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Subtitles which leave out subtle but significant elements of dialogue could be missing out on important character traits, according to a University of Huddersfield linguistics expert

Matthew Olson
Japan
Local time: 00:20
Japanese to English
Subtitles drive me nuts May 31, 2012

I often watch Hollywood movies with Japanese subtitles on and it always drives me nuts how much information is omitted or outright changed in the subtitles. Needless to say I'm totally armchair quarterbacking here, but often I'm baffled by the choices the subtitler made. I understand that space constraints and cultural differences, as well as the difference in medium (written vs. spoken), necessitates much of this, but there are still many times where I feel like the translator was more in a 'groove' and just translated very loosely what could have been more or less translated directly from the original English. I've heard that most Hollywood movies in Japan are subtitled by one person and that there are often complaints about this person's subtitles from Japanese moviegoers, but I've never bothered to look into it.

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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 23:20
Chinese to English
Just a slight error in the headline there... May 31, 2012

"Subtitles which leave out subtle but significant elements of dialogue could be missing out on important character traits, according to a University of Stating the Bleeding Obvious linguistics expert"

There, that's got it!

Interesting you should say that, Matthew. In China, some of the very best translation I've seen is in the official prints of Hollywood movies. Obviously the pirate stuff is translated terribly, but when the studios translate the movies themselves, they generally seem to do a really good job. No idea who does it, though. I bet it's mostly done in the USA - you just can't get that quality in China.


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Stefano Papaleo  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 16:20
Member (2005)
English to Italian
+ ...
Money May 31, 2012

Who said there is no good money in the language business? The guy gets funds for stating the obvious and forgetting the basics of subtitling. Ain't that just great?

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urbom
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:20
German to English
+ ...
only English considered so far May 31, 2012

Those who read as far as the third paragraph from the end may have noticed this:
One of his goals is to move from subtitled English language drama to foreign-language TV and film.


This additional paragraph can be found in the version of the press release posted on the university's own website:
"The reason we didn't start with foreign-language subtitling is that an extra language adds an extra variable to the study. We can test the method by comparing English dialogue with English subtitles and if that works then we can move on and look at foreign languages," said Dr McIntyre. He is particularly keen to examine TV and movies in Italian and Hungarian, teaming up with colleagues fluent in those languages. Further grant applications are underway.

http://www.hud.ac.uk/research/researchnews/subtitlesandsubtlety.php


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Richard Foulkes  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:20
German to English
+ ...
This was one conclusion of my MA dissertation in 2000... May 31, 2012

No flies on me!

I hope he at least acknowledges me in his literature review.


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Matthew Olson
Japan
Local time: 00:20
Japanese to English
Information density problem? May 31, 2012

Phil Hand wrote:
Interesting you should say that, Matthew. In China, some of the very best translation I've seen is in the official prints of Hollywood movies. Obviously the pirate stuff is translated terribly, but when the studios translate the movies themselves, they generally seem to do a really good job. No idea who does it, though. I bet it's mostly done in the USA - you just can't get that quality in China.


Now that's something I wouldn't necessarily have expected. Very interesting

As I mentioned above, part of the blame for (what I perceive as poor quality) subtitles in Japanese could be due to the fact that it's basically one person in the industry doing almost all of the movies and I don't like their translation style (though, again, I haven't bothered to actually confirm this hearsay). But I wonder if it might not also be due to the problem of information density?

According to this Time magazine article that I believe was posted on this site before, one study gave Mandarin the highest information density per word among seven languages at .94, while Japanese was rated with the lowest information density at .49, which would basically mean that you can give a lot more information in a lot less space with Mandarin versus Japanese. On the other hand, however, Japanese is a tricky beast to rate these kinds of things. Since Japanese also uses Chinese characters, there are often times when you can get away with saying a tiny two or four character word that actually speaks volumes (needless to say, not always, though). I also wonder about how they translated the Japanese phrase for the study in the article. As the article states, they translated a standard "test phrase" into seven languages and had native speakers read the words out loud to measure the speed of speech and information density. Since the length of a Japanese sentence can vary wildly depending on how much context you leave in or out, I wonder if they translated their test phrase very literally and left in a lot of words that a native Japanese speaker might otherwise have omitted in natural speech.

Food for thought.


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JoelD  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:20
Japanese to English
To Matthew Jun 1, 2012

Matthew: FYI the woman who does all the subtitling is Natsuko Toda
Wikipedia page (Japanese)


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 16:20
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Then it's too early to defend Scandinavian subtitlers... Jun 1, 2012

Of course they make howlers now and then. They are humans working under pressure and not over-paid, I gather.

But in general, I am impressed by the standard of subtitling, which has a long tradition here, and of course subtitlers are aware of the fact that subtleties inevitably get lost when you have to shorten the text or dialogue for technical reasons. They work really hard to minimise the effects.

Interviews on TV, documentaries, films... almost all genres are subtitled rather than dubbed here, apart from children's programmes where the audience probably cannot read fluently enough to follow subtitling.

For every mistake or inadequate rendering, there are lots of really good solutions to difficult problems.
I watch the subtitles (as well as the programmes) regularly to keep my language skills up to date.

I would hate to see subtitling get a bad name, because I am sure dubbing is not always a better alternative - just suitable in different situations.


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Texte Style
Local time: 16:20
French to English
Reminds me... Jun 1, 2012

...of an interesting experience we had recently. The kids wanted to watch a DVD of Columbo, only a French friend was with us. He agreed to watch with the subtitles, thinking he could probably understand most of the dialogue in English, so we started out like that.

After a few minutes he said that in fact he would prefer the dubbed version since the characters mumbled so much. We switched to the dubbed version but couldn't get rid of the sub-titles. Strange, and really annoying for me at least since I can't stop myself from reading even when I understand perfectly.

Especially as the sub-titles and dubbed dialogue had clearly not been translated by the same person!

At one point, in answer to a question phrased differently in each version we actually heard Columbo saying "Non ce n'est pas vrai" and read "Oui c'est exactement ça"!


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George Hopkins
Local time: 16:20
Swedish to English
Crackers Jun 1, 2012

Sweden calling...
One of my favorites is a very old Christmas edition of the BBC series "Until death us do part" (I think).
The main character who is very racist indeed always loses his verbal conflicts.

I play the tape every year.

Christmas crackers becomes the Swedish equivalent of fireworks in the subtitles.

[Edited at 2012-06-01 12:08 GMT]

[Edited at 2012-06-01 12:12 GMT]


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Faustine Roux  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:20
English to French
Dubbing vs subtitling Jun 1, 2012

Texte Style wrote:



Especially as the sub-titles and dubbed dialogue had clearly not been translated by the same person!



Because dubbing and subtitling are two different techniques and have different parameters. That's totally normal, and even a good sign, if the subtitles differ from the dubbed version. But I don't think a "yes" in one version should become a "no" in the other...

[Modifié le 2012-06-01 13:37 GMT]


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NataliaAnne  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 13:20
Portuguese to English
Dubbing and/or Subtitling Jun 1, 2012

What I can’t get my head around is the Brazilian travel program where the Brazilian interviewer asks questions in English, which then have subtitles in Portuguese, and the interviewee answers in English but is dubbed over in Portuguese?! This drives me nuts; surely it should be one or the other and not a mix?!?

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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:20
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Wow. I'm impressed. Jun 1, 2012

So " a University of Huddersfield linguistics expert" no doubt after much research, has discovered that subtitles cut out a lot of the dialogue and miss nuances.

Wow! I never knew that !


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 16:20
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
He states the problem, but does not offer solutions Jun 1, 2012

He states the problem, but does not offer any solutions for it. The problem is that the way a character talks can say a lot about the character (and the story), and this information is missing from the subtitles. The only solution I can think of is to take a hint from the commentary-happy generation of fansubbers, who place dialog at the bottom of the screen but add extra informational stuff e.g. explanations at the top of the screen. A hard-of-hearing person can then choose whether to watch the film with those comments enabled or not. I can think of no other way to get this type of information through to the viewer.

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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 23:20
Chinese to English
Not clear there even is a problem Jun 1, 2012

This research is duff in so many ways.

Blokey compares a full transcript against closed caption subtitles, and finds differences. He notes that some of these differences might lead to a reduction in information conveyed, compared with reading the transcript.

Two problems:
1) No-one reads transcripts. They watch the TV, and the human face is famously expressive. He has done nothing to show that deaf people reading the captions actually *do* get less character information; he has only guessed that they might.

2) There's no mention in the press release about whether he's looked at techniques subtitlers use to add character information. Visual accent spelling? Stammers and disfluencies? Subtitle timing? You'd expect there to be some loss of information in the passage from voice to text, but who knows, just maybe subtitlers have thought of that and have mitigating strategies?


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Subtitles which leave out subtle but significant elements of dialogue could be missing out on important character traits, according to a University of Huddersfield linguistics expert

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