer aesthetic details to be missed. I believe that what I recall of the film a month later is the same whether I watch at double speed or normal speed.
    If I’m even less interested than that, I just read the plot summary in Wikipedia so I understand allusions to the story made by friends and co-workers. (Don’t crucify me for this, but that’s what I did for the last 5 Harry Potter novels.. I’m surrounded by fans, and I want to know what they are talking about, but not enough to spend hours plowing through the books.)

  38. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    I have never heard anyone use that as a curseword.
    Well, I’ve never seen fitte in a television subtitle in Norway, all we get is cod. Maybe you’ve got more channels than we do. My favorite Norwegian swear word is fytterakkeren!, which I can shout out of the window because it means something like gracious me!. It’s much more satisfying than fa’en, which I only use to annoy my family. One disappointing thing with foreign swearing is that you rarely get the buzz of doing something naughty that you get in your own language. Fa’en (literally, the Father, but covering everything fron shit to fuck and pretty much the baddest word you can say in Norwegian) does have one interesting characteristic: it can only be said using one specific intonation. It starts pitched high, continues to rise, then falls a couple of semitones and then whines along flat for a bit like a switched-off jet engine before grinding to a halt somewhere at the users discretion. Basj (pron. as bash) is a good word. It is a v., n. cross between poop (or Brit. poo) and shit, but is not used as an exclamation, it’s just to describe the droppings of a small child or any animal.

  39. Arty Crown says:

    I’m having the aesthetic experience I want to have.
    See, this is what I meant. This is something of the moment, don’t mock the poor guy (and don’t tell him you were doing it fifteen years ago, Molly, even if you were).

  40. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Oops, that should be bæsj.

  41. If I’m even less interested than that, I just read the plot summary in Wikipedia so I understand allusions to the story made by friends and co-workers. (Don’t crucify me for this, but that’s what I did for the last 5 Harry Potter novels.. I’m surrounded by fans, and I want to know what they are talking about, but not enough to spend hours plowing through the books.)
    I hear you. And far from crucifying you, I’ll go you one better: I read the first HP and decided I didn’t need any more, so I haven’t even kept up with plot summaries.
    Fa’en (literally, the Father
    Nope, it’s the colloquial pronunciation of fanden ‘the devil.’

  42. Well, I’ve never seen fitte in a television subtitle in Norway, all we get is cod.
    It’s not easy to notice such things when you are a native, but I feel pretty sure I’ve seen it in subtitles. I’m still baffled by torsk, though – I’m not saying it’s not used by anyone, but it’s certainly not part of any normal curseword vocabulary.
    Hat is right about faen.
    My favorite Norwegian swear word is fytterakkeren!, which I can shout out of the window because it means something like gracious me!.
    It was the colloquial pronunciation (I think it’s at least two centuries old) of fy til rakkeren, which meant something like ‘fie to the devil’ (a rakker was someone who performed dirty work, like the executioner’s helper, but was also a euphemism for the devil). Nowadays it’s considered very mild, and mostly used as an exclamation: “fyttirakkern, I’m so angry!”
    Fa’en (literally, the Father, but covering everything fron shit to fuck and pretty much the baddest word you can say in Norwegian)
    Trust me, when it comes to cursing, there are far worse words than that. It’s a very standard curse. One example would be the infamous Northern Norwegian hæstkuk (or hestkuk in standard spelling), meaning ‘horse cock’.
    It is a v., n. cross between poop (or Brit. poo) and shit, but is not used as an exclamation, it’s just to describe the droppings of a small child or any animal.
    Actually, I’ve met a couple of people who use it as an exclamation (when something goes wrong, something like saying “damn”, I reckon), though I don’t think it’s used that way very often.

  43. On a side-note, fader (‘father’, almost only used in religious contexts) can be used as a euphemism for faen.

  44. Re: those Norwegian devil expressions, I love the way my Danish mother-in-law says “for Søren” to avoid saying “for Satan.”

  45. Arthur J. Crown says:

    I didn’t know the origin of Søren in swearing — not the only thing I didn’t know, apparently. I spend a fair amount of time around hester with cocks the diameter of beercans, so I much prefer fyttirakkern to hæstkuk, but fy fa’en, you guys clearly know your swearwords. Since we may be the only ones interested in being insulting in Norwegian, I’d better be quiet.

  46. michael farris says:

    “Since we may be the only ones interested in being insulting in Norwegian”
    Around here, I wouldn’t be so sure of that. What I’d like to know is about prescriptive swearing rules in Bokmaal and Nynorsk and how they vary, or is that one area given over to linguistic lassez faire?

  47. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    If anyone’s still reading this, recent research (two evenings in front of the television) shows that motherfuckers are translated as drittsekker, while tosk is reserved for assholes.
    For me to answer Michael’s question would require yet more days in front of the telly, and I won’t do it. My research forced me to sit through a very irritating comedy thing, The Daily Show, by Jon Stewart (no one on my daughter’s favorite, the Disney Channel, says motherfucker, even though most of the programs are sitcoms set in schools).

  48. A.J.P., we here at the Hattery appreciate your willingness to subject yourself to such grueling experiences in a quest for the truth, but you’re right not to overdo it: one too many nights in front of the tv, and you might wind up a gibbering lunatic (or should I say “differently minded”?), and we can’t have that.

  49. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Thanks, boss. Of course, some people have already said I’m differently minded, although those were not their exact words.

  50. I am suprised to see Jon Stewart being so cruelly attacked here. He has a real fondness for playing with English in a way that shows both a love for the language and a real facility with it. I would have thought that such attributes would be lauded by the readers of this blog, not mocked. Some of his prescriptivist monologues can be very amusing.

  51. I’m not sure whether the subtitling of The Daily Show dumbs it down, but the following should be an interesting read for those who contemn the show. I work in market research, and so I know the general worth of Internet statistics, but still found this worth pointing out:
    Daily Show Viewers

  52. I am suprised to see Jon Stewart being so cruelly attacked here.
    It sounded to me like Arthur just caught a bad episode or two of a (usually good, in my opinion) show he doesn’t watch. Not quite a case of the LH crew tearing down the set of The Daily Show.

  53. “Not quite a case of the LH crew tearing down the set of The Daily Show.”
    Indeed. Hence my hyperbolic “cruelly attacked”. I did want to draw attention to that element of the show some LH readers might have been unaware of, Stewart’s fondness for prescriptivist wordplay.

  54. Stewart’s fondness for prescriptivist wordplay.
    I’m not sure what you meant by this. Stewart busts politicians for speaking evasively or euphemistically (or just plain stupidly) — that’s not prescriptivism.
    If you’re thinking of something else, though, I’d love to hear to examples.

  55. “If you’re thinking of something else, though, I’d love to hear to examples.”
    I was thinking of something else. He often analyses headlines and soundbites according to prescriptivist-style grammar rules, and the results can be quite entertaining. At least to me.

  56. I am a big fan of Jon Stewart, for what that’s worth.

  57. Arthur Crown says:

    I only watched one show that was repeated the next day. I didn’t like the laughter, which seemed forced. That might have been the “guest”. I’d no idea the show dealt with words or was so popular, but we’re very out of it here at the North Pole. I get all my news from Language Hat.

  58. Arthur Crown says:

    I should have said that motherfuckers was subtitled as jævlige drittsekker, or devilish shitbags. My wife, who rarely swears, and says jævlige drittsekker is appalling language, noticed that our dog woke up when I said it.

  59. Yeah, jævlig is equivalent in impact to “fucking.”

  60. Literal translation is often not useful with swear words.

  61. I came late to this post… is anyone still interested in sub-titling? I do a lot of it, but since the topic seems to have switched… will just remind folks that captioning is a transcript of the same language and sub-titling is translation. Yeah, I know: Duh. But when folks write about reading and listening speed, they seem to forget that the original language phrase may have, say, 4 syllables and is said in 1.5 seconds, while the phrase in translation might require 12 syllables and 3 seconds. The conventions of subtitling (how many characters per second, how many lines, how many seconds/frames between sub-titles etc.) have been designed not only for average-speed readers, but also so that the eye can catch the visual images, too. There are also aesthetic/psychological issues of perception; for example, in an ideal world, a sub-title won’t cross an edit (when the scene switches), even if the voice-over does. Captioning isn’t designed that way. From what I’ve seen on US TV, it just runs on. Sometimes you can keep up with it and watch the image; sometimes you can’t.
    Also wanted to say that it’s useless to try to argue “what’s best” — dubbing, sub-titles, voice-overs, etc. People in countries get used to one way of doing it and usually loathe all other options.

  62. michael farris says:

    “Also wanted to say that it’s useless to try to argue “what’s best” — dubbing, sub-titles, voice-overs, etc.”
    I partly agree as personal taste is mostly shaped by experience. As a language geek I prefer subtitles for myself, but if I’m travelling in a foreign country, subtitles are kind of a letdown (and voice overs are worse). When I was in the Netherlands recently I tried to keep the tv on dutch language programming (easier in the day with kids channels where shows were more likely to be dubbed). It made up a little for people’s disinterest in hearing me try to use a few Dutch phrases.
    But there’s no ideal solution for audiovisual material and it’s interesting and instructive to compare and contrast the trade offs (shorter vs more complete translations, original vs ‘dead’ studio sounds, etc)

  63. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    it’s useless to try to argue “what’s best”… People … usually loathe all other options.
    @mab:
    Ok, as long as you agree that subtitles are the only option that won’t ruin a well-made piece of work.
    One annoying subtitle thing. When the original piece has something written across the screen: either a narrative or if there are actors speaking a foreign language they’ll very often subtitle it in the original version of the film — SO WHY THE F… Sorry. So, why do they then slap the subtitles straight across that, so you can’t read anything at all?

  64. While we’re adding annoyances: why do they often fail to subtitle non-dialog elements, e.g., things written on walls or doors? If they’re relevant to understanding the movie, they should be translated.

  65. michael farris says:

    I’m assuming there’s more than reason, with time constraints and/or laziness leading the pack.
    Subtitles and voice overs usually don’t translate background conversation either, probably for the same reasons.
    Early (and some late) movies by Robert Altman where there are three or more conversations going on at the same time must be nightmares to subtitle well (I’ve yet to see it done) and the subtitles I’ve seen for the Simpsons seem pretty bland and unfunny.

  66. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    And why do they subtitle things that are the same in both languages? Like, at the beginning of the movie it’ll say LONDON on the screen, and they’ll put a subtitle (right on top of it) saying: London. It’s nuts.

  67. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Robert Altman where there are three or more conversations going on
    Yeah, imagine that dubbed into German, or whatever, with no background sound. My God.

  68. michael farris says:

    Dubbed versions have background sound (a specially prepared soundtrack with the dialogue removed but other background untouched is usually used) the dubbed voices have a studio sound* that doesn’t always blend in perfectly with the background sound but it’s there.
    *All movies in some countries used to be made that way, the movies where shot silent and the entire soundtrack was dubbed in later. Listen carefully the next time you see a Fellini film, even the Italian version is dubbed.

  69. David Marjanović says:

    AFAICT subtitling countries are far more to just show American crap (with the occasional British entry).

    Oh no. Czech TV shows Japanese cartoons and Chinese movies in the original with Czech subtitles.

  70. Well, I put in sub-titles for signs, background songs (if impt), etc. You always put in sub-titles for text, even if it seems stupid (for example, when the “Russian” opening credit of the film company is in Latin letters). It’s just one of those conventions.
    Unfortunately, for technical reasons the subtitles are in just on place and just one color for the whole film. So sometimes you have problems with them covering something important, or say, if they are white, they are not visible on certain scenes.
    Because I worked as a film producer, whenever possible I actually place the sub-titles myself. And then the techies help me choose the right color (usually yellow or white) and the placement (how many milimeters from the bottom of the screen). When a sub-title would cover something important, I fiddle around to place it before or after. But there are times when what the techies call “the laws of physics” are immutable and you simply can’t solve a problem. And then everyone writes on blogs about how lousy your sub-titles were:)
    I think that placement is the key to good sub-titles. On screen a character opens his mouth, says something, closes his mouth. The scene switches and the viewer processes the new visual image and prepares for what is to come. If the sub-title appears exactly when the character opens his mouth and disappears when he closes it, then two pieces of information on screen are in sync and it “feels” organic or comfortable. The brain gets “character speaking” in sound and image at the same time. When they are not in sync, or when sub-titles run over edit lines, the viewer “feels” uncomfortable.
    There are other little sub-conscious tricks, like how the sub-titles appear and disappear. There are 24 frames per second, and you can have the sub-titles dissolve on and off screen over 2-4 frames. This is “softer” and “feels more comfortable.” (Sorry to put all this in quotes…) If you have them just pop up in one frame, they seem colder/harsher. For a lyrical film you might use a 4-frame dissolve; for a high tech detective story, you might have them appear in just one frame. It’s a way of having the sub-titles play a role conveying the overall impression of the film.
    The problem is that in Russia sub-titles are not used, so directors, in general, do not understand them. And they are very badly paid. I spend days in the editing studio (after spending days writing the sub-titles at home with the film) because I am a lunatic.
    Unfortunately, a lot of sub-titlers just get a written text with time code and orignal language text. They write the sub-titles, sometimes without ever seeing the film. This is why on-screen signs etc sometimes don’t get translated; the sub-titler never saw them. And why some of the translations are so bad. If you don’t hear the tone of voice and see the context, you can’t figure out what the heck is going on.

  71. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Thanks, mab. Very interesting, the four-frame dissolve thing. Too bad nobody’s fixing our complaints — or maybe they are. Do you translate into English, or other languages?

  72. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Literal translation is often not useful with swear words.
    Having, so to speak, written the book on this subject I defer to your expertness, but I’d have thought literal translation was essential to pointing out equivalencies. Isn’t it quite interesting to know that when 21st c. atheist Norwegians are in a rage they invoke the devil, fish and a horse’s penis? Before people became used to them, these were either scary or embarrassing images or unexpected metaphors for ridiculing something /someone. Though Europeans are still God-fixated, if only in their swear words, my impression of German swearing is of scatological imagery and body parts, while French and British is about unexpected (and therefore embarrassing) sexual acts; but of course my impressions aren’t scientific. I still think there is a something to be gained by knowing that one man’s devilish shitbag is someone else’s motherfucker.

  73. I translate into English. I’d hate for this to turn into yet another translator’s lament… but one problem is money. I try to make the case that beautifully done sub-titles improve viewer perception and reviews and will ultimately draw more viewers and bring in more money. But by the time a film goes to the translator for sub-titles, it’s after post-production when the film is usually already over-budget and over-schedule. No one has much money or time at that point.
    And we don’t have two versions of any film (that I know of; maybe you folks have ideas?) with two different translations (one good and one bad) that are on sale, with reviews that note the distinctions, where we can say: see, everyone is buying the DVD with the good sub-titles. So it’s not an easy case to make.

  74. Thanks very much, mab, that was extremely enlightening!
    I’d have thought literal translation was essential to pointing out equivalencies. Isn’t it quite interesting to know that when 21st c. atheist Norwegians are in a rage they invoke the devil, fish and a horse’s penis?
    Well, sure. But we’re comparing apples and oranges. You’re talking about a scholarly sort of comparison: the Norwegians say this, where English-speakers say that. I’m talking about actual translation, where a Norwegian character in a book or movie opens his mouth and hollers something vile. You want the character in English to come out with something comparable, something that would be said in such a situation, not a quaint expression of anthropological interest.

  75. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    mab: it’s not an easy case to make
    Movie reviews should probably comment on subtitle quality.

  76. Yeah, they should… if the reviewers know a great deal both about translation AND about the technical constraints of sub-titling. In addition to all the problems of scenes switching and white backgrounds and signage and time codes… the sub-titler is also trying to condense a character’s words into text that conveys his or her personality, education level, emotion, and the meaning of his or her words. Or figure out how to convey shifts in language register, language, slang… Oh, and you have to also deal with the fact that your clients might not know English very well and yet have veto power over what you do. It is both the most constraining form of translation and the most creative. If we cannot get competent reviews of translations in prose and poetry, what’s the hope of competent reviews in film?
    Sorry, folks. Slipped into the Translator’s Lament. My bad.

  77. michael farris says:

    “the fact that your clients might not know English very well and yet have veto power over what you do”
    IME the problem is clients who think they know English better than they do and are second guessing you (or outright editing your work to conform to their ideas).
    While I’m here, here’s a strange way of working at about 10.30:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPGUTZW1w2w
    This is a short documentary about Tomasz Beksinski I (son of fantasy artist Zdzislaw Beksinski) after his suicide. He was known for his translations of James Bond, Dirty Harry and Monty Python (for voice over not subtitles but the length constraints are the same). The translation part is from sometime in the late 90′s.
    Anyway, he works from a written script (which he complains is full of errors) and a reel to reel recording (no visuals). He listens to a fragment, compares it to the written version and then comes up with his version on a manual typewriter. Seems awkward to me.
    More recently some of my students (who also study Indonesian) were involved in subtitling a group of Indonesian movies that were shown in Polish cinemas a few months ago. They worked on computers of course and said they had written scripts but no visuals (but had some guide about how much text they could have). They also didn’t have material explaining cultural references and had to solve all sorts of problems for an audience utterly ignorant of the cultural background. All in all they did pretty well. I can’t judge the accuracy but on their own the subtitles held up as coherent stories (not always the case with Asian movies IME).

  78. Arthur Crown says:

    Last night I watched Bugsy, a film about the gangster Bugsy Siegel, in which cocksucker was translated into Norwegian as drittsekk, just as motherfucker had been. Now, cocksucker and motherfucker are comparable in English, but ‘shitbag’? It brings me back to my original point, that Norwegian subtitlers can’t find equivalents for English swear words.

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