A Brief Overview on Subtitle Translation


青春岁月 2016年5期


Abstract:As an influential tool of spreading culture, movies and TV series undertake irreplaceable responsibility in giving an overview of foreign culture to Chinese. This thesis is going to give a brief overview on Subtitle translation.

Key words:Subtitle translation;cross-culture communication

1. Origin of Subtitle Translation

“Almost since the invention of films in the ‘silent era, efforts had been made to convey the actors dialogue to the audience. The first attempt was in 1903 with what is nowadays conventionally called ‘intertitles or ‘inter titles” (Ivarsson, 1995:294). But at that time this word means the reproduce of a scene that contains verbal information in the original language when the movie was exported to other countries. People in that era call this action as subtitle, which has totally different meaning nowadays. But it is the origin of the term “subtitle”. It was not until 1909 that inter titles became an independent part and at the same year the US started to produce what we know as subtitle.

2. Definition and Classification of Subtitle Translation

“Subtitling can be defined as the translation of the spoken or written source text of an audio or visual product into a written target text which is added on to the images of the original product, usually at the bottom of the screen” (Gottlied, 1994a:104;). In this thesis, subtitle translation means the process of using another language to provide synchronous explanation for films and TV programs. The aim of subtitle translation is to help those with listening disability or lack of the ability to understand the difficult part of the dialogue (such as dialect or words with deep culture and social background).

When it comes to the classification of subtitle, there exist different criteria. It can be divided into two different categories from the linguistic perspective: intra-lingual subtitles and inter-lingual subtitles. The former happens in one language and is used when there are dialects that are hard to understand. The latter is appeared in at least two languages. Here we mainly talk about inter-lingual subtitle translation between Chinese and English.

3. Characteristics of Subtitle Translation

Generally speaking, subtitle translation can be seen from two aspects: TV series and programs subtitle translation, which have consistent and constantly repetitive meaning groups. It is about certain people and certain event, and the speaking styles of the protagonists are fixed. Another aspect is movie subtitle translation, which need to convey a large amount of information to the audience in limited time. Compared with the former, movie subtitle translation is more precise. The director of the movie tries to show his or her ideological understanding in maximum in a short period of time. The dialogue of a classic movie is usually full of beauty and profound meaning. When we translate it, we need to reproduce the charm of the classic in a concise way.

(1) Popularity

Different from novels, prose and poetry translation, the target receivers of the subtitle translation come from various social stratum. So the translators need to take their understanding ability into account. The language of the translation need use simple and daily life expressions, including proverbs, idioms and slang.

(2) Transience

A well accepted time for subtitle staying on the screen is two to seven seconds, which means there is little time left for the audience to react. However, if the subtitle stays on the screen for too long, the audience may reread the subtitle. Thus, being understandable and concise is the first thing that the subtitle translators need to consider.

(3) Synchronization

A suitable subtitle translation is expected to be synchronized with the images. This raises the request for the translators that when they do translation, they need to omit some unnecessary information. This can cause inevitable information loss. Thus, the translators need to find a balance point between information and conciseness.

(4) No Note

When doing literary translation, if the translator finds out there exists misunderstanding, he or she can use note to help the target reader in understanding. However, because of lacking of time and space, the note in subtitle translation may distract the viewers attention and undermine their understanding of the film or TV program.

4. Conclusion

The language information carried by subtitle translation is in a progressive manner. In terms of doing subtitle translation, translators need to take all the relevant factors into account to produce high quality subtitle translation.


[1] Ivarsson, Jonas. Subtitling for the Media: A Handbook of an Art [M]. Stockholm: Trans-edit, 1992.

[2] Gottlied, Henrik. “Subtitling: People translating People”[M] . In Dollerup & Lindegaard (ed.), 1994.

[3] 錢绍昌. 影视翻译——翻译园地中愈来愈重要的领域[J]. 中国翻译, 2000(01):61-65.


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