Subtitle Translation: The Thin Line between Absurdity and Creativity

Subtitle Translation: The Thin Line between Absurdity and Creativity

Translating subtitles is hard work. The translator must be aware of both languages’ cultures, as well as the movie or series it belongs to. Here are some examples of Turkish subtitles mistranslated from English.

subtitle translations

Translating Proverbs and Idioms

In the Futurama episode “A Clone of My Own,” Fry says to Dr. Zoidberg: “Blood is thicker than water.” One version of its Turkish translation is: “Kan, sudan daha kalındır,” which literally means blood is thicker than water. However, the correct Turkish proverb here is: “Et tırnaktan ayrılmaz.”

Most importantly, the translator must watch the movie or the series to be completely familiar with what they are translating. Otherwise, she or he may translate “bull’s-eye” in the movie Top Gun as “boğanın gözü,” which literally means “the eyes of a bull” in Turkish, but actually means “right on target” in English.

Importance of Background Information

The next example is from an episode of the series Vampire Diaries. As mentioned before, it is essential that the translator be aware of the whole series. Otherwise, an error like translating, “We have history together” as “Birlikte geçmişimiz var,” which means, “We had something in the past,” or “We have memories,” even though it actually means “We are in history class together,” in the English version such as in this video: Elena And Stefan In History Class.

In the movie Top Gun, the lead actress passes a letter to the protagonist, Tom Cruise. The letter says, “7:30 sharp!” The Turkish subtitle, however, says, “7:30’da Sharp Lokantası’nda,” which means “At 7:30, the Sharp Restaurant.”

Proper Use of Colloquial Language

The next example is not wrong, but it is very creative. In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a character says “Really?” and the Turkish translator chooses to use “Harbiden mi?” instead of “Gerçekten mi?” to make the translation sound more friendly. “Harbiden mi?” is the informal version of “Gerçekten mi?”

Religious and Regional Differences

Sometimes, a translator chooses religious phrases that sound absurd in the movie, such as “Allah’a emanet ol,” which we see a lot in Turkey, as a translation of “See you later.”

The translator must be aware of the geography of both countries. If not, for example, he or she may translate the U.S. state “Georgia” as “Gürcistan” the country. This is a big mistake that could confuse anyone who watches the movie.

In conclusion, a subtitle translator must be up-to-date and well aware of the cultures, languages and geographies pertinent to their work. He/She must use his or her knowledge and creativity to offer a translation that lets the audience of the target language enjoy the movie or clip.

About Melıke Uzun

I’m a native Turkish translator living in Turkey. I have a degree in translation from Istanbul University. I have translated 6 novels, but primarily focus on technical, IT, medical, and legal texts.


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