Insights August 21, 2020

The wonderful world of film translation

Living Word
By Living Word

As more and more streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime produce and show foreign-language films and TV series, reaching many different countries across the globe, the demand for professional subtitle translation and dubbing is booming. We take a look at the wonderful world of film translation and what it takes for it to be successful.

While translating spoken dialogue into different languages might seem quite straight-forward, there is far more to it than meets the eye – especially in the world of TV and film. A simple word-to-word approach doesn’t cut it, as regional meanings and connotations as well as humour and sarcasm need to be translated and transcreated correctly and in a way that makes sense for the new audience in every way. If done incorrectly, a translation might not only change the overall meaning of a sentence, but it could potentially also cause offence.


Have you ever wondered about the process of how subtitles come about? Usually, skilled creative writers are at play here as the task really is an art in its own right. Not only do they have to correctly translate meanings; they also need to consider recreating iconic lines, as well as creating subtitles for each different character that keep in line with that particular character’s voice.

Dubbed versions

While subtitles seem to become more and more popular for a variety of films and series, many countries still prefer dubbed versions, which brings yet another set of requirements. For instance, a translator needs to be careful to match an actor’s mouth movement as closely as possible. An example of this: if there’s a simple word in German that has the same meaning as a full sentence in English, the translator can’t use it in this context as it is vital for the sentences to be the same length.

Unique languages

Some film production companies call upon linguists to help them out with something rather special: these so-called ‘conlangers’ are hired to create completely new languages for film and TV. Some prominent examples are Harry Potter’s ‘Parseltongue’ language, ‘Dothraki’ in Game of Thrones, ‘Minionese’ from the Despicable Me franchise and the ‘Na’vi’ language from the film Avatar. While director James Cameron came up with a few sentences for the latter, a linguistics professor created a full lexicon for the film. Today, it comprises over 2,000 words and resembles Polynesian languages. Pretty impressive, isn’t it?