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When inaccurate subtitles hit the spot

Subtitles make movies accessible to an international audience. And yet they’re often inaccurate or incomplete. We explain why that’s no bad thing – with the help of Korean smash hit Parasite.

It was one of the biggest hits of 2019: South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Parasite won four Oscars and is credited with inspiring Americans to finally embrace subtitles.

But Bong isn’t the only one we have to thank for this brilliant black comedy: US film critic and Parasite subtitle translator Darcy Paquet also played a key role in bringing the film to international audiences.

Here, we introduce you to a few tricks of the subtitle translator’s trade with the help of an interview with Paquet. And along the way, we show you how an inaccurate translation can sometimes be right on target.

Timing is everything

A subtitle translator’s greatest enemy is time. Subtitles are only visible for a few seconds, and are ideally synced to the movie’s audio. That means translators have to take average reading speed – 12-15 characters per second – into account to make sure that audiences understand all the information they’re getting. For example, if a subtitle appears for 2.3 seconds, it should be no longer than 35 characters.

Back to Parasite: in one scene, a rich woman orders her housekeeper to prepare a dish of “jjapaguri”. This word is a portmanteau of two popular South Korean instant noodle brands, Jjapaghetti and Neoguri. The scene demonstrates the woman’s snobbishness – she’ll only feed this convenience food to her son once it’s topped with cubes of sirloin steak.

How could Paquet possibly squeeze all of this information into just a few characters? Simple – he didn’t bother. Instead, he merged the well-known terms “ramen” and “udon” into “ramdon”, and trusted that the visuals – packets of instant noodles scattered across a counter – would clue international viewers into the fact that this isn’t a classy dish. Sometimes, less really is more.

From speech to writing

Subtitles don’t just represent a change from one language to another. They also transform spoken language into an entirely different medium – writing. This is known as intermodal translation, and it brings with it a whole array of obstacles. As Paquet notes in the interview, international audiences can still understand a speaker’s body language and tone of voice. However, they’ll lose out on grammatical or syntactical idiosyncrasies, as subtitles need to be in correct English in order to be understood as quickly as possible.

Cultural creativity

As our “ramdon” example illustrates, subtitle translation requires in-depth cultural knowledge and plenty of creativity. And sometimes, it even requires a translation that’s technically totally wrong. In the interview, Paquet explains that he changed a reference to Seoul National University in Parasite to Oxford University. Unlike with the noodles, there were no visual clues to help international viewers understand that this is a highly prestigious institution. Instead, Paquet chose to substitute the reference with something Westerners would be more familiar with. It’s an incorrect translation – and that’s what makes it the perfect transcreation.

Title video: via Youtube (property of KOREA NOW)

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