If you’re an international movie buff like me, you have no doubt come across subtitles that make no sense. While this is obviously the result of poor translation, where exactly did the translator go wrong? It’s a problem that’s unfortunately not exclusive to the movie industry. If you’re looking to translate your own video content for an international audience, you’ll need to overcome many of the same challenges faced by professionals. In this two part series, I’ll be looking at the cultural hurdles you’ll need to overcome when preparing – and optimizing – your video scripts for translation.
Language is a product of culture
Language is largely a product of what people do, see and hear within their environment, based on their culture and values. Words are created to describe the elements that exist around them, and language is structured to apply those words to describe what they feel, do and wish to express. Naturally, a tropical country won’t have as many words for ‘snow’ as the Inuit do. And if in my culture I don’t do something that you do in your culture, I won’t have the words to describe that activity. On top of this, and in today’s digital-savvy and socially driven world, where abbreviated becomes normality, words are morphed, made up or manipulated to adapt to environments such as text to tweets, that then become accepted by society.
Translation gaps in foreign movie subtitles or voiceover are most likely the result of cultural differences between the source language (SL) country and target language (TL) country. And cultural differences can be much greater barriers to translation than words are.
Words and expressions that are strongly culture-bound is where translators stumble. Armed with a term list, it’s pretty easy to translate text types that are purely objective, such as a product manual or a help file. But how can you translate the French language of love if you are raised in a stoic culture?
So how would you know?
In an ideal world, a video that is meant to be translated will be free of cultural hurdles. Of course it is impossible to know the implications of every word in all languages, but a culturally-savvy linguist will help you avoid egregious faux pas. The rule of thumb is to keep things simple, which does not mean abandoning creativity.
Many factors figure in assessing whether a video is culturally suitable for translation. If it’s technical, highly objective, it may not be a problem. That is, in a video that simply shows how to use a product, few subjective aspects should be present. Creative content surely is more of a challenge. A video whose goal is to convince someone to do something, like buying a product, will need to appeal to the customer’s culture-based sensitivities.
Which category does your video fit in?
Note that technical videos can also contain cultural aspects; they might just not be prevalent or consequential. What you need to decide is whether your video has consequential cultural hurdles that would impair understanding if mistranslated or translated too literally. The more creative your video, the more the right approach will lean in the direction of transcreation (creative translation).
Here’s an example: In an M&M commercial currently being aired, a red M&M is granted the wish to be a person. The human M&M (which was blessed with Danny de Vitto’s body) goes around asking, “Do you wanna eat me?” If translated literally, that would be considered sexual harassment in Brazil. A whole new script that matches the on-screen action would have to be created for the commercial to be considered for translation.
Different approaches to translation
The right translation methodology will solve different translation requirements:
- Straightforward translation can easily handle objective content.
- Localization is needed when you must adapt and personalize your message to each culture.
- Transcreation transforms your message – sometimes completely – to fit the target culture’s requirements.
It’s not too late
So you may wonder what to do with that genius video you just spent so much money to produce. It’s saucy, it’s memorable and it’s yielded unbelievable results in your home market. But is it completely unusable in the global scene?
Not necessarily. A good translation partner will certainly be able to find the specific talent to translate your material, of course, be that a knowledgeable technical translator or a super creative literary writer. But no matter how good the translator is, understanding all the nuances you meant to express can be a problem, especially the more subtle ones.
Considering localization from the beginning will ensure your message is understood and will be well expressed in the TL. In the case of legacy videos that did not consider that important step, however, not all is lost. You can prepare your video script for translation after the fact. The process is not simple, but it can be done by that savvy linguist we talked about.
The importance of understanding
Perhaps the most intuitive localization best-practice is that the best translation will most likely be produced by a translator who is a native speaker of the target language (TL) and lives in the country where the TL is spoken. This translator is the one who will be most fluent and know the most current expressions used in people’s day-to-day.
That is all very true. But let us not forget to consider the most important aspect of translation: understanding. A poet cannot write what s/he doesn’t feel, a painter cannot paint what s/he can’t see and a translator cannot translate what s/he doesn’t understand.
So what happens if your translator doesn’t quite understand all the nuance in your carefully crafted message? Literal translation is the most likely result. Awkward, even nonsensical…
Spell it out
The obvious way to help ensure perfect understanding of your message is to spell it out. To do that, you can create a neutralized script, in which you will simply paraphrase the original script at the core meaning level to mitigate the translation implications of any cultural content. Think of it as a skeleton: The bones are there, the translator will add the appropriate cultural meat.
Achieving a perfect state of neutrality may not always be possible, of course. The goal of your neutralized script is to remove, bring attention to or make suggestions for anything that is culture-based.
Your neutralized script can have different formats. It can be a separate document, but most helpful would be an additional column to your timed script to make it easy for the translator to use. Submit that to the Project Manager as a complement to the original script, and you’re on your way to great translation results!
What exactly should you “fix”?
Your neutralized script will serve as an “item definition” document, and will prevent misunderstanding by translator. Getting down to the nitty-gritty is the question now. In Part 2 of this blog to see a long list of aspects you should watch out for.