“Lost in Translation, Found in Subtitles”

The Wall Street Journal published an excellent piece by Anthony Paletta about the importance of professional subtitling, notably the need to distinguish between “proper” subtitling and the many amateur, free alternatives out there.

I have to say that I never thought I would read something as gorgeous as the paragraph below in the press:

And much as our increasingly Web-based culture has blurred the line between amateur and professional journalism, often eroding newsgathering standards in the process, an expansion of crowd-sourced translation risks obscuring the essential—but already underappreciated—distinction between subtitling a movie and translating its words.

The truth is that not many translators are aware of this essential distinction, and Anthony Paletta deserves a round of applause for pointing it out.

The article also briefly mentions the technical challenges of subtitling, raises concerns about copyright infringement by unauthorized translations, quotes translation theorists and professionals, and offers a number of interesting examples that illustrate the complex and delicate task of translating a movie. (Read it!)

And it concludes brilliantly:

Someday there may be an app for that, but today, as ever, with a task as nuanced and slippery as achieving an accord across the boundaries of language, there’s simply no replacement for the nimble human mind.

David Bellos, the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, is quoted. I loved this book and I strongly recommend it. I will talk about Bellos’s book in another post, but I can say that I have mixed feelings about what he writes on audiovisual translation. The bit quoted in The Wall Street Journal piece reads:

Paid derisory sums at piece rates, the tiny band of English-language translators are among the least-loved and least-understood language athletes of the modern media world.

Underneath what I believe to be a compliment (calling us “language athletes”) is the usual set of stereotypes: that we are a tiny band, that we are paid derisory sums, that we are misunderstood. I strongly disagree with this generalization, but I will discuss it in more detail in a specific post.

As much as I appreciate Anthony Paletta’s article, my only caveat is that he focuses exclusively on “art” films — Godard, Wajda, Del Toro, Jarmusch, Zulawski. It’s the same that happens most of the time when translation theorists or journalists write positively about translation: they only look at the most elevated types of literature. Then of course, everybody concludes that it’s absolutely important to rely on competent translators and that machine translation will never replace an excellent human rendering for Joyce or Proust, that Google Translate will never acquire a truly poetic sensibility.

I absolutely agree with all of the above, obviously.

But that is just the tiniest bit of the iceberg in the world of translation. We need well-trained, competent, authorized translators for all sorts of things we set our eyes on every day. To keep it on the fun side…

Have you used your cellphone today? How would you feel if it showed you this message?

Would you like your brand to look like this?
(Granted, this might not be a translation, but professional proofreaders are equally important.)

Would you have fun working as the manager in this place?

What would you feel if you bought the DVD of a film with this translation?


My point is: it’s precisely in the most mundane things that professional translation makes a difference in the lives of most people. The amateur or automatic translations above cause much more damage, on many different levels, than a mistranslation of Godard.

One final remark: I’m not saying that all professional translators are competent, nor that all amateurs are necessarily bad translators. By the way, this matter will appear frequently in this blog, such as in this other post. The thing is that anyone concerned with their image, brand or product should take their translation very seriously and look for recommended and qualified professionals. The cost of going for the cheapest alternative can be terribly high.

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8 responses

  1. I enjoyed reading this posting. The quoted writers have interesting word choices, like “athletes.” There’s a website, http://www.engrish.com, with more examples of poor English translations.

    Thank you for visiting my blog as well 🙂

  2. Thank you, Mario. Yes, English.com is hysterical! 🙂

  3. Karla Sant'Anna de Moura Coutinho | Reply

    I’ve appreciated the article very much, even while reminding the subtle smile of an agency owner when someone said in that conference that authomatic translation could never replace human made literary translation. This man is a perfeccionist, who aims quality, so perhaps one of the main points here is that the focus agencies are presently keeping is not on quality but on profits only, desregarding translator’s proficiency and professional needs. (Athletes indeed.) Best regards.

  4. I hope you do write another post on fan/free vs professional/paid subtitles as I would be interested in your thoughts. The article you reference here brings up interesting points.

    1. I plan to write my first post about it soon! And your blog looks great! I need time to read it, there are many interesting insights there!

  5. […] I’ve talked about this before and certainly will talk again. If you want to sell a professional service or product, you need to convey a professional image. This shouldn’t require any further explanation. A Geocities-style website and a Hotmail e-mail address can look suspicious and put people off, and the same applies to the way you communicate. […]

  6. […] I’ve talked about this before and certainly will talk again. If you want to sell a professional service or product, you need to convey a professional image. This shouldn’t require any further explanation. A Geocities-style website and a Hotmail e-mail address can look suspicious and put people off, and the same applies to the way you communicate. […]

  7. […] I’ve talked about this before and certainly will talk again. If you want to sell a professional service or product, you need to convey a professional image. This shouldn’t require any further explanation. A Geocities-style website and a Hotmail e-mail address can look suspicious and put people off, and the same applies to the way you communicate. […]

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