in All Things Localization, Translation

Have you ever looked at the options available on your TV remote and wondered just how important subtitle translation really is? During the 2020 Academy Awards, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, a South Korean black comedy thriller that stars a Korean family challenging societal expectations, made history as the first non-English speaking film to win Best Picture. On the same night, Director Bong Joon-ho also took home Oscars for Best Foreign Film, Best Original Screenplay, and the award for Best Director, dominating the 92nd Oscar Awards. Parasite’s entire script is completely in Korean and subtitle translations are needed for non-Korean speaking audiences, something that is not commonly preferred among English-speaking diasporas. Despite this, Parasite raked in more than $35 million US dollars, and marked the first time a foreign language film was given this prestigious award in the Academy’s history. This monumental night challenged the perception that foreign films requiring English subtitles do not perform well with native English-speaking audiences. Aware of this, Bong teased in his acceptance speech that once audiences, “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, [they] will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. The ‘one inch’ subtitle debate has long been a barrier to film-making success across cultural and linguistic borders and success for filmmakers across global markets.

Subtitling and subtitle translation is a core part of video or film localization. Subtitles, or ‘closed captioning’ allows an audience to read movie script text and is widely seen as a tool solely for hearing impaired or deaf audiences. With an increasing number of films like Parasite revolutionizing Hollywood, turning subtitles on is becoming more and more normalized among wider audiences. Yet, subtitle translation requires more than just linguistic wit or even translation expertise. The subtitler must choose what to prioritize, while still reflecting the cultural and linguistic elements of the speech. Subtitles must be clearly and logically displayed, and text should read easily. On average, adult viewers have a reading speed of 15-17 characters a second, and subtitlers need to be aware of how many characters can fit on one line (usually between 37 and 42). In foreign language films, the number of lines is limited to two, and subtitlers must strategically capture the story plot, character emotions, age, and personalities for effective subtitling. With so much work involved, and reservations within the industry, directors are faced with difficult decisions regarding the localization of their films.

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‘To sub or to dub?’, that is the age-old question. The use of subtitling (sub), as opposed to dubbing (dub), has long been a point of contentious discussions within the film making industry and Parasite’s success understandably brought it back into the spotlight. Dubbing, or voiceover, consists of actors reading script translations over the original screenplay which allows films to be distributed in many regions. Additionally, dubbing loyalists argue that not only are subtitles difficult to read but that dubbing specifically preserves the cinematic experience and successfully captures the script’s nuanced speech through localized voiceovers without limited time constraints. Those in favor of subtitling though argue that using a subtitle translation approach allows audiences to appreciate an actor’s full cinematic performance, whereas voice actors in dubbing can misinterpret the tone of a scene and distract audiences from the overall emotional engagement. Interestingly though, dubbing is known to delay production timelines while subtitling is often cheaper and can be readily distributed and viewed across audiences worldwide.

Recently, audiences around the globe have embraced video and movie streaming services. An increase in time at home as well as closures of cinemas worldwide due to the pandemic have prompted people from different language and cultural backgrounds to enjoy a wide range of films on demand. However, the number of English-speaking films on these services far outweighs the number of non-English speaking films readily available to watch. In one case, explained by the NYT, the government of Iceland is concerned about the number of movies that are neither subbed nor dubbed in Icelandic and is actively encouraging the people of Iceland to help in their efforts to strengthen the Icelandic language. The country’s own education minister even wrote a letter to one of the major streaming services imploring the company’s support in the government’s approach to increasing Icelandic content. Video localization, through subtle translation and dubbing, plays a key role in language preservation and advancing language literacy worldwide. One estimation in India states that around 200 million Indians have improved their skills by ‘reading films’ through subtitling nationwide. Similarly, increased demands for dubbing and voice actors in movies cannot be ignored with some markets, such as the French, strongly preferring French-language productions.

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Regardless of your persuasion, there can be no doubting the value and importance of video localization through subtitling or dubbing for the film industry. Cultural preferences play a large role in determining the success of which localization tools to use (subs versus dubs) but there is no denying the necessity of adapting your film to diverse audiences. CSOFT’s network of 10,000+ in-country linguists and expert voice actors and subtitlers have the expertise to localize all subtitling and dubbing (voiceover) projects. CSOFT understands the value of engaging international audiences, helping filmmakers breach international markets and box offices. Learn more about CSOFT’s video subtitling or about our voiceover services.

CSOFT even has our own localized film here, feel free to check it out!