Whilst we’re always trying to translate film and video word for word, sometimes we just get a little stuck trying to find the perfect equivalent. Dictionaries and translation guides provide us with the core of language, but even these might not be enough for the modern translator. A good example of a case where literal translation isn’t always great is dealing with idioms, as these are often set phrases, which embrace the culture and history of a language. A literal translation doesn’t convey these ideas and can ruin an otherwise perfect translation.
For example, “cortar el bacalao” in Spanish translates to “to cut the fish” – however, as an idiom, the literal translation doesn’t really fit. When we take a look at the context where we use this phrase the most, it translates as ‘to wear the trousers’ or ‘to be the boss’ – this saying has come about because, in many Spanish communities, fishing plays an important role in the life of a breadwinner. Similarly, “sentir le sapin” in French – “to smell the fir trees” – translates as “not being long for this world”. The phrase is particularly sensitive to the French culture of death; fir wood is used to make coffins, and here the phrase demands awareness and sensitivity to its origins.
So, literal translation is often not the best way to work. Translating word for word can sound stilted, so seeking out a natural translation is key. We consider the tone your audience will expect and adapt to that – if your subtitled scene were one between two friends in a coffee shop, you would be far less likely to use formal voices and complicated vocabulary. Similarly, an important meeting of the military would demand sensitivity to both using the appropriate words and the tone of the piece.
When translating for subtitles, we also have to remember that audiences won’t have as much time to read your translation compared to reading a book. There won’t be time for a full, perfect translation that also allows cultural references to take centre stage, so we consider the most efficient way to translate, given the restrictions naturally placed in the medium.