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Text expansion: Issues for voice-over and subtitle translation

English is the main source language for a lot of the audio-visual translation projects we receive. Some clients provide their own translations for voice-over or subtitling but hardly any of our clients are aware that not all languages remain the same length when translated.

For instance, German is approximately 30% longer than English (see image below) and Danish is approximately 10% shorter. Text expands and contracts in different ways and for different reasons. For example, grammar, syntax, word usage, terminology and sentence structure all play their part.

German Pen Translation

Text expansion in particular has implications on the voice-over recording and subtitling process. Let’s look at voice-over translation first.

Our clients come to us with two types of voice-over projects:

1) a “wild” recording i.e. the voice artist will read the script at a natural pace and the client will fit the voice-over into the video during post-production

2) a “Srict Time Constraints (STC)” recording  i.e. the voice artist will read the script to the time-constraints of the video which means that the edited audio file will perfectly fit the timing of the original voice over.

If we are recording wild into a language which expands when translated and the time constraints of the video aren’t taken into consideration while the script is being translated, then we are faced with two possible outcomes –

1) the voice over track doesn’t fit the video and the video has to be edited to match the new voice over track, meaning that more time will have to be spend on the video in post-production.

2) the voice over artist is asked to “speed up” their delivery to fit the overall timings of the video, meaning that the edited voice over track can often sound rushed and unnatural.

But the above scenarios can be avoided by translating to the time-constraints of the source video. Translating for voice over is a specialist skill that not all translators have and therefore it is important to make sure that your chosen translator has the right experience for translating video. There is a lot of creativity involved in re-versioning a voice-over script for a foreign market to make sure that the humour, idiomatic phrases and cultural nuances are translated in keeping with the original script.

For voice-over translation it’s also important to recognise that not only is the word count higher in other languages, but that it often takes longer to say the words because there are more syllables used. For example,

English: Just simply pick a direction – up or down.

French: Vous n’avez qu’à choisir une direction : vers le haut ou vers le bas.

This is another reason why it’s important to use a translator who is experienced in translating for voice-over use but this can also affect the time required for the recording session.

When you translate to any kind of time constraints, as a client you will have to accept that this may result in your script being adapted or paraphrased in order to retain the meaning but adhere to the constraints. However, this is more often the case when translating for subtitles as we will explain below. For the majority of clients, adapting their translations isn’t an issue because of the trust they have in our expertise. However, when it comes to translating medical or legal scripts, adaption can be problematic due to strict regulatory bodies. For this reason, it is important to discuss the subject matter with your localisation agency at the quoting stage so that they can set realistic expectation for you and your end client.

When translating for subtitles, not only do you have to follow strict subtitle time-codes , but the translator also has to contend with other constraints so text expansion can become more problematic. For example, there can only be two lines of subtitles per screen; each line cannot exceed 32 characters and each subtitle must be on screen for at least 3 seconds so that the reader has time to read and digest it. So as you can imagine, translating for subtitling requires a specifically trained translator – most subtitle translators will have a degree in audio-visual translation as well as a linguistics or translation degree.

So in order to avoid any nasty surprises later down the line, have a chat with your translation agency to pre-empt any potential issues when translating for voice-over or subtitling.

As a video translation agency we understand that it is sometimes better for your brand to use the same translator that you have been using for years and years as they will already have a huge translation memory.