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Let’s talk subtitles

Recently, there was some heated discourse in the social media after trolls appeared abusing a firm for translating subtitles of popular TV shows and revered movies in Malayalam. The now infamous term ‘colony’ was tossed around to bring about a class structure in entertainment. Apparently, the shows like Breaking Bad or Money Heist or movies like Inception were to be appreciated only by those who knew English. Reminded me of the racist Americans who go around saying “if you don’t speak English, go back to your country”. While, ideally it should have been “if you speak English, go back to England”. 

If they are purists and have a problem with subtitles in Malayalam, then they should have installed Dup and started learning Italian before humming “Bella Ciao”.

Anyway, I do have some history with subtitles. Nothing much, except that I have been asked to do the subs for some of the short films my friends have made.  I do not know how that offer came about, cause I have never been expressly interested in the activity. I suppose it is because they have read the pieces of fiction I have written in English and thought I would be interested. I used to think that doing subtitles was one of the least creative aspects involved in filmmaking. That is, until I started attempting on my own.

Over the years, I have learned that it is not all mechanical. When we translate something from one language to another, there is a fairly high chance that some of the subtleties or nuances could be lost in translation. Some of the fine elements are often language-dependent, and a literal translation of the same would appear meaningless.

One popular example is adages or proverbs. “കക്ഷത്തിൽ ഉള്ളത് പോവേം ചെയ്തു ഉത്തരത്തിലുള്ളത് കിട്ടിയതുമില്ല “ is a commonly used adage by us. If we translate it literally, the non-native viewer may not be able to grasp the entire sense of it. Instead, a better approach would be to use an original proverb from the target language that has the same gist. “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

A similar case is when we use references that would click with the native audience but is foreign to the other audience. There is this scene in the movie Pranchiyettan and the Saint, where Mammootty is preparing a speech and Innocent tries to praise the one who wrote the speech by saying he is the Kamal Hassan in the field of speeches. The line works well with a crowd that knows who Kamal Hassan is. For a Japanese person watching the movie with subtitles, the idea would be lost if we kept Kamal Hassan in the subtitles too. Instead, a more sensible approach is to replace Kamal Hassan with the name of an actor who is known globally. Say, Leonardo Dicaprio. These are the little moments where the subtitle artist needs to be creative.

Creating subtitles is not a mean task. You need to be patient, and go line by line, while keeping the larger context in mind. It would be preferable to watch the video first to understand the setting before going ahead with the translation. And all you need is your favorite text editor. Notepad would suffice.


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