The Heroic Task of The Audiovisual Translator

Written by:
Cristina Chaparro

Translating audiovisual content, especially when dealing with films and TV shows, is very different from translating texts and it’s not for everyone.

Audiovisual translation requires a great deal of creativity. You might think it’s very similar to literary translation, but there’re a few factors that make of audiovisual translation quite a tougher challenge than other types of translation.

When working on films or TV shows, it’s preferred to translate the meaning, rather than word per word to make sure we convey the same effect in the target audience. In this sense, it’s very similar to a regular literary translation, but in audiovisual, we face two major constraints: time and space.

Our translators have to deal with:

  1. Character per line limit
  2. Characters per second limit
  3. Two lines max. per subtitle

Most of the languages have the same limit, but it can vary a bit. For example, in English, we work at 42 characters per line, 20 characters per second; while in Spanish we work at 42 characters per line and 17 characters per second—just a slight change! In Chinese, however, the limit is at 16 characters per line and nine characters per second. All this, given that we’re working on adult TV shows and films! If we talk about children, then the numbers are lower.

Maybe it seems easy when you read it, but let’s spice things up a bit. Subtitles need to be timed to speech. That means that the subtitle must start right when the character begins to talk or a maximum of three frames earlier. But they also need to stop around 8-12 frames before a shot change. And what happens in a film when a lot of people is talking very quickly and even overlapping? And what if, apart from a lot of people talking, there’re some shot changes in between? In these cases, our subtitles need to be shortened. We’ll have less characters and less seconds to display our translation, but, still, we can’t let meaning get lost in translation.

But, fear no more! Our translators are professionals and well prepared to make sure we enjoy our films and TV shows in whatever language we need. Our translators employ several strategies such as equivalencies or compensation to make sure we receive all the information from the original dialogue.

One of the competencies of our translators includes implying information through the format of the subtitles. For example, when the text is in italics, it may mean that the voice is being heard through an electronic device; that the narrator’s speaking; or that the character is not in the scene—not just out of the frame!

Another aspect of translating TV series is the need to keep consistency among the translation of the different episodes. This industry goes fast, and everything is due yesterday, so sometimes PMs may need to split a TV series between more than one translator. In this case, a KNP (Key Names and Phrases) sheet can be used to make sure everyone provides the same translation for specific terms and expressions that may be recurrent all through the series.

As you can see, the world of audiovisual translation is full of challenges and details to bear in mind on top of the usual struggles of other more conventional types of translation. From Straker Media, we invite you to thank your local audiovisual translator or agency for the heroic effort they’re making to bring you your favourite content with the highest possible quality.