On Translating Film and the Importance of Preserving the Passion, Purpose and Tone of the Dialog

Language is wonderfully weird and difficult and full of nuances that can easily cause confusion and misunderstanding. I will admit that while working on a translation, I’ve gotten stuck staring at a sentence for several minutes, trying desperately to understand what it could possibly mean. Most of us have gotten a taste of the problem from the other side, too, when reading a book or a post that was badly translated and being unable to figure out what the author meant. After my first year of working as a translator and a subtitle editor, I have noticed a few particularly interesting and difficult aspects of translation that I’d like to discuss. 


Translating subtitles is a unique type of project, as it has particulars that set it apart from translating texts. Subtitles are, for the most part, renderings of speech, of spoken dialogue. There are many differences between spoken and written language and these must be kept in mind when working on a subtitling project. The way people speak can often be miles apart from the language used in a logical, neatly organized text. 


Preserving the voice of each character is particularly crucial. The character’s words reflect his personality, and give the viewer clues about who he is. Each character has something in their speech that gives their lines flavor, and a subtitle translator has to take that flavor and in some way get it across in English, too. As subtitles are limited by character length and reading speed, it is often impossible to get every word of the original Russian into the translation, and you have to paraphrase and/or cut parts of the character’s speech. Finding a balance between technical specifications and accuracy has been a challenge, one that makes you realize just how many different ways there are to convey the same idea.



Working on creative projects like film scripts and subtitles requires an understanding of nuances of language and especially being able to recognize the reason for a certain choice of word. One way to ensure that translations are accurate and that they fully convey the nuance of the original, creative text is through the translation review process. A native Russian speaker with an excellent grasp of English reviews the translation to highlight any inaccuracies, misunderstandings, or lost nuance.


I’ve gotten the chance to work with a number of reviewers on different types of projects, translating from Russian into English. I’ve also gotten experience working on the other side of the process, when I have done review of texts translated from English into Russian. This was another area that had its own challenges, but which I feel offered a unique chance to deepen my understanding of the language.


I have found that the biggest advantage to working with a reviewer is that it helps to improve both the quality and faithfulness of a specific translation, and to improve a translator’s skills on a broader level. The situation mentioned above, of staring at a phrase, baffled, and only being able to make a wild shot in the dark at what it means, is easily remedied by having a native speaker of Russian explain to you just what that phrase means. 

Review can help the translator get better both at translating and at understanding culture. I’ve felt this to be true on a personal level. Seeing my own mistakes and misunderstandings improves my knowledge of Russian. Often, after focusing on one particular word or phrase, you see it crop up in future texts and get a feeling of satisfaction when you recognize it and can translate it properly. I have gotten exposure to a wide variety of cultural references, archetypes and tropes which further my understanding not only of language, but of culture. The more you come to know about popular culture, slang, and historical context, the better you understand the way of thinking that runs through and underneath the simple language and words. You become aware both of linguistic nuance and societal nuance, and of the intricacies of communication on a deeper level.