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Thursday, June 23, 2011


I f you are a narrator in Japan,  you will inevitably find yourself doing narration for a video with subtitles.
You will probably notice English subtitles in Japanese productions:
1)       Are  too long
2)      They extend from the left margin of the screen right as on a printed page
3)      The characters are often too small to read easily
4)      They include grammatical or usage errors
However, in  English subtitles are supposed to be:
1)       Short
2)      Centered
3)      Use characters large enough to read easily
4)      Grammatical and error free (except when reproducing the vernacular)
The reason for legibility should be obvious – after all, why have subtitles at all if you can’t read them?

Every medium enforces a set of perceptual habits.  Look at a video screen and the brain automatically selects a set of muscular rules.  Centering?  Repeat after me! --video screens are not print pages . The eye is conditioned to focus on the central 35 % -- not the left margin.  

So, with video and left margin subtitles, the eyes are continually trying to focus on the center of the screen – while at the same time forced by the line of type in a different direction -- which is tiring and distracting. 
In addition, left margin subtitle done by Japaneses often result in a single of type right across the screen --from edge to edge -- with tiny characters that are hard to see, much less read. This usually because Japanese characters are so much more economical of space – but directors don’t get that with English and lot more characters, the layout ils going to have to change. 

Simply put, many Japanese directors – and of course their foreign translators – regard “versioning” a Japanese language video as just a matter of translating words mechanically.  They are not thinking of how their audiences will react.  And they don’t understand that different media imply  different perceptual  dynamics and also different parameters and rules. 

Since the client knows even less about this -- doesn’t know what constitutes quality in a foreign language –and rarely gets any feedback about whether a given PR vehicle actually does what it is supposed to,  the bar gets lower and lower.

Curiously directors and  clients will obsess endlessly about the most meaningless details.
And they are very demanding about quality in the case of their Japanese language productions.

So, what do you do?

Narrators – at least the few  who actually know what they are doing -- will understand how a given  medium works-– whether it is  a PR video or a movie trailer of a TV CM or a radio commercial  or web page. 
Now if you are in the studio and the Client is there and you criticize the subtitles, you may cause the director to lose face. Not good if you want another job from him..  In addition, correcting the titles takes time and extra work, which means some extra expense.  The production company isn’t going to thank you.  

Consider also that the director has probably turned out the same shit time after time with nary a “claim”.  After all, promotion videos don’t get reviewed on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. By and large, they are things shown to captive audiences before they can get at the canapés and the drinks.  A sort of ritual like religious floggings to show your faith.

So, no,  don’t volunteer gratuitious advice.

But (there is always a “but”), if the client asks you to comment on the subtitles – or anything else that might improve the video—that is a different matter.

Still, here you must tread carefully because, by and large, narrators are paid by the production company – and not by the client.  In other words, the “client” is not your client.  So, before you shoot off your mouth, ask the director first how to respond.  Just look the Client in the eye – and deflect – as in , “Let me just talk to the director for a moment”.  Then talk to him privately. Whisper in his ear if necessary.  Make  him choose.
Some directors know what they are doing.  They actually see here an opportunity to impress the client – especially if it was the client who did the translation and otherwise interfered in the production process. They may give you free rein.  Of course, this may take time – and you should be clear that time is not free! 
In any case, always be professional.

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