How to Compress Subtitles

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Introduction

Very often, although a very close (almost word-for-word) translation is possible in the target language, it would make the resulting subtitle too long for the viewers to read in the time that it is displayed on screen. This is when the translation needs to be "compressed." To compress a subtitle in translation means either not to include any equivalent of a certain part of the original text at all (since that part is superfluous), or not include a direct equivalent but express the meaning in a different way (e.g. by referring to the context in the talk). Although the way a translation can be compressed largely depends on the particular subtitle and its context, as well as on what the target language makes it possible to rephrase, there are several recurring patterns in subtitles that can be compressed across languages.

Compressing is not only used in translation

Usually, even original-language subtitles are not a word-for-word transcript, but some compression needs to be employed to make them more readable. To read more about compressing in original language subtitles/captions, see the section on editing in the guide to transcribing talks.

Compressing, grammar, and the immediate and cultural context

The extent to which a subtitle can be compressed can often be defined by certain features of the target language or the availability of immediate or cultural context.

Compressing and the target language

Below, there are many examples of how a subtitle line can be compressed. These examples are meant to inspire similar changes in the target language. Each language offers different means of expressing the same meaning in fewer words. This depends on the grammar, but also on the cultural context - sometimes one word, phrase or idiom can call up an idea that is expressed in many words in the original subtitle, because that idea is more recognizable in the culture that uses the target language of the translation. However, it may also be possible that the rules of a given target language will not make it possible to compress a subtitle line in one of the ways presented below (e.g. if the grammar of the target language requires more details to be specified explicitly than in the original subtitle, e.g. the gender of some of the things the speaker is referring to).

Compressing and context

The possible extent of compression also depends on the context - either the immediate linguistic context (what was said before in the talk, or sometimes, what will be said shortly after the current subtitle), or a broader visual, auditory and cultural context (what the viewer sees and hears in the video, and what the target audience will already know due to their shared background). For example, in English captions, "the Department of Motor Vehicles" can be compressed to "DMV" and the meaning would stay the same, but this compression would not be possible when translating into a language whose users are not normally familiar with this US agency. Similarly, a like like "Just look at this green apple" can be compressed as "Just look at it" if it was preceded by "This is a beautiful green apple," since what the word "it" refers to would be pre-defined by the immediate context. In contrast, this type of compression would probably not be possible if by saying "Just look at this green apple," the speaker introduced the green apple into the talk for the first time (e.g. by switching through to a slide with a photograph of a green apple and commenting on it). However, the immediate context that follows would also make it possible to compress this line. If the speaker said "Just look at this green apple" while showing a slide with a picture of the fruit, and immediately after added "It's the juicy green apple that I woke up dreaming of," the first subtitle ("Just look at this green apple") could safely be compressed into "Just look at this" or "Look at this," since the immediate visual context (the slide) and the next line would explain what the word "this" referred to.

Compressing without changing the meaning

When compressing the subtitles in translation, one must be careful not to change the speaker's intended meaning. If there are no line-length or subtitle-display time considerations, compressing may not be necessary. The purpose of compressing is not to "summarize" parts of the talk that the translator deems unnecessary or unimportant, but quite the opposite - to allow the viewer to get as much of the meaning of the original as possible, by creating a line that will be short enough to be read in the time that the subtitle appears on the screen. If a subtitle is too long for the time it is displayed, most viewers will not be able to finish reading it before it disappears, and in effect, a lot of the meaning will be lost on them. In such cases, when the subtitle is made shorter by getting rid of some of its non-essential parts, while preserving the message, the text will be brief enough for the audience to read and no part of it will "evaporate" due to the subtitle's disappearing too quickly. However, if it is possible to do so it without compromising the viewer's ability to follow the subtitle, one should still preserve most "non-essential" parts that add style to the original talk (although it will still be advisable to remove accidental repetitions, slips of the tongue, etc.).

Exceptions - when not to compress

A lot of the words and expressions described below can be omitted or made shorter in most cases, but from time to time, their meaning will still need to be expressed in some way in the translation. This is usually necessary when an item that can usually be omitted is important in some way in the context, e.g. used to contrast with another similar item.

For example, the word "almost" can usually be omitted from the subtitle in translation. Let's say that a speaker is talking about a dinner and just wants to let us know that they ate a lot (and then couldn't sleep because of how full they felt). The speaker says "I ate almost ten samosas." If necessary, the word "almost" can safely be removed in the translation ("I ate ten samosas"), because what is important is not that the speaker didn't eat the full ten, but that they ate a lot. However, in a different context, the number may be important. If the speaker is talking about an eating contest, and describing the reasons why they failed, the word "almost" cannot be omitted in the translation, because it is crucial to what the speaker intends to convey, i.e. they ate almost ten - but somebody else ate the full ten, and won.

Omission

Some parts of the original subtitle can simply be left out in the translation. Below are several examples of parts of the subtitles that can often be omitted, even across languages.

Repetition

Wait, wait. I still haven't shown you slide 3.
-->
Wait, I still haven't shown you slide 3.
OR
I still haven't shown you slide 3.
OR
I haven't shown you slide 3!
OR
Wait till you see slide 3.
It was a very, very long dinner.
-->
It was a very long dinner.
OR
It was a long dinner.
OR
We sat there for hours.

Exclamations and greetings

Hey, that's not it!
-->
That's not it!
Oh my God, are you guys OK?
-->
Are you guys OK?
OR
Are you OK?
Hi, I'm Jimmy Hundlepoint.
-->
I'm Jimmy Hundlepoint.

Addressing a person

People, this example won't be the last one.
-->
This example won't be the last one.
OR
This won't be the last example.
OR
There will be more examples.
OR
I've got more examples.
OR
I've got another one.
She told me, "Be nice, Jack."
-->
She told me, "Be nice."
OR
She told me to be nice.

Question tags, rhetorical/emphatic expressions

She loves making pizza. She totally does.
-->
She loves making pizza.
OR
She really loves making pizza.
OR
She actually loves making pizza.
This is a blue cucumber, right?
-->
Is this a blue cucumber?
OR
Is this cucumber blue?
OR
Is this one blue?
OR
Is it blue?
OR
A blue cucumber?

False starts

How on Earth... How on Earth am I going to make it in time?
-->
How on Earth am I going to make it in time?
OR
How am I going to make it in time?
OR
How am I going to make it?
OR
Will I make it?
OR
I don't think I'll make it.


Simplifying the semantics

Sometimes it's possible to omit some elements of style or semantic nuance that is not crucial to the message in the particular subtitle we try to shorten.

Synonyms

It was a huge, enormous building.
-->
It was a huge building.
OR
It was a big building.
OR
It was big.
Our organization is about perseverance, or stick-to-itiveness, if you will.
-->
Our organization is about perseverance.
OR
Our organization is about stick-to-itiveness.

Introductory/discourse-modifier phrases

These phrases often serve to keep the audience interested, to emphasize a point, or to lead the audience along a series of points. Very often, they are added "by default" by speakers when they do not serve much purpose other than to add a slight emphasis. They can frequently be removed and their meaning can be covered by the context.

Yeah, sure, but what about the price of tofu?
-->
But what about the price of tofu?
OR
But tofu is expensive/cheap/not free.
Well, it's not really about who does it, but how one does it.
-->
It's not really about who does it, but how one does it.
OR
It's about how one does it, not who does it.
OR
It's about how one does it.
OR
It's about how it is done/how you do it.
Look/listen/remember, that's also a good example.
-->
That's also a good example.
OR
Another good example.
OR
Another good one.
OR
Also a good one.
As you know/as you may know/you know, this is pretty easy.
-->
This is pretty easy.
Let's face it, it wasn't the best decision.
-->
It wasn't the best decision.
OR
It wasn't a good decision.
OR
It was a mistake.
So, this was my next idea.
-->
This was my next idea.
OR
My next idea.

Note: The word "so" can be used in two ways - as a way to connect two sentences together or as a way to indicate that the speaker is talking about a result. Often, a speaker will begin a sentence with the word "so" simply to get the sentence started, in which case it can be omitted (e.g. "So like I said before..."). However, "so" can also be used in the sense of "thus/accordingly/consequently/therefore" (e.g. "I ran out of water. So I couldn't bake anymore") Then, it probably cannot be omitted. The word "so" can also be used inside a sentence to indicate a purpose (e.g. "Put on a sweater so you don't catch a cold"), sometimes in the expression like "so that," "so as to." This is also a case where "so" cannot be omitted.

I suppose/guess the place was interesting.
-->
The place was interesting.
OR
It was interesting.
In my view,/I think/believe we shouldn't have done it.
-->
We shouldn't have done it.
OR
It was a bad idea.
OR
It was a mistake.

Note: usually, if the viewer is just presented with a statement, they will assume, from the context, that whatever belief is contained in the subtitle should be ascribed to the speaker, so it is possible to safely cut out "I think/believe." However, in some contexts, the speaker will be using "I think/believe" to distance their personal beliefs from somebody else's (in such cases, the word "I" is usually emphasized). Then, putting an equivalent of "I think/believe" into the translation may be necessary (although even then it can often be rephrased in a way that would make it shorter in the target language and still mark it as the speaker's personal view).

"Really" and other adverbials

This is really/pretty/totally/amazingly good coffee.
-->
This is good coffee.
OR
This coffee is so good!
My car wasn't actually/in fact/really green.
-->
My car wasn't green.
OR
But my car wasn't green.

Note: these adverbials are very often used simply conversationally, as a way of emphasizing the "actuality" of whatever one is talking about. However, in some cases, they are used to show contrast between what someone might have believed and what is actually true. Then, some kind of equivalent may need to be used, and the example with "but" shows just one way how that same meaning can actually be expressed using fewer words.

Quantifiers

Some words and phrases that express number, quantity or extent are actually redundant if their meaning can be inferred from the context, of if the speaker used the quantifier not to be exact, but to give a general sense of magnitude.

They all want that device.
-->
They want that device.
OR
They want it.
I lived there for almost/over/more than a year.
-->
I lived there for a year.
It's been there for dozens of years.
-->
It's been there for ages.
OR
It's been there a long time.
OR
It's been there for so long.
OR
It's been there for years.

Note: the exact number or magnitude may be sometimes be significant, e.g. when it is displayed visibly on a slide or referred to later in the talk (where the viewer sees the figure is being referred to). It may not be possible to remove the quantifier from the translation in such cases.

Idioms and metaphors

Although it's important to convey the speaker's style as much as possible, sometimes an expression that is short in the original may have a very long equivalent that would make the translated subtitle too long. In these cases, the omission can be compensated by using an idiomatic expression in a different subtitle where it would sound right (not jar with the immediate context), thereby conveying the speaker's style in the whole talk, but not necessarily in the particular subtitle that it was necessary to compress.

I told Joanne it was like beating a dead horse.
-->
I told Joanne it was futile.
OR
I told her it was futile.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
-->
I didn't expect that.
OR
Who would have thought.
OR
A bad surprise.
OR
Oh my!

Simplifying the syntax

The same meaning can often be expressed using a sentence with a structure that is easier for the viewer to read, and generally shorter. This can often be the case when the target language has a syntactic structure close to the original, but also a simpler, shorter way of expressing the same idea that is not that similar to what the speaker said. For example, English uses Passive Voice sentences quite often, and while some languages have an equivalent Passive Voice construction, they will also have other, more commonly used and simpler ways of expressing the same meaning.

Joining two sentences together

Sometimes, the idea expressed by two sentences can be conveyed by one shorter one in the translation.

I thought we could do it over. Just one more time.
-->
We could do it over.
OR
We could do it one more time.
OR
Could we do it over?

Note: this line can be interpreted in two different ways - either as the speaker reflecting about the possibility of doing something one more time, or the speaker trying to convince somebody else that something could be done over. "Could we do it over?" could be used for the latter.

Changing quoted speech into direct speech

She said: "Why don't you come with me, then."
-->
She asked me to come along.
OR
She asked me to come.
And then Yolanda said: "I don't know anything about that."
-->
Yolanda didn't know anything.
OR
Yolanda didn't know.
OR
She didn't know.

Changing passive voice into active voice

It was created by the R&D Department at our company.
-->
Our R&D department created it.

References to the non-linguistic context of the talk

Sometimes the speaker talks about things that can be understood by the viewer by just looking at what's going on in the video or listening to its sound track. References to this immediate visual and auditory context can often be removed when translating the subtitles.

Things you can see anyway

Very often, an explicit description can be omitted, because the viewer can see what is being referred to (e.g. references to the layout of a slide or to what is happening on stage).

Let me just put it here on the table next to me.
-->
Let me put it here.
OR
I'll put it here.
OR
This goes here.
This girl in this picture here is John Smith.
-->
This is John Smith.

Note: this kind of compression is possible if the slide is being shown while the speaker is saying this or if it becomes visible shortly after. If the slide is not shown at all for some reason, or appears much later (e.g. a few sentences after), it may be advisable to leave out less (e.g. "This is a picture of John Smith"), although more extensive compression may be possible anyway if it is still obvious from the context that the speaker is referring to a slide.

Things you can hear anyway

Sometimes, the speaker refers to a sound, and it is possible to remove the explicit reference to the sound, provided that the audio content has been represented in parentheses, e.g. (Music), (Whistling).

(Knocking on the door) So after I heard her knocking, I knew it was her, I let her in.
-->
(Knocking on the door) I knew it was her, so I let her in.
OR
(Knocking on the door) I let her in.

References

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