Movie Subtitles - Who Makes Them?
Movie Subtitles - Who Makes Them?
  • Reporter Lee Seung-Joo
  • 승인 2018.11.07 14:24
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Foreign movies often available in most theaters
Foreign movies often available in most theaters


This April, one film  was a hot issue. Due to its translation error within the subtitles, the movie’s ending and character personalities were misunderstood greatly. Many upset audiences raised complaints regarding the translation mistake and the responsible translator. This raised an important question: How are movie subtitles created?

Subtitles are a major source of comprehension and communication within various foreign media including movies, TV shows, and documentaries. In a survey conducted by the Korean Film Council in 2016 about movie nationality preferences, 76.1% of the subjects selected the US as one of their top 3 movie nationality choices and in 2017, EF English Proficiency Index gave South Korea a score of 55.32 (Moderate Proficiency) which placed S. Korea at a rank of 40 among 80 non-English speaking countries. Such results, regarding S. Korea’s preference for foreign media and moderate English skills, reflect the importance and dependence on subtitles for the audiences’ understanding.

Most foreign movie translations are done by individual translators. A foreign movie is released in Korean cinemas through film distribution companies and the translation task is outsourced to individual translators. Due to the lack of a translation agency and the narrow nature of  Korea’s translator community, to minimize the possible loss and errors, a film distribution company prefers to work with a fixed pool of translators. Such convention constrains progress in the field of translation as entry barriers for new or skilled translators are too high. Famous movie translator Park has implied that “Relationships within the movie industry is most essential for a successful translation career.” Currently there are less than 10 active movie translators in S. Korea where the market share of foreign movies takes up 48.2% of the total movies screened in 2017. Such reality of the industry limits improvement of individual translation abilities and opportunities for new translators; conclusively leading the movie translation field into recession.

The working conditions for translation is also an error-inducing factor. For film distribution companies to promptly screen movies, speedy translations are mandatory. Due to such demands, many movie translators are given less than 10 days to translate a whole film. Also, according to translator Park, there are some firms that fail to provide the film to the translator. Park has mentioned that “Some companies still only provide the original script without the actual film.” Since dialogue, unlike novels or articles, involves action, expression, and setting, it cannot be comprehended solely from the script. These conditions significantly lower the translation ability and efficiency of a translator and can result in numerous errors.

Errors in translation are inevitable. However, this cannot account for mistakes made by the lack of effort to understand the film. The translation process can be categorized as creation. A translator must strive to interpret scenes capable of multiple meanings and convey it in accordance to the language, culture, and information of both countries. Recently, some translators have been criticized for their lack of understanding in movies. Such a loose attitude towards translation is unacceptable and considered mockery to those who have anticipated the movie.

A change is necessary within the transition society for this issue to be resolved.