Translation On The Silver Screen

These days, movies and even TV shows are expected to play for a global audience. However, translating them is often as difficult as translating literature. So much of what makes a successful film or TV show “work” is rooted in local culture. For example, consider Disney’s recent worldwide release of “Cars 2.”   Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of Disney Character Voices, told Forbes that “Mater”, one of the most popular characters, was also the most challenging to translate:

“Mater’s kind of a redneck, but that means nothing to anyone overseas because they don’t have that particular vocal culture. So we had to figure out what region of Germany, for example, has more of an uneducated population without being offensive.”

Another challenge is that even in countries that speak the same language, words can vary in meaning and connotation. So, trying to translate from one widely spoken language to another, like from English to Spanish,  requires in-depth knowledge of how the language is used in all of the countries that speak it. It’s much more difficult that it appears to outsiders. For example, Elena Barciae, who translates English films into Spanish versions aimed at Central and South America, told Forbes:

“The more slang, the harder it gets because slang tends to be very localized. Simple words are affected, too. `Bicho’ means bug everywhere except Puerto Rico, where it’s a slang word for a part of the male anatomy. That wouldn’t go over too well for the title of `A Bug’s Life,’ would it?”

Sometimes, the basic premise simply doesn’t translate. For example, Phil Rosenthal, the writer behind the popular American series “Everybody Loves Raymond,” thought that his sitcom about everyday family life would have universal appeal. Not so much, as it turns out. He told NPR:

“When I got to Russia. They said to me, ‘Real life is terrible, why would we put that on television?”

While he managed to eventually create a version of the sitcom that resonated with Russian audiences, it’s not something he wants to do again.

As the world grows ever smaller, it will become ever more important for studios to hire talented translators. Companies that try to take short cuts will more than likely lose out on international revenue.

3 replies
  1. jmb
    jmb says:

    Hola! I was reading your blog and thinking that maybe you or your readers find interesting this new language learning website. It has a lot of music videos subtitled in English, Spanish and French! Check it out!

  2. Mike
    Mike says:

    Another problem is that languages are constantly evolving and the use of slang seems to be on the increase in every day language. I obviously can’t speak for all languages, but being a teacher I have seen the changes over the years and it is difficult for a native speaker to keep up with at times never mind a non native who is trying to stay up to date with multiple languages. Dialects are a problem too. (British vs. Canadian vs. American)

  3. Krzysztof
    Krzysztof says:

    Indeed, I find film translation one of the most demanding task. The work you do depends on various factor: as you said, the challenge to convey the meaning itself but there are number of other things you have to consider: time and space limits, your audience and so on. But for me AVT is one of the most enjoyable kind of translation.


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