Translations at 42 characters per line
They’re the maximum allowed for Netflix subtitles, which a fast-growing and rule-filled industry deals with.
In order for a film or series to be successful in several countries, it is necessary to localize them, that is, to make them available in different languages. For this to happen you need to make at least two versions for each language: one for dubbing and one for subtitles (to which audio descriptions for the blind or visually impaired and subtitles for deaf or hearing impaired viewers are often added). Each of these translations follows different logic and paths, which often proceed on parallel tracks but which almost never end up overlapping.
Over the last few years, with the increase in the content available on the increasingly large streaming platforms, requests for translation have also grown very and very quickly.
On the one hand, it is certainly a good thing, because it allows viewers to enjoy content from all over the world in different ways. On the other hand, however, there is a demand problem that exceeds supply, given that streaming platforms have now grown faster than companies that offer translation and localization services. Moreover, these companies have to deal with a context in which there is often a tendency to make the titles available immediately and all over the world, and therefore already translated into as many languages as possible, for example, all the episodes of a certain series. . In short, these companies have to work harder and faster; and in general, given the increasing attention of the public to this aspect, with ever greater care and attention.
All this, as it has always been, trying to balance the needs of accuracy and the limitations of time and space related to the size of the screen, in the case of subtitles, or to the movement of the lips, in the case of dubbing, in order to limit the so-called lip-flapping, the alienating effect that occurs when lips move in one language but words arrive in another.
Despite the constant presence that audiovisual translations represent in the lives of many viewers, and despite their being practically essential for the business model of services such as Netflix, Prime Video, or Disney +, little is said about them. Often however to criticize them; without thinking instead of how much they are, as Vulture wrote, «a minefield of logistical challenges and cultural sensitivities».
To stay on streaming services – which in terms of times and methods represent the most extreme cases of localization needs – obviously, everything starts with content. In the case of an important and expected series, such as Stranger Things, there is a way to plan everything with relative calm. In the case of unexpected and sudden successes, instead, we find ourselves having to chase: Squid Game, for example, in Italy it was immediately available with subtitles (otherwise it would have had a difficult life, being in Korean) but instead, it took 74 days because, thanks to the dubbing, his characters also spoke Italian.
For the future, there are those who speculate that large streaming platforms may decide to manage the translations of their content internally. Among other things, it is something that Netflix tried as early as 2017 through “HERMES”, defined as “the first online system of subtitling, translation and indexing tests ever created by a leading content creation company”. However, the system never started and Netflix continued, as other platforms do and still do, to delegate its translations to others.
Generally, each service, channel, or platform, therefore, has one or more companies with which it collaborates most often and a set of guidelines for those who have to translate its contents. In the case of Netflix, they are very detailed and they are these. There are also specific ones for subtitles in Italy: they say for example how to handle abbreviations, acronyms, and transliterations; or again, what is the limit of characters per line (42), how are names or nicknames translated (for example “Eleven” by Stranger Things ), how to manage punctuation, numbers, italics, quotes or repetitions. Among other things, it says to use “well” instead of “be ‘” and “ok” instead of “okay”.
The document also says that the reading speed for adults is 17 characters per second (more or less those of the words “characters per second”), 13 for children.
Then, however, the content must be translated. One of the companies that deal with this internationally is LinQ Media, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, and offers dubbing services in 25 languages and subtitles in over 80 languages, and which among other things carries out “closed captioning” ( those with written information on sounds, music and noises, marked with the initials “CC”) and SDH subtitles (partial acronym of “subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing”, subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing people).
Sophia Klippvik, marketing manager at LinQ Media, explains that production companies or streaming platforms typically ask for “the full package,” meaning translation into multiple languages. As a rule, whatever the original language in which content was written and shot, there is a tendency to try to have an English translation. It means, for example, that almost always content in Korean, Turkish, or Bulgarian is not translated directly from those languages into Italian, but first into English.
There are no immutable standards and procedures in the localization of audiovisual content, but Klippvik explains that in the best cases LinQ Media receives two things: the actual audiovisual content (in the case of a series, all its episodes already available) and, in the case of content originally not in English, a template translation into English of what needs to be translated, that is, a translation that acts as a “bridge” between the original and the requested ones.
There are cases in which the template text arrives already divided into blocks and lines according to the characters available in the spaces for the subtitles, and sometimes even with some marginal notes to help the translation of certain names or terms, perhaps because they are relevant for the purposes of the plot. In others, instead, you have to make do with what is there and, if necessary, also do the template translation from scratch and the division into blocks of the texts to be translated.
In the case of subtitles, the Italian translations entrusted to LinQ Media then go to Aura Benigni, whose role is “team leader” and who, among other things, manages a number of freelance translators and translators. There are no standard times for the translation of audiovisual subtitles, says Benigni: «sometimes we receive ad hoc spot requests, and we have to translate 45 minutes, in four languages, within five days; then there are regular customers who send us tens of hours a month ». In the latter cases, it is obviously easier to plan, and it may happen that delivery times become two or three months.
Once the order has been received, Benigni – decides, on a case-by-case basis, who to assign it to. He does it, he explains, according to everyone’s tastes, skills, and inclinations, because it is obviously easier to entrust the translations of a film about car racing to someone who is at least a little passionate and connoisseur.
The chosen translator then obtains the video and the template and, through a special program (which allows you to translate block by block and see what viewers will then see on the screen) the translation begins. In general, first of all, you look at the entire audiovisual content to be translated, so as to get an idea of the context and history (as when you read a book in its entirety before starting to translate it). Not always, however, because there are also those who prefer to translate at the first reading, perhaps than going back to fix and double-check.
It can also happen that someone has to find themselves translating the third season of a series without having ever seen the first two, and in that case, they obviously have to go and retrieve them, even without having to translate them.
Another particular case for those who make audiovisual translations occurs when content that has already been translated needs to be retranslated into a certain language, a bit as it happens with certain novels. It happens because different platforms have different parameters for their subtitles, but also because often the rights related to the subtitles are unrelated to those related to the content and therefore, simply, it is easier to redo them than to search and buy them.
In case of doubts, each translator has access to an Excel file relating to the language in which he is translating, so as to check for any terminological precautions. It also happens that we discuss certain issues or specific obstacles because, says Benigni, “a good translator always understands when he is not comfortable with a text”.
Benigni says that in the case of subtitles translated into Italian from English, the challenge is to start from a concise and direct language, therefore perfectly suited to the space limits of subtitles, to arrive at a language that is often more articulate and verbose. “Many times” he explains, “in Italian, there is no space to translate a concept that is rendered in English with a simple phrasal verb” (as are the verbs “get up”, to wake up, or “put off”, to postpone) .
A problem that maybe not everyone thinks about is that then in English we don’t use gender, and therefore someone can talk about some other person as a “best friend” without knowing if he is a friend or a friend. In Italian, however, it is difficult to make someone say the same thing without using a genre, but sometimes you have to do it because otherwise, you create misunderstandings, errors, and – perhaps even worse – spoilers that were not there in the original.
Other common problems concern words like “yo” or “dude”, whose Italian translation must be both correct and in accord with the context, and concise, and which must try not to be clumsy and contrived. Sometimes the most correct expression is not synthetic enough, and one, therefore, chooses one that is compatible with the space available, even if it is not the best in absolute terms and is not the one that would be chosen if there were no limits.
Even in the audiovisual sector, Benigni says, often “the translator’s skill lies in not being disturbed by the fact that one often strays very far from a literal translation”. Nobody is perfect, however: “sometimes I understand where the translator comes from depending on certain more regional terms that he happens to use,” confides Benigni.
Again in general terms, it is also infrequent that those who work on subtitles contact or even know who is doing the translations for dubbing, because the two are often entrusted to different companies. In the case of translations for subtitles and translations for dubbing done in the same company, says Benigni, “if the translator is good it is simply two different projects”. On the one hand, there is someone who has to work thinking about the space occupied on the screen, and consequently keeps in mind that generally, the first line is shorter than the second and that there is a certain number of CPS (characters per second) to be respected. On the other hand, there is someone who has to think about the lip instead, knowing that in the dubbing phase certain translations will be changed anyway.
Sometimes, even standard subtitles and CC and SDH subtitles are not done by the same person or at the same time. For example, it was talked about at the time of Squid Game, when someone – critical of the subtitles of the series – pointed out how the non-CC subtitles were better (in fact, not having to dedicate textual space to the sounds they have at least more space to dedicate to the translation of words).
To further complicate the intricate labyrinth of translations from which certain contents pass, there is the fact that in some cases the CC-subtitles are made starting from the dubbed version (and therefore already translated for dubbing).
As with many other issues affecting the content of streaming services, it is difficult to predict what will happen and change. Although HERMES never really started, there are those who continue to believe that large services can think, at least for a part of the millions of minutes of content per year to be dubbed or subtitled, of an internal solution, which involves large costs of dubbing. startup but which can prove to be very useful in the medium and long term. In the meantime, however, explains Klippvik, a general consolidation is undoubtedly taking place in the localization sector, with companies merging with each other so as to join forces and represent more solid and credible intermediaries in the eyes of the platforms.
Given that the sector is so growing – and given that machine translations still seem rather far from being competitive with human ones – it is also a context that could be of interest to those who would like to do translations. To do this, says Benigni, “you need attitude” and the awareness that it is “a type of dynamic translation, which requires the ability to always go forward”.
Link to the article on ilPost here (disclaimer – original language in Italian)