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Slang in subtitles

Key differences between spoken and written language, and how this can affect subtitling

Earlier this year, when accepting his Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho described subtitles as a ‘one-inch-tall barrier’. As increasing numbers of people have realised that it is, in fact, quite easy to overcome this barrier, the importance of subtitles has become indisputable.

You could be including subtitles that match the language of your video in order to accommodate viewers that are hard of hearing, or translating your audio for subtitles in other languages, to localise your content and reach a global market. Whatever your purpose, it’s clear that subtitles play a key role in widening your audience reach.

Crucially, subtitles provide a written, and sometimes condensed version of the spoken audio, without sacrificing any of the original meaning. So, what are the pros and cons of including slang in your subtitles? Does it help communicate the meaning of what is being said, or simply stand in the way of an effective abridgement of the spoken audio?

Key differences between spoken and written language

It’s no secret that the main features of spoken and written language differ. If you started punctuating your work emails with ‘umm’ and ‘like’ in the same way you do your speech when chatting with a friend, you might start to get a few weird looks. So, what actually is it that sets these two types of communication apart?

Well, in most cases, when we’re speaking we’re much more spontaneous with our language. Because of the speed at which we talk and our desire for ease, slang terms like ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’ are more frequently used, instead of the standardised versions that we have come to expect in written language.

We also use more fillers like ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’ to give ourselves a second to decide what to say next as we think on our feet about what we’re trying to communicate. This isn’t the case with written language, as we have the ability to sit and consider what to say (exactly as I am right now) before actually committing to the words.

This key difference also highlights how spoken language can often be less concise than written language, as we’re more likely to repeat or correct ourselves when talking. When writing, we have the ability to literally backtrack and adjust what we’re saying before anyone lays eyes on it, a luxury we are not afforded when speaking.

However, a big advantage of spoken language is our ability to easily communicate emotion and emphases. We can essentially point to things with our voices (like them over there), an effect we can only achieve when writing with the use of different formatting techniques, which, although can be used, aren’t very common in subtitles.  

Pros of including slang in subtitles

The use of slang isn’t only useful in saving us time when speaking, but also in showing an insight into the characteristics of the speaker. Ultimately, using slang terms can establish character and identity. For example, if a character in a film speaks in a strong regional accent and uses colloquial terms characteristic of this dialect, then we immediately know more about them and have a better understanding of who they are.

Important features like personality, class and background that are shown through the use of slang may be important in forming the audience’s interpretation of the character. So, if the subtitles omit the use of slang, are we effectively losing an insight into the speaker and their personality? Are those who rely on subtitles missing out on part of the character’s individuality?

If all slang is standardised for the purpose of the subtitles, those who are hard of hearing may end up perceiving characters differently, as an important part of their characterisation is omitted.

However, characterisation can also be reinforced by what is shown on screen. So, if the decision is made to standardise slang, it is important to remember that any viewer who relies on subtitles will still be able to visually get an idea of the speaker’s personality and characteristics.

Cons of including slang in subtitling

However, if the subtitles simply stick to using standard English and not include any use of slang terms, then there’s less likely to be any confusion over what is being said.

The audience may not be familiar with the whole host of different slang terms and colloquialisms that are used, so the meaning of what is being said may get lost. Although the use of slang has different connotations, it should be considered whether it is actually possible to portray these connotations in a subtitle. If the use of a non-standard form means that the true meaning may not get communicated, is it worth including it?

It is also important to remember that subtitles have character limits per line, which vary across different languages, and they must appear on screen for a minimum of two seconds. So, subtitles are naturally adapted to fit on screen whilst still conveying what is being said.

With this in mind, it’s clear that subtitles are not word for word transcriptions, and are naturally adapted to maintain the meaning from the audio. So, it’s worth considering whether the standardisation of any slang used would actually affect the meaning portrayed.  

So, what about when the subtitles are in a different language to the audio?

In this case, it can certainly be easier to standardise the language to omit slang terms. If the slang being used in the audio doesn’t directly translate into the target languages, using standardised forms can help to avoid confusion and content (literally) getting lost in translation.

Much like with idioms, certain colloquialisms can’t be directly translated into other languages without sounding like nonsense. If a speaker refers to the weather as ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, the transcriber could change this to something like ‘it’s raining a lot’ before translating it for subtitles, to ensure it makes sense in the target language. 

The same goes for slang.

If there’s a chance that a slang term won’t translate in a way that makes sense, it should be standardised. This would ensure that the original meaning is still intact and not lost on an international audience.

Make the right decision for you

Ultimately, the decision of whether to include slang in subtitles is up to you.

Consider who your audience is and the purpose of your video. Is it important that your audience gains an insight into your speaker’s identity? Would omitting a slang term affect the meaning that is communicated?

Are you targeting a global audience who may not understand specific terms? Although including slang in subtitles definitely has its benefits, you need to consider what you are trying to achieve and who you are targeting with your content.

Remember that subtitles are a written abridgement of the spoken audio and it is not essential to transcribe what is said word for word.

For professional help and advice for your next subtitling project, get in touch with Matinée Multilingual today.

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