Audio-Visual (Film) Translation Challenges


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Film translation has been a thing since time immemorial and I can tell you for sure being someone who has been doing it for almost 5 years now, it is not the easiest thing to deal with. Note I am talking about film translation and not normal document translation. The difference between the two is that one is usually super direct from word to word while the other has to follow certain specific factors that if not followed to the maximum might end up messing up the whole film. 

A lot of translators, myself included, knowing how challenging and harsh the translation job gets and how much we have to deal with before we can fully translate a film and still end up with the original context and original meaning. Being able to consider cultural and linguistical factors is where it gets hard, but we always have to make it work.

It is very easy for a film to lose its original meaning and context when certain factors are not taken into consideration. When done well, film translation has the potential to attract the attention of critics and film technicians all over the world; but when poorly executed, film translation can make a comedy out of a serious drama. A single mistake or mistranslation might end up distorting the original message that the film was intended for. With that mentioned, we will look at some main aspects that make translation such a hard task and why they do this. I sure have faced some of these challenges, and I believe other translators have too.

Before we get into the challenging aspects of film translation, I will introduce to you the two main processes in film translation so you can have a general understanding of what I am talking about before we get on with the matter at hand.

There are two main known forms of film translation in the world today, and that is Dubbing and Subtitling. These two processes involve localization of films into local languages to expand the audience reach of different film works. The difference between the two is that one specializes in an audio format and the other specializes in a text format.

Dubbing is the film process that deals with translation of the audio into different languages to localize to meet the expectations of a specific target market while subtitling is the film process that deals with creating translated texts at the bottom of a film screen to serve the same purpose as the dubbing process.

Both processes have their challenges and benefits as they are, but in this article, we will look at general aspects that make it hard to work on these processes to perfection. By perfection I mean, being able to work on them and make sure that the finished product mirrors the sentiments and meanings of the original film.

Aspects that make film translation challenging:

1. Slang.

Slang I described as a language that is normally used by people of specific language in normal day-to-day lives, but it’s not necessarily the original language of the people. Imagine how hard it might have to translate a certain country’s slang into the official language of the country and then imagine how hard it would be to translate it into a different language from another country. It really gives translators a hard time, because then it’s them to come up with a slang that holds the same meaning as the original slang or end up doing a direct word to word translation that more times than not ends up messing up the meaning of the film. Also, having to translate the slangs while still taking into consideration the cultural differences between the two languages usually makes things even harder.

2. Nicknames.

How do you even start translating a nickname into another language? Whoever knows the answer to this question, please let me know. I have a nickname and I can’t even translate it into my native language because if it’s not impossible then doing it will definitely not bear the same meaning it bears in its original form. Also, depending on what the nickname is, it’s very important to consider the behavioral and cultural connotations that are involved and how they would be perceived in another language. Different languages perceive different statements differently, and doing a direct translation of a particular name might be offensive in the target language. It’s hard but to crack for translators, but we try our best to make things work.    

When a film has been well translated, the result should be that the same feelings are evoked in a foreign viewer as are evoked in a local viewer.

3. Profanity.

Ask any film translator and they will tell you for sure how much they don’t like films that usually have profane words they have to translate to other languages. It’s such a tricky situation for profanity because more times than not what’s offensive in one language might not be offensive in another language and that time you expected to evoke the same meaning as the original with your translation. Depending on your language pair as a translator, you must first understand the cultural and linguistic differences and use that knowledge when translating. This doesn’t really make the translation easier, but at least it acts as some form of reference. We see this more often in historical films, where a dialect’s used that’s not commonly spoken. So now the translator has a challenge! Their job is to ensure that the same level of offensiveness is maintained as the original phrase or word while remaining as faithful to the original as they can.

4. Gestures.

Have you ever wondered why it is advisable to use Native translators when looking for a translator for your film translation? This is because of the cultural differences of different languages. For gestures, translating them becomes even harder because there are gestures that have different meanings in other languages and the translator needs to have this information prior to beginning on their translation works. Being a native speaker means that you know the gestures in your culture and what they mean, and so it becomes easy for you to handle such situations. In India, for example, a gesture that people in the West refer to as ‘the Indian chinwag’ can become very confusing. It looks like something between a shake and a nod of the head, but in fact, it’s neither. It means ‘okay’ in most parts of India, as in ‘I accept what you’re saying’ or ‘I agree’; but Westerners become confused by this gesture. Using a native translator always comes in handy in such situations because they will know how to manipulate the translation and make it have the same meaning as the original one.

5. Maintaining Nuances and Tone.

Translators must also be able to maintain the nuances and tonal variations of the original film. When learning English I remember my teacher mentioning that tonal variations and how certain statements are pronounced has a way of creating different meanings for them. There specific factors that might make this difficult but translators need to do their best and ensure that the end product is as good as possible. Noting the idioms, expressions, jokes and sarcastic remarks can really be a task but none the fewer translators need to do it and do it to perfection.

6. Untranslatable Words.

I know you are wondering if there are words that cannot be translated. The answer is yes, there are specific words that cannot be translated from one language to another because translating them will end up throwing them off the original meaning. Translators usually have to work around these words to make translations that would best suit the scenes and the text of the scene, which is usually not an easy thing to do. The untranslatable words usually have no true equivalent in another language.

7. Overcoming Cultural Differences.

The process of translation should strive to overcome cultural differences, which is one of the main challenges that translators usually face when translating. Always having to compare and contrast, the cultural difference of the languages they have to work with is normally not a walk in the park. It becomes even harder when the translator is not a Native speaker of a particular language, and so their research has to be thorough. Film directors would want to spark a certain emotion or thought, but cultural differences might not allow that to happen.  

These are just some challenging aspects of translation that a lot of translators have to deal with. Being able to work around all these aspects and still maintain the context and meanings of the original film is usually a challenge, even for the most experienced film translator. When a translator gets it right, though, the sky is the limit when commanding their translation fee.

8. Humor is one of the biggest challenges in translation

Explaining humor is the most challenging task for translators because the sense of humor depends on the cultural background of a person. Think about the famous ‘British humor’ and how even other English-speaking populations rarely have a taste for it. Now, imagine how hard it is to overcome language barriers and still be funny.

There’s a direct correlation between humor and languages, even when jokes are visual or musical. That’s because language and history are fundamental to the way we think and relate to the environment and other people.

Sometimes translators can’t transmit the amusing part because there’s no equivalent wordplay in the target language. In other cases, the cultural background of an audience doesn’t allow them to understand the humor.

Understanding jokes and translating them involves in-depth knowledge of the language pair, as well as the target audience. Without knowing how people think and what type of humor they’re used to, translating jokes is impossible.

Sarcasm and exaggeration, for instance, often used to create humor in the U.S. wouldn’t make a Chinese audience laugh. It’s the same with someone making fun of themselves, as this rarely happens in Asian countries.  

9. Translating Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs are tough challenges in translation, especially when translating from English into languages that don’t use similar constructions.

Phrasal verbs are composed of a verb and a preposition, or an adverb, or both. This makes it difficult for translators to recognize it at first glance. Most translators are native speakers of the target language, so English is their second language.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the phrasal verb gets an entirely different meaning after you add the preposition or adverb.

Think about “to run” vs “to run away” vs “to run into”. It may be easy for you to notice the difference, but for someone who doesn’t speak English every day, it can be a real challenge to get the right meaning of each of these three verbs.

Moreover, when a phrasal verb has more than one explanation, like “to put down.” In this case, the translator needs context to understand the right meaning and deliver an accurate translation. 

10. Prefixes and Suffixes are challenges in Translation

Prefixes and suffixes create variety in English. They also turn nouns into adjectives or verbs into nouns, which can quickly become a translator’s nightmare, especially when the target language isn’t that flexible when it comes to creating new words.

These groups of letters that English speakers often use to provide deeper meanings to words are hard to translate when the other language doesn’t have so many layers to express the same concept.

Most languages use prefixes and suffixes to create new words, but each one has different rules when it comes to preserving meanings and empowering words.

Slang, for example, uses many compound words, as well as suffixes to give new meanings to existing words, making it hard for translators to translate the right message in a different language.  

11. Words with no correspondent in the target language

Every language has words that are impossible to translate into some other languages, such as “serendipity” or “procrastination”. When one language has a specific word to describe a situation, finding an alternative expression in another language becomes a challenge in translation.

Asian languages, for example, have many words to describe feelings and sensations that are hard to translate into other languages using a single word.

“Shinrin-yoku” is the Japanese way of expressing the relaxation you get from bathing in the forest (both figuratively or literally). The Chinese “Yuan bei” means a sense of complete accomplishment.

12. Multiple meanings

English and Japanese are probably two of the most complex languages that exist on the planet, and although they are from very different ends of the spectrum in terms of alphabet, spoken language and geography, the two suffer from one very similar problem that can create a real headache for any translator anywhere in the world. Words in each of these languages can often have a double meaning. For example, in English, scales can either mean a part of a fish or a kitchen utensil, where in Japan, simply writing the kanji is not enough, because things can be written one way and said differently. Both of these are common issues in their languages, and each needs an expert at hand at all times to find effective and accurate workarounds. 

13. Missing words

Not everything translates. For anyone looking to have documentation translated into a target language, that can be a scary prospect, but it’s the straight-up truth. While the majority of languages will have words and phrases for most things, there are always certain words and phrases that are just either totally different or missing entirely from target languages. This causes myriad problems for translators, who have to find a workaround for that German word that just doesn’t have an English equivalent. It may not make translation impossible, but it does for certain make it a more challenging prospect, and further shows the need for someone working on any documents to be a highly skilled and experienced prospect indeed. 

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