Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Making subtitles for fun

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I embarked on a pretty ambitious summer project: to make English subtitles for the movie, Architecture 101. I know that I could easily just download an SRT file somewhere, and even if it's out of sync, it wouldn't be too hard to match up the time settings because I understand both languages. But the point is not to actually have the subtitles; it's to make them.

Subs Factory: The program that I use to create subtitles

In the past, I used to try to subtitle various Korean TV shows as an exercise to not only improve my Korean vocabulary, but also to try to explore the almost-inexpressible subtleties between the Korean and English languages. The never-ending struggle in subtitling (and translation in general) is to strike that balance between faithfulness to the original dialogue/text and natural speech in the translated language. If you make too direct a translation, then the result will be awkward, stilted, and possibly comical. But if you take too many liberties, you may actually end up significantly altering the source material.

An example of a Korean word that I find very difficult to translate is "놈", which is pronounced "nom" (with the "o" sounding like "Ohm", except not drawn out). It's kind of a swear word, but it's also not. If you say it to a stranger, you'll probably start a fight. But friends use it with each other to just joke around, as do parents with their children. What's the English equivalent? Maybe "bastard"? But if you put that in subtitles, it can look extremely harsh, especially when you have a father character saying it to his kid.

Our very own artisanal handcrafted subtitles!

In fact, some of the hardest stuff to translate happens when parents talk to their kids. For example, there are lots of half-cute/half-chastizing words in Korean that a parent can use when his/her kid does something stupid. But if you translate that into English, they tend to come out as "Idiot", "Fool", "Dumbass", etc. It ends up sounding very cruel and abusive when it's not.

When I make subtitles, I also realize how much is irretrievably lost in translation. That saddens me because that means no matter how well a French, Chinese, or Turkish movie is subtitled, I am probably losing at least about 50% of what makes the movie good. Even if I were somehow to magically become fluent in the relevant language, I would probably miss out on all the cultural stuff that you can only get from growing up in that culture. I mean, I grew up in a Korean household with immigrant parents who always spoke to me in Korean, and I understand most stuff in TV shows and movies, but I'm still not in tune with the culture-specific stuff because. For example, I never went through the Korean school system, served (or had to think about serving) in the military, etc.

Like when I was watching Answer Me 1997, I wasn't able to directly relate to the epic H.O.T. vs. g.o.d. fanwars that ensued in the 1990s. And I'll never be able to. Sadness.

Anyway, the program I use is called Subs Factory, and it's free to download. The only bothersome thing about it is that it can only play MP4 videos, I think. Therefore, if you have files like AVIs and MKVs, you'll need to download/buy a video file converter to change them to MP4s.

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