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The art of audiovisual translation

It seems like in recent weeks, there has been a lot of chatter about audiovisual translation… especially about captioning and subtitling.

Our team at Ethnolink was pretty interested in everything going on around Squid Game’s translation controversy.

We thought it would be interesting to unpack this and explore the art of audiovisual translation — or the art of subtitling.

Is audiovisual translation really so difficult? What do translators need to do to produce high-quality subtitles?

Maybe you’re a translator or aspiring translator, hoping to learn more about this niche industry.

Or maybe you have a video that you’re hoping to get translated, but you don’t really know what to expect.

Don’t worry — we’re here to answer your questions in this guide on audiovisual translation!


But first! Let’s start with a quick recap

Squid Game is currently one of Netflix’s top series. It has hit 111 million viewers, has become Netflix’s biggest original debut and is valued at $900 million.

But for a while, all people could talk about was how bad the translation of the show was.

TikTok user, Youngmi Mayer was one of the first to speak out. As a fluent speaker of both Korean and English, she pointed out that the subtitles were changing entire sentence meanings. It wasn’t just inaccurate — it was also taking away from the show’s ideas and themes.

Eventually, people figured out that this was because of the settings they were using.

For more accurate translations, they should have been using the ‘English’ subtitles, instead of ‘English (CC)’!

But… why was there such a big difference between English and English (Closed Captions) to begin with?


Key point: captions and subtitles are not the same things

The terms ‘captions’ and ‘subtitles’ are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually two very different things.

Captions are transcriptions of audio. They’re targeted at people who are hard of hearing or deaf, and might have difficulty catching audio cues. Captions also include descriptions of sound effects — like [door shuts] or [dramatic music].

Subtitles are usually translations intended for people who don’t speak the language of the audio. But they can also mean same-language subtitles that don’t include transcribed audio effects.

Squid Game’s English (CC) is transcribed from the dubbed English version of the show.

Dubbing has its own rules which make the translation process even more difficult.

The main aim of dubbed voiceovers is to try to match their dialogue to the onscreen actor’s lip movements.

And if you watch Squid Game dubbed, they did an excellent job. (Seriously, the lip-sync is uncanny!)

But you can imagine how difficult it must have been for the writers and translators!

They had to shed entire words and meanings, or reshape dialogue to better fit the onscreen actor’s lip movements.

Hence, comments referring to the translations being ‘bad’.


But what makes a ‘good’ translation?

This is an age-old question.

There are many schools of translation that argue about what a ‘good’ translation means.

In the mainstream translation industry, a ‘good’ translation balances accuracy and fluency (how natural the text sounds).

This means that it’s not about the literal word, but the intended effect and meaning.

Let’s say that the text you want translated is a friendly introductory pamphlet. The tone is casual, and the speaker uses a lot of colloquial terms.

The translator working on this pamphlet would try to bring that friendly, casual energy into the translation.

A lot of colloquial terms, however, are culture-specific. For example, most Australians know that ‘arvo’ means ‘afternoon’.

But people unfamiliar with Australian culture would be baffled.

The translator may choose to provide an explanation in brackets. Or they may look for an equivalent term; one that is equally colloquial in the target language.

In the end, the choice a translator makes will depend on many factors, including the medium, tone, and context of the text.


Different mediums, different challenges

Audiovisual translation is the translation of the verbal components in films, TV shows, videos, etc.

And it’s usually harder than written translations.

This is because, in audiovisual translation there are not only space limitations, but also time limitations.

Not all translators are well-versed in what those limitations are, or how to work with them.

For example, a common strategy when translating books is to include a footnote to explain a cultural or linguistic gap.

That’s not an option in audiovisual translation.


Audiovisual translation plays by different rules

In captioning and subtitling, there are rules that place limits on characters per line, characters per second, and length of time on screen.

Audiovisual translators are trained to limit their subtitles to 42 characters per line and 20 characters per second.

Furthermore, subtitles should also be onscreen for at least 1 second.

These limits may even differ across languages!

For example, Chinese subtitles are limited to 16 characters per line.

This is because Chinese is a character-based language — a single character in Chinese is a word with a distinct meaning.

The guidelines for subtitling are based on average reading speeds, how many words the human brain can process per minute, and how quickly the eye can flick from one end of the subtitle line to the other.

Quite a few complex factors have been taken into account when setting those guidelines up!

And it’s all to help us create accessible subtitles that all readers can comfortably read.


How do translators approach audiovisual translation?

When audiovisual translators work on a project, they need to remember the above guidelines.

And there are different subtitling standards that different organisations use.

But numbers and quantitative limitations are only one side of the picture.

Subtitles should read smoothly and naturally, and line break placements need to be strategic, following natural breaks in speech.

Sometimes, translators have to get creative.

Different languages have different grammatical structures.

If you watch foreign TV shows or movies, you may have noticed that the information you’re getting in the subtitles is delayed or premature.

For example, in Japanese, verbs often come at the end of a sentence.

Translators working with audiovisual materials may need to rearrange translated sentences. This ensures that the right information appears at the right time to match the visuals.

This is why, in audiovisual translation, high-quality translations do not always equal high-quality subtitles.


As you can see, audiovisual translation can be quite complicated

Translators need to be creative and flexible to work within and around the restrictions of the audiovisual medium.

If a translator isn’t careful, this can potentially introduce distortions into the translated subtitles.

Something has to give.


Thinking about having your videos translated?

Audiovisual translation is hard.

Sometimes, there is only so much that a translator can do, and they have to make compromises.

But if you’re producing audiovisual content, there are things that you can do to make sure that your translated subtitles come out clean, beautiful, and best of all, accurate.

1. Be aware of your video’s speech rate

It doesn’t need to be at a snail’s pace, but having a voiceover in a measured speech rate allows subtitles to stay onscreen for a longer amount of time.

Subtitles need to match the voiceover content.

If the dialogue jumps rapidly into the next line, translators have to cut down the number of characters in each line of the subtitle.

They may have to stick to translating the essentials, instead of the fully fleshed-out ideas you wanted to convey.

Slower speech allows translators to include more information — which produces more accurate subtitles!

2. Pause between lines

A little trick that translators can use is borrowing moments of silence in the video.

The principle behind it is similar to why speaking slowly helps. Subtitles stay onscreen for longer, instead of diving into the next line of subtitles immediately.

By pausing, you give translators (and viewers) room to breathe.

3. Write for translation

I admit that this one is not limited to audiovisual translation.

But it’s important.

Writing for translation is about communicating clearly. Using Plain English is a big part of it.

You may also want to avoid using jargon and slang, which can be difficult to translate.

Humour – or worse, puns – may not translate well, either. Your joke may even be considered offensive in the target culture.

Just remember: those hard-to-translate phrases can make it difficult for translators to convey your message faithfully, which can potentially create inaccuracies in the translated text.

If you’re interested, we wrote a whole article on how to write for translation; feel free to check it out!


Did we pique your curiosity?

Ethnolink is a language service provider specialising in multicultural communications. We offer translating and subtitling services in over 150 languages!

And we’re always happy and ready to help.

Contact us here to get a quote today, or reach out to our Multicultural Communications Adviser at if you’re keen to dig further into this topic.

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