The language you choose, the solutions you find

– Hey, there are more
and more flying animals
– Even money is becoming
more and more volatile.

I came across this cartoon by Argentine author Fernando Rocchia and faced a surprising translation challenge.
A bit of context: “mosquito” is the insect, while “mosca”, besides referring to the fly, can also mean cash, as in this case (hence, the author put the word in quotation marks). So, on the one hand, we have the natural context, and on the other, the financial one.
The translation I chose, while maintaining the reference to these two contexts, set aside the names of the two insects, and opted for a generalisation. In fact, “flying animals” is a hypernym because it includes both mosquitoes and flies. At the same time, market volatility is a financial term, making it suitable to reflect the second meaning of “mosca”.
Therefore, at least in English, this strategy works well as it manages to convey the double meaning of the original words. If the cartoon were to be translated into another language, different challenges might arise, thus requiring alternative solutions.

Poem on Catalan, my fifth language

Quina llengua més maca!

El català,
l’has d’estudiar,
és clar.
Quan t’esforcis,
fins i tot mentre esmorzes,
no et desanimis
ni perdis les forces.
Perquè, com més l’estudiaràs,
més te n’adonaràs
de les coses que aprendràs.
És una llengua atractiva,
i, si prens la iniciativa,
ajudaràs que sigui més col·lectiva.
Posa’t mans a l’obra,
i si se’t desperten les ganes de sobra,
ves-te’n a celebrar-ho que després el cambrer et cobra!


Subtitles: the importance of knowing an often underestimated job

Today I want to present you the job of subtitling, a field in which I specialised and have been working for four years now.

Well, subtitling is a real profession, I dare say, an art. Although it seems easy, it’s anything but simple. It’s a process where a series of rules and techniques are hidden. These rules and techniques are meant to make an audiovisual product’s fruition as pleasant as possible.

In fact, the best subtitles are invisible, you read them without notice them, given that they are an integral part of what’s going on in the video. This statement is often mentioned in several research studies in Audiovisual Translation, in questionnaires addressed to viewers. Precisely the viewers have to read the subtitles while watching a movie or a documentary, which can be tiring. However, if subtitles are well made, they don’t spoil the fruition at all, they actually improve it by helping viewers better understand the video’s content.

But how are well-made subtitles?

First of all, subtitles are divided into intralinguistic and interlinguistic. The former are written in the same language as the dialogues, while the latter are in a different language. Subtitles are also specifically made for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH), which include all sound effects and the identification of who’s talking (especially if who’s talking does not appear on the screen), and for those who are learning a foreign language. Anyway, if subtitles are meant to be translated, more and more often companies put at subtitlers’ disposal a template, i.e. a file already filled with timed subtitles. Text is usually in English, and all subtitlers have to do is translate it, without changing subtitles’ in time and out time, nor merge or split them. This allows to have the same final product exported to different countries. When talking about templates, debate lights up. If at first sight this method seems to make subtitlers’ job easier, it actually makes it more difficult: there are languages whose words are longer than English ones, so not all the translated text fits. Subtitlers, not being able to change subtitles’ times and number, are reduced to mere translators and can’t implement their technical skills. Therefore, either subtitles’ content is further reduced, or subtitles seem to be segmented incorrectly (on the segmentation, see below). Either way, subtitles seem to be poorly made, or they seem to be missing some information perceived by the dialogues.

In addition to this categorisation, there are well-defined guidelines to comply with. These guidelines are created by companies which give professionals the videos that need to be subtitled. They deal with characters per line, subtitles’ minimum and maximum duration (they usually range from 1 to 6-7 seconds), reading speed, abbreviations, and so on. Also, it should be noted that most of the time characters per line range from 37 to 42 since the human eye could not follow the reading process with much more characters (as several studies have shown through eye tracking, a procedure that monitors eye movement).

Having said that, subtitlers have to take into account various strategies in order to stick to the rules and guarantee the best readability of the subtitles. The most important of these strategies is condensation, which means writing concisely the original message. This entails rephrasing a sentence, but also deleting redundancies and other unimportant elements in terms of the plot. Besides condensation, subtitlers have to implement a good segmentation. This means that in cases of two-line subtitles you must not separate the noun from the adjective, the main verb from the auxiliary verb, the subject from the verb, and so on. Moreover, where possible, the second line should be longer than the first one for the sake of a greater perception by the viewers (this has also been proven thanks to eye tracking).



Today I ate a good
sandwich for lunch.


Today I ate
a good sandwich for lunch.

In a nutshell, each subtitle, be it one-line or two-line, has to act as a unit of sense. In other words, it should have a full meaning in itself. Thus, viewers receive the message in a direct and instant way, especially since they cannot go back and catch up any information. This is a very important aspect of Audiovisual Translation: a video is not like a book, where you can easily go back and read something again, in a video there is a lot of movement, everything is happening quickly, and that’s why the written text in subtitles must be as clear as possible.

I’ve told you some of the things to take into account when subtitling. Sounds like a lot to you? Yet, you should know that not only subtitlers do have to adapt themselves to the rules each and every time, but also they almost always have very little time to carry out their work, plus they are paid miserably. Mainly due to the lack of time and the pressure they undergo, they often don’t deliver a flawless job, there is always some imperfections that may escape. That’s why, ideally, there is the proofreader who does the Quality Control, that is checking and correcting the subtitler’s work. I wrote “ideally” because not always do companies hire this figure, with the aim of saving time and money. So they prefer to take themselves a quick look at the final work. But this is just a formality, mainly because the product’s delivery or broadcast is near. As a result, unfortunately, viewers end up having access to subtitles that, under more favourable conditions for everyone, could have been of a better quality. Without this everlasting and excessive hurry, I am confident that more well-made subtitles would be seen around.

So next time you watch a subtitled programme, think about how much underestimated work there is behind those subtitles…

When there are differences among holidays in several countries…

Here you are another cartoon of the Greek author Arkàs. But this time translation is almost impossible because some holidays, although they are similar, don’t have the same name in all languages.

Let’s start and try to translate, at least literally, in order to better understand the hurdles we face…

“Good morning.”

February tells Monday (Arkàs has created a whole series of cartoons with months and days as its protagonists):

“You’re still here? You were supposed to be at work!”

Please note that while in English days are neuter, in Greek they are feminine nouns. For this reason Arkàs draws them as girls.

Now let’s move on…

Monday replies: “But shouldn’t I clean myself up?”.

And February responds: “You don’t need to!… Clean Monday is in March!”.

Are you messed up? It’s okay, don’t worry. The holiday indicating the beginning of Lent comes into play here, and in Greek it’s Καθαρή Δευτέρα (/katharì deftèra/, literally “clean Monday”). This holiday has some affinity with the English Ash Wednesday, the Italian Mercoledì delle Ceneri and the Spanish Miércoles de Ceniza. However, Καθαρή Δευτέρα is typical of the Orthodox world only, and it’s a real celebration. In fact, while in the Protestant and the entire Catholic world the first day of Lent is a day of penitence, in Greece it’s a holiday that goes beyond the religious meaning: kites are launched, and a lunch rich in culinary specialities, especially shellfish and crustaceans, is tasted.

Therefore, taking into account the literal translation, in the cartoon Monday has to be cleaned up and tidy before going to work. But there isn’t an effective translation mainly because in the other languages there isn’t that meaning of clean, so the punchline doesn’t stand up. In addition to this, the dates of Lent, and consequently of Easter, often do not match since they are calculated in a different way (although they usually match every four years). So, also for this difference in time, the cartoon is out of place.

To wrap up, when a translator bumps into a difficulty like that, s/he has no choice but to dot the translation with notes and references, or s/he may overturn the text, deleting every reference to the holiday. In this way, s/he may give free rain to imagination and come up with the dialogue from scratch. I’m leaving that translation choice to you.

Interlingual subtitling: a matter of accuracy and linguistic correspondence

When it comes to subtitling translation, not only is a text translated, but also there has to be a correspondence with the image and the original audio. In other words, subtitles must have the same duration as the dialogue. In order to facilitate the reading process, the most that can be done is to extend their duration about half a second more, right after the actor’s line.

Moreover, especially when the viewer is familiar with the language of audio and with that of subtitles, we must be faithful to the original text. In fact, if subtitles are used as support to better understand the original dialogue, even more so they have to strictly respect this faithfulness.

For example, let’s take the case of a viewer who chooses to watch a subtitled, not dubbed, movie in order to learn the language in which the movie was shot (in jargon, this new language is called L2, in contrast with L1, that is the native language). This occurs very frequently, which is why subtitles cannot go too far from the original dialogue.

In the light of these considerations, I happened to bump into this clip on YouTube. It’s a short scene from the movie “Now is good” with the English original audio and the Spanish subtitles. Too bad that the latter have errors. Let’s have a look at them together.

The first subtitle (“Tessa.”) comes in beforehand. This may happen when there is a scene change, but that’s not the case here. This subtitle’s flaw clashes very much with what goes on in the video and confuses the viewer. So pay attention to synchronisation: subtitles have to match the speech.

Then the protagonists say:
– What’s the worst thing that can happen?
– It’ll hurt.
– It already hurts.

The relative Spanish subtitles are:
– ¿Qué es lo peor que podría pasar?
– No lo sé.
– Estoy lista.

For the sake of clarity, I’m translating the Spanish subtitles:
– What’s the worst thing that can happen?
– I don’t know.
– I’m ready.

As you can easily see, subtitles don’t respect what’s being said in the original dialogue. Of course, they are coherent with the initial question, but unfortunately they are not faithful to the dialogue and, as I explained above, this could be a problem and lead the viewer to confusion. In fact, when I first saw the clip, I was bewildered too: knowing well both English and Spanish, this failed linguistic correspondence caught me off guard.

To wrap up, when it comes to subtitling, we have to bear in mind that the final audience may also know the audio’s original language. So, in conclusion of this article, I’d like to launch a catchphrase to all subtitlers: utmost faithfulnessstrict accuracy!

Translation between hidden meanings and search for equivalents

– Dear, guess
the surprise the kid brought you from her holidays.
– Mmm…
Stuffed doughnuts?

This is the second time I use a cartoon by the Argentinian author Fernando Rocchia for my blog. This time I will illustrate not only two other peculiarities of Latin American Spanish, but also how to translate a culinary product.

Firstly, let’s focus on the word “viejo“, which literally means “old”. I had already talked about it in my previous article where I said that it may mean “friend”, but in this cartoon we come across another meaning. In fact, it can be used to get someone’s attention; here, the woman uses it to address her husband. So, given that the protagonists are a married couple, I’ve chosen to translate it as “dear”. Moral of the story: always pay close attention to words translation, as it can be misleading, not only depending on the context, but also on the country we are in.

Secondly, “nena” is a – let’s say almost universal in the Spanish-speaking world – word to refer to a young and dear person affectionately and colloquially. This is why I’ve translated it as “kid”, a word used by English people to speak of a family member, be it a daughter or a granddaughter (even when she is already an adult ?).

Last but not least, the alfajores. These are sweets made of two biscuits joined by a sweet filling (usually dulce de leche, a sweet cream made with milk and sugar). Since they are typical of South America, it is difficult to translate them into another language. However, in the UK doughnuts and cream puffs are very similar to alfajores, if not in taste, at least in being sweets filled with cream. Before choosing how to translate this word, we also have to take into account the image of the daughter with child. Obviously dad hasn’t seen she’s back pregnant yet, but it’s clear that alfajores allude to her daughter’s roundness and her belly’s bulge ?. Consequently, I believe that stuffed doughnuts are an excellent equivalent to convey these features of the pregnant woman.

Riddles I

There are several riddles going viral on the Web lately. Here I’d like to suggest some versions translated into Spanish and English from Italian, even though they may be different from those found on the Net. I’ve decided to post them here too not only to entertain you, but because in some cases their answer is not the same in all languages…

Here’s the first one…

A pregnant woman wakes up and leaves her room.

She goes to the fridge and opens a can of tuna,
a soda, a yogurt and a biscuit.

What did she open first?

Answer: Her eyes.

The Spanish language in the world

– Look, bro!
  Today the flag is purple…
   What does it mean?

– That you’re wearing

Contrary to what one might think, Spanish is not an easy language to learn. Even for an Italian person it can be difficult, although Italian and Spanish are very similar. In addition, we must bear in mind that Castilian Spanish is the generally studied variant. There are actually many more variants worldwide. Among them there are considerable differences mainly in vocabulary, but also in morphosyntax in some cases.

Let’s take as an example this Fernando Rocchia’s cartoon that I’ve already translated into Italian and published on my Instagram account (@zanessis_traduzioni). In Standard Spanish “viejo” means “old”. However, by travelling to different Latin American countries, different meanings of the same word are discovered. So in Argentina and Peru it is used to refer to dad affectionately, whereas in Mexico it means “bro”, as an informal meaning of “friend”.

In morphosyntactical terms, too, we are able to notice a big difference. Rocchia, an Argentinian author, writes “tenés puestos”. “Tenés” is the second person singular present indicative form of the verb “tener”, but only in Latin America since in Castilian Spanish it is “tienes”. Therefore, the ending -és is used in the second person singular present indicative form of all verbs, but only in the Latin American variants of Spanish. Similarly, the Castilian Spanish “tú” is replaced with “vos” throughout Latin America.

So you see that Spanish variants of the American continent would require, on their own, a very thorough study…