How audiovisual translators shape our life

How audiovisual translators shape our life? [featured image] - translation agency LocAtHeart

How audiovisual translators shape our life

You press “play” on an episode of a long-awaited series. You turn on subtitles in the language of your choice. You forget about the world and let yourself be entertained. Once the episode is over, you waste no time starting the next one. Sounds familiar? 

Did you know that at the very end, there is yet another subtitle waiting for you? It’s the one with the name of the person responsible for preparing the translated text – the person thanks to whom we keep up with the plot, laugh at the jokes and get to know the characters. Although recently, the role of translators has been receiving more and more recognition, we still tend to forget that, for example, our favourite foreign writer does not necessarily write their books in our language. What do audiovisual translators have to deal with on a daily basis? How do they shape reality and influence language? You can read all about it in the article below.

Translations are like a box of chocolates…

You truly never know what you’re going to get. Let’s say you’re asked to create subtitles for a romantic comedy. The task sounds easy and pleasant enough – dialogues about love, conversations on everyday matters, a lot of real-life situations – basically, all you need to do is refer to your own experiences to choose the right words, no?

Oftentimes, however, characters use slang, make very specific cultural references, or have unusual hobbies that involve highly specialised terminology. For instance, on Netflix, you can watch a Japanese reality show called Ainori Love Wagon which helps young people get to know each other and pair up while travelling in the eponymous vehicle. The bulk of each episode actually passes in casual conversations. They can be funny, awkward, touching, and the language itself remains quite simple and unambiguous. That is, until the participants attend a lecture on the state of the Indian economy or a Thai boxing training during which specialist names of respective punches come out of people’s mouths at a rate of knots.

Another example – Live, a Korean drama about the lives of police officers. In South Korea, hierarchy plays a huge role and determines how you should address your colleagues. Apart from resolving and establishing the degree of formality between the characters, one still has to work out the target language equivalents of the police titles. It is very easy to fall into a false-friend trap and base the translation on the English phrases. For instance, one might be tempted to translate the English “officer” into the outwardly similar Polish “oficer.” In Poland, however, this term is used by the military, not the police. How can you avoid this situation? By doing thorough research.

Research, check, consult – the AVT Indispensable Three

This is where two of the most important qualities of an audiovisual (but not only) translator – inquisitiveness and meticulousness – should come into play. Sometimes, the translation of 42 characters (one line of subtitles) is preceded by several or even several dozen minutes of in-depth research or subject-matter consultations. This applies both to the terminology itself and the style of expression, as there are productions that revolve entirely around being imprisoned (it’d be nice if there was some prison slang), sports (fans of a given sport will quickly spot wrong terminology) or day-to-day life (knowledge of pop culture is a must).

Indirect translations: imperfect source texts

It is often the case that productions from non-English speaking countries are first translated into English and only then passed over to other translators. Therefore, when working on subtitles for Korean, Japanese or Chinese series, we sometimes have to deal with the so-called relay translations (translations of translations, or indirect translations). Unfortunately, in such cases, the source text may be full of gaps – we lose access to the nuances of the original script which may hint at the relationships between characters (as revealed by e.g. honorifics) and include wordplays or cultural references. The template, crude and lacking linguistic flavour, only outlines the context of a given situation, making it necessary to look for solutions by analysing the visuals.

Busted, a Korean series bordering on the variety show / mystery fiction genres, is full of absurd humour. The creators play with convention, winking at the viewer almost all the time. The language must reflect this dynamic – when it comes to the English templates, they seem to lack the lightness and panache of the original script. Here are two examples from the first season of the series:

  • Context: one of the characters, convinced that he has committed a crime and is wanted by the police, tries to disguise himself – and does it in a hilarious manner. He walks down the street in slippers and a patterned net on his head.
How audiovisual translators shape our life? Example 1- translation agency LocAtHeart
  • Context: the same character grotesquely tries to lose the policemen. He lies down on the ground, hides behind bushes, and looks around dramatically.
How audiovisual translators shape our life? Example 2 - translation agency LocAtHeart

Can audiovisual translators shape reality?

Though it may not seem so, language in the hands of translators is a powerful weapon. After all, in order for a given phrase to “catch on” among its recipients, the said group must first become accustomed to it, that is, read or hear it repeatedly. In psychology, a similar phenomenon has its own name: the mere exposure effect. Sometimes, our criterion for judging the correctness of a word is the it-sounds-kind-of-strange argument. Recently, there has been a heated discussion concerning the use of feminine noun forms in Poland. Though linguistically correct, they have been superseded by their masculine counterparts, which is why they might sound unnatural to some people.

Bad practices

Female forms go hand in hand with inclusivity. Creators of various media are telling more and more stories about the lives of diverse characters, including representatives of ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. The latest season of Netflix’s hit show Sex Education features a non-binary person who refers to themselves by using the pronouns they/them. The Polish translation, unfortunately, uses one of the most common translation techniques – paraphrase – forming the sentence in a way that does not indicate gender at all:

How audiovisual translators shape our life? Example 3 - translation agency LocAtHeart

This situation can easily be avoided, as Polish is an inclusive language. Simply have a look at the constantly expanding page concerning neutral forms (in Polish).

Fun fact: a James Bond mistranslation from years ago

Magdalena Adamus (audiovisual translator and author of the blog Catus Geekus) described a case of an unusual polonisation of the name “Pussy Galore” – the heroine of Goldfinger. The name was, unfortunately, translated quite literally.

The film, along with the now infamous translation, was available on HBO. How did this happen? Sometimes streaming platforms buy the film licence together with the already-prepared subtitles. And these were made first by Tomasz Beksiński, and then by Magdalena Balcerek who decided to keep some of the ideas of her predecessor. Nowadays, in the times of the #MeToo movement and powerful feminist initiatives, such a translation would be unacceptable.

Audiovisual translators: versatile, creative, necessary

Behind each line of text stands a question that’s been answered: “Which construction sounds the most natural?” or “What is the best way to convey this joke?” or “Is this a specialised equivalent of this term?”, etc. It’s hours and hours of hard, creative work, and sometimes, an uneven battle against time. At locatheart, discovering secrets of AVT is our passion – we’ve been in the localisation and translation industry for years. Therefore, we are always happy to share our knowledge and expertise with others. If you have any questions, please reach out to us by writing at this e-mail:

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