Did you know? When a film is released in a country which speaks a different language, there are usually two options available for the foreign language version: either subtitling or dubbing.
‘Subtitling can be defined as the process of providing synchronised captions for film and television dialogue (and more recently for live opera); while dubbing refers to any technique of covering the original voice in an audio-visual production by another voice’*. Europe can be divided into ‘dubbing countries’ and ‘subtitling countries’. Italy, together with France and Spain, is among those countries where dubbing is widely employed. This means that Julia Roberts, Will Smith and other well-known actors all speak perfect Italian. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, dubbing is only used in children’s programmes, since children either cannot read or do not have advanced language skills yet. The rest of the TV programmes and films are broadcast in English with subtitles.
I will not talk here about the advantages and disadvantages of these two practices in general, but rather about the challenges posed for translation services when a linguist is confronted with a text either to be subtitled or dubbed. In dubbing, there are some obvious constraints: the translation has to synchronize with the length of the speech act of the actor/actress, and lip movement has to be taken into account. However, subtitling is also a challenging activity. There is a limited amount of space on the screen, therefore subtitles should not exceed 2 lines, as well as 35 characters per line**. I actually translated a short documentary myself and did not realize how hard it would be until I was there, trying desperately to squeeze most of the speech into [...]