Subtitling: Why do subtitles never match the audio of a film?

When watching a film or a TV series, you might have realised that the subtitles don’t always match what the characters are saying. But, why? Shouldn’t subtitles be a transcript of what is said in order to convert the audio to text? Is it a problem caused by the translators? Or is it just that the translators aren’t good enough?

The answer is no, it’s not due to any of these! It’s due to various technical reasons. First of all, subtitles don’t match the audio due to a matter of time, since we speak a lot faster than we can read. The reading speed of viewers must be taken into account. Subtitles have to precisely summarise what is said in the dialogues without omitting any elements. The main objective is to not lose the meaning of the sentence, so some words are not transcribed as they don’t provide relevant information. The viewer must also have enough time to look at the film scene. Subtitles must be part of the background: the viewer cannot watch an entire film just reading the subtitles, they have to be able to focus on the images too.

Secondly, its due to spatial restrictions. There is a character limit so that the subtitle stays in the centre of the screen. Due to this character limit, translators have to rephrase sentences (sometimes to the point of pulling their hair out) and use synonyms to avoid repetition, or they even have to shorten some words to be able to comply with this limit.

Thirdly, the difference between the subtitles and the original version can be caused by the translator. In fact, some translators prefer to move away from the original in order to convey the general idea and turn the subtitles into a work of art in their own right, whilst others prefer to keep the subtitles close to the original, with the aim of them being there only to help the viewer.

Finally, there is one more reason to bear in mind. We are talking about the working conditions of translators, which can influence the quality of their work. Translators live under the pressure of pay (which is often too low) and the time that they have available. Either the rates are too low and people who are less qualified accept the job, or professionals from the sector accept the work, but it ends up being a botched job. Time is usually a problem in the translation sector, because there isn’t a lot of it available. Therefore, translators always have to be as quick as possible and unfortunately, for a job to be done well, it takes time. 

Because of these limitations, translators have no choice but to remove superfluous elements that aren’t necessary to understand the plot in order to create subtitles that respect the required conditions. It’s important to remember the fact that just because subtitles don’t match the original, it doesn’t mean that they are bad subtitles.

Leave a Reply