Screen Translation

Screen translation is a relatively new branch of translation that developed rather dynamically. Increasing number of conferences, courses and workshops on the topic, as well as the creation of organizations of screen translators attest to its growing importance. It involves the use of sound and imagery in translation, in order to express the translated message as fully as possible.

In its contemporary form, screen translation embraces the interpretation as well as the clarification of verbal symbols by means of non-verbal symbols; a foreign audience might find the cultural context incomprehensible.

Reduction Is Necessary

Viewers read more slowly than they perceive sound. Therefore, to track all of the components of the film simultaneously, the text must be reduced to a minimum. The translation must harmonize with all the elements of a film. The translator’s task is to decide what information from the source text can be omitted and what must remain in the target text in order to preserve character and intention. The type, color, size, and location of the font are also important components for successful screen translation.

Subtitles at the Bottom of the Screen

Ideally, they should not exceed two lines. Translators use specialized tools and popular software like Subtitle Workshop, SSA Tool, and Subedit-Player to do this. This technique provides less interference with the film itself, allowing viewers to appreciate the skills of the actors on screen. Viewers who are also listening to an original version of the film can compare it with the subtitles. They have direct contact with the source language and its culture, which is a valuable experience for them.


Dubbing replaces the source audio with target audio, takes second place in terms of popularity. An indisputable advantage of this method is the unlimited access to the visual layer of the film, negating the need for on-screen subtitles. Therefore, the viewer is able to focus entirely on the film. The biggest disadvantage of dubbing is its artificial nature, since even the best translated dialogues, adjusted in terms of duration and lip sync, are often very different from the original, and can seem unnatural to viewers.

Other Techniques for Screen Translation

There are other methods, like commentary (which does not require the synchronization of image and sound), overwriting (as done in an opera house, for instance), interpreting (as done during live broadcasts or interviews), multilingual translation in the form of teletext (done with DVDs), subtitles for the hearing impaired, and “Audio Description” for the visually impaired (which consists of recording an additional soundtrack containing a narrative enriched short descriptions of the events taking place on the screen).

Apart from technical limitations, there are socio-cultural limitations that often have significant impact on screen translation. In our globalized world, screen translation seems to have greater influence on international communication than literary translation.

Localizing Audio Files

Here is a description of the steps involved in preparing files for translation:

1. Preparing a Script
When localizing a recording, one of the most important steps is making sure that the script is universal. It is essential that the elements specific to the source culture be eliminated. Local contexts may not be understood by an audience from a different cultural group. Sometimes it is easier to write a new script than to translate or localize the old one.

2. Finding an Appropriate Tone
Whether readers prefer a casual or a formal tone depends on the budget and the purpose for which the recording is created.

3. Localizing the Script
If delivering a script for translation, and you don’t already have the kind of internationalized script described in step 1, the translator will have to adjust the text for the target market.

4. Verification and Admission of the Script
Before recording, the client must accept the translation of the script. It is more efficient to spend the time making sure the new script is correct, rather than skipping this step and realizing later on that the script contains mistakes.

5. Technical Specifications
It is important to inform the translation agency’s representatives about the requirements for the narrative and recording techniques. As far as the narrative is concerned, the pace and the dynamics of the reading must be defined. If the recording is to last a limited amount of time, that must also be established at the beginning of a project. Information about the frequency, volume and format of the recorded file is equally important.

6. Recording the Sound
If all of the previous steps were completed properly, the recording itself should go off without a hitch. Keep in mind that readers shouldn’t speak for extended increments of time, as the quality of their voice may suffer, which could delay completion of the project.

7. Quality Check
After the recording has been completed, a native speaker should review all audio files, to ensure that it was recorded properly. They should check that there are no mistakes, that the dialogue is clear, and that the pauses between utterances are long enough.

A new script must be coherent with the elements of the work that are not covered by the linguistic transfer, such as images, scenery, music, facial expression, and the like. Today, subtitles remain the most popular technique of screen translation, although technical limitations like the condensation of text, which often “flattens” the meaning, can lead to around 30-40% of an original text being lost in translation, according to recent research.


About Rafal Kwiatkowski

I’m a translation desktop publishing expert and native Polish translator living in Poland. I collaborate with all of the largest companies in the translation, localization, globalization and internationalization sectors. I’m highly familiar with PN-EN 15038 and ISO 9001:2008 standards and the principles of LQA (LISA QA).