How are the subtitles and dubbing of your favorite series created?

On Netflix, Disney+ or TF1, they are always present, to accompany the best films and series: subtitlers and dubbing authors are the heroes in the shadows of our favorite works. If you have always dreamed of knowing why Elf is the nickname of Eleven in Stranger ThingsYou are in the right place !

You have probably already experienced this situation: you are quietly installed on your sofa, in front of your favorite series or film, and you have activated the VO with French subtitles. And there, unfortunately, you realize that the written translation does not correspond to the text of the actors in the original language.

Before picking up your finest pen to concoct a murderous tweet against your SVOD platform, we invite you instead to discover the profession of those who are so often decried: subtitlers and dubbing authors. These translators work behind the scenes to allow us to enjoy our current series, without having to become bilingual in English, Spanish or Korean overnight.

Dubbing, an unknown universe

For VF fans, it is the dubbing authors or adapters who save the day. A complex work which must respect several rules: translate the original work without betraying the subject, respect the lip synchronization which allows the text to be fixed on the movements of the mouths of the actors… François Dubuc, who worked on the adaptation of the recent Sandman on Netflix, rightly pointed it out in a thread posted on Twitter on August 19, 2022, after the release of the series. He explains how, with his colleague Jonathan Amram, they wrote the translation of the first season and what choices were made to keep the spirit of the original comic book.

These difficult choices, Caroline Lecoq also experiences them on each of her new projects. The freelance dubbing author, who notably traveled to the Upside Down to translate the four seasons of Stranger Things, generally deals with specialized studios, which act as intermediaries with the broadcasting platform, such as Netflix. You may have already seen the name of Dubbing Brothers, for example, at the end of some credits. For long projects like series, dubbing adapters usually work in pairs. “The studio and the artistic director send us translation notes, with the terms that we must keep or, on the contrary, those that we must adapt. », details Caroline Lecoq. We can see this as support for translation, in addition to our upstream research and reading work, if the work is taken from a book, for example. »

El or Elf?

Sometimes, some instructions are still more difficult to implement than others. With her colleague Fanny Béraud, Caroline Lecoq had to find a French nickname for Eleven, nicknamed El in English in Stranger Things. “We took stones from some spectators for that, but already, it was totally logical to translate Eleven into Eleven. Netflix had confirmed to us that this number had an importance in the story and that other characters would appear. Especially since in the scene where we learn his first name, a protagonist sees the number tattooed on his arm, so French logic prevents him from saying ‘Ah Eleven!’. For the nickname, it was a request from Netflix, so we decided to create Elf, in reference to the fact that the characters of the series play Dungeons and Dragons and that they find Eleven in the forest. »


On the first season, a sequence also posed a problem: the scene of the letters on the wall, illuminated by Will to communicate with Joyce from the Upside Down. “As soon as there is a text written on the screen, it’s a bit of our pet peeve since it’s difficult to circumvent it and translate it. In the Stranger Things, Will visually spells “Right here” on the wall and in French Joyce repeats “Just here”. We were asked for three translation proposals for this scene and, in my opinion, they chose the worst solution. We found out on the airing as well, so I was horrified to find out the result by watching the episode, but unfortunately it happens. »

Between 7 and 10 minutes translated per day

But, for Caroline Lecoq, working for Netflix is ​​not necessarily more difficult than creating adaptations for TF1, on the contrary: “In general, we are even almost freer when we write for a platform than for a traditional television channel. In France, the CSA is very careful about what is broadcast and at what time. For TF1, which is a popular channel, we must be careful not to glorify alcohol, not to use words that are too complicated or not to keep brand names. Sometimes, therefore, we cannot fully comply with the original version, so that an uninformed public is not offended. »

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Matt Damon in front of a TV in Welcome to Suburbicon. // Source: Concorde Filmverleih GmbH / Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

The dubbing adapter still believes that her work is not so different from one channel to another. “The process is generally the same: as dubbing adapters, we write between 7 and 10 minutes of episodes a day, so the studios leave us at least that time necessary for translation. Then, our work is proofread by the artistic director beforehand, before recording the voices with the actors. »

Subtitling and dubbing: two distinct professions

On the side of the subtitlers too, the task is not easy. If you’re more of a VO fan, it’s their work that changes your life during Netflix & Chill parties. If certain aspects are common to dubbing, the two professions remain completely different. “The readability constraint of the subtitler and that of the lip synchronization of the dubbing impose two styles of translation”, says Sylvain Caschelin, subtitler and head of the Master 2 in Audiovisual Translation and Accessibility at the University of Strasbourg. Nathan Tardy, also an audiovisual translation author, confirms this: “Where dubbing must stick to the lips, in subtitling, we have time and character limits to respect. So we each have different puzzles to solve. »

The brains of subtitlers and dubbers when they work.  // Source: Giphy
The brains of subtitlers and dubbers when they work. // Source: Giphy

For Netflix, for example, subtitles must not exceed 17 characters per second of dialogue, to be considered easy to read. “It also depends on the type of product”says Sylvain Caschelin. “In a reality TV program, the protagonists speak quickly, cut each other a lot and there is a lot of text, so it can be complicated. Conversely, some documentaries are more contemplative. But the main difficulty is the time given to work, which is extremely variable: with Arte, you can have a month and a half to translate a 90-minute film, while for Netflix, you can have 3 or 4 days. to write a 44-minute episode. Netflix doesn’t necessarily put more pressure on us, but we know that if we agree to work for them, it will be like that. »

“I do not translate words, I translate an idea”

caroline lecoq

In parallel with all these technical constraints, dubbing adapters and subtitlers must also deal with the heart of their job: the translation choices themselves. For Nathan Tardy, the adaptations largely depend on the author: “Whatever the text, each translator will adapt it in his own way, according to his knowledge, his context, his interpretation of certain elements… In my opinion, the most important thing is to preserve the soul of the text, while making it immediately understandable. Sometimes, however much we turn a problem around, we do not find a satisfactory adaptation, especially with cultures very different from ours. This is the case with Japanese anime, on which I work regularly, and whose humor and puns are complex to transcribe. But, as long as my translation is understood by my audience, I consider my work successful. »

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Not easy to translate the jokes of The Office, for example. // Source: NBC

Sylvain Caschelin shares this observation: “We always wonder if our parents would understand a joke, for example. When writing subtitles, you also constantly have to find a balance between spoken and written language. If our eye stops on a word that we have never seen written when we hear it without any problem, like ‘seum’, we will miss the next three subtitles and this must not happen . »

For her part, Caroline Lecoq saw certain translation choices as “heartbreaking”but still tries to focus on the general principle: “I don’t translate words, I translate an idea and I try to do it spontaneously, so that it comes naturally to the actors. »

Profitability first

Regularly criticized, especially on social networks, but also sometimes by the translators themselves as on the film Rome in 2019, adaptations are not so simple to implement. Caroline Lecoq, she no longer reads the returns since, “In general, people don’t like the VF, so it’s never very nice. It’s a job that’s often despised, but it’s easy to criticize when you don’t know the ins and outs. Unless you were born the god of dubbing or subtitling, you are still human beings. Sometimes we are wrong. Then, streaming unfortunately saw the birth of endless literal translations. »

Nathan Tardy confirms it: translation is often the last wagon of production. “Netflix, like other platforms, aims above all for profitability. Of course, we all make mistakes from time to time. But, when it extends over entire episodes, there must have been a general problem: either the deadline allocated to the translation was too tight to work in good conditions, or the budget was so low that the subtitling was entrusted to amateurs, because the professionals refused the contract… The causes are multiple and very often come from a lack of organization, rigor or remuneration on the part of the broadcaster. Translation is the mainstay of Netflix’s success in all non-English speaking countries. However, the company seems to still have a little trouble understanding it, hence the poor quality of some of the translations it hosts. »

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We in front of some automatic subtitles. // Source: Netflix

Sylvain Caschelin, a translator for more than 20 years, has also seen the profession evolve since the appearance of SVOD platforms: “Some trials of automatic, machine-generated captions have been made. The problem is that, very often, it looks like nothing. In addition to signing the death of our professions, it accustoms the viewer to reading bad subtitles, badly placed, badly translated, and which may contain mistakes. It becomes extremely difficult for us to make clients understand that they have to pay for our work, but also to make viewers realize that there are people behind these subtitles. »

So, when you complain about the alleged inferiority of the VF compared to the subtitled OV or about the quality of certain translations, keep this article in mind. Remember that dozens of people worked on it, and deserve your consideration.

Source: Numerama editing

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