Interview: Jean Noh On Subtitling – 자막에 관해 : 짱 노 인터뷰

by Adrian Gombeaud

Subtitling is a kind of translation that is not very much taken in consideration by scholars. In fact, few people think of subtitles when they think of translation. It is perhaps because most of the time, when we see a film, we only notice subtitles when they are bad. When you think of how many festivals there are around the world, of how fast films travel, then you realize how important subtitling is in the domain of translation.


Jean Noh (Noh Hae Jean) works in International Relations at the Korean Film Commission (KOFIC). She also subtitled in English some the most important Korean films in the recent years. She speaks fluent English as she grew up in the states. She is obviously gifted with languages as she also speaks French, but doing good subtitles takes more than languages skills…

Tan’gun : Could you tell us about the situation of subtitles in Korea ?

Jean Noh : Subtitles are being done for the majority of important Korean films these days. In the past year alone, Korean features and shorts went to more than 100 film festivals abroad, including Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and since most of our films are also being marketed abroad, people are beginning to recognize the importance of having decent subtitles.

An encouraging recent phenomenon is that Korean film productions are including subtitles in their budgets, and KOFIC even has a support fund for subtitle translation and print processing. Also, festivals like the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF) hold retrospectives for which they make new subtitles or redo the old ones if they are not up to par, and they share these prints with other festivals worldwide.

Technically, the best and most developed way of doing subtitles would be the way KOFIC, and sometimes PIFF, has them done. You parse the time code of the film against the original dialogue, and a subtitling program calculates the number of letters and spaces the average viewer can read in the time the actors are saying each of their lines. You give this list of the time code and original dialogue to the translator, and they will make subtitles that fit the requirements. You send all that to a processing company, and they fit the subtitles to the print of the film.

However, at the moment, most production companies just give the translator the dialogue list and a copy of the video, which unfortunately are not always the final versions, and entrust the spotting to the translator’s instincts. So you generally have to play it by ear – trying to make sure the viewer can read all the subtitles in the given time and hoping that the technician will get the timing right for the appearance of each line. I usually insist on checking the timing on the video, and then they send that with the subtitle list and a print of the film out to be processed.

Tan’gun : What would you say is the biggest difficulty when doing subtitle work?

Jean Noh : One of the biggest handicaps when doing this kind of work here is that most people don’t understand or appreciate the process of translating and subtitling. They don’t realize that translating means more than just taking a dictionary and switching all the words from one language to another, and they usually don’t know what it takes to effectively communicate in the limited number of letters and spaces what an actor gets to fire out in say, 5 seconds. Even when the filmmakers do speak some English, their familiarity with the nuances of the language and the culture gap is often still too limited for them to judge the difference between good and bad subtitles made in a few days’ time.

So people wait until the last minute to find a translator, and they don’t allot much time for the work, even if they can. Then, of course, with as little time as a week or so, you usually don’t have the luxury of consulting with the director or screenwriter on specific lines, and so, inevitably, you have to twist your brain even more to try and make sure the subtitles aren’t excluding all the implicit meanings that could be in the dialogue.

What can be even worse though is when, after you have sent in the subtitles, the director or a copyeditor goes over them and makes changes without discussing it with you. Usually, the director will know the script better than you, but they might not have a full grasp of English and you might end up with a glaring mistake in grammar or usage, which can be very embarrassing, or just a worse, awkward translation. When a company decides to get a foreign copyeditor, the usual problem is that although the copyeditor may speak good English -which isn’t always the case, no matter if they were born, raised, and educated in America, they don’t know Korean, Korea, or films well enough to make effective changes alone, but no one at the company knows that, and they neglect to tell the subtitler. Again, it’s an issue of understanding the process, or rather, the lack of understanding thereof.

Once, I was talking with another subtitler, Samuel Yeunju Ha, who is also a graduate of the Korean Academy of Film Arts. We were talking about the conditions subtitlers work in, how we’re always having to do rush jobs and then finding out they had another week for the director, the sales company people, or a ‘copyeditor’ to change everything. I said something about how in any case the product lasts, the subtitles are out there etched on film for almost ever… and Sam hit the nail on the head when he said, “Yeah, it’s really, deeply troubling.”

Tan’gun : Could you describe your relation with the directors ?

Jean Noh : Ideally, I would always work with the director if there were time. It helps me to understand the film better and then do my best to transmit his or her vision to foreign viewers through the translation. Once they start working with me, the directors usually come to appreciate this, and our cooperative relationships can be very productive.

However, as I mentioned before, the work can be difficult for the filmmakers to understand at first. Sometimes, in order to be as close as possible to the original meaning of a text you have to get farther away from the Korean and closer to the English way of expressing it. It is sometimes hard for directors to understand that process, especially if they speak a little English.

For example, there was the time when I worked on “Art Museum by the Zoo” with director Lee Jeong-hyang, who took subtitling seriously – like everything else that had to do with her film. She had spent a long time writing the dialogue, and the result was great in Korean but getting it into English was quite another matter. They had a first draft done by a group of three or four people on her staff who had about a year’s worth of time spent abroad between them and the result was comprehensible only if you could understand the Korean dialogue and stretch you imagination a lot when it came to the English grammar and wording they chose. They did the best they could, and actually came up with some creative and interesting ideas, but the hard truth was that foreign audiences would never be able to view this film with those subtitles. So the international sales company asked me to do a second draft with the director. But as we worked, she would keep going back to the first draft, saying that those words touched her more and that she thought the first draft’s language was closer to her original dialogue. In a way she was right. The first draft was a raw translation that was closer to Korean in that it wasn’t really correct English, more like a rough drawing of parallels. It also used words that would inevitably be more familiar to Koreans with limited vocabulary. Although she felt closer to this version, the director wouldn’t be able to share it with an English-speaking audience who didn’t speak Korean, and I had to explain that to her, along with a lot of the vocabulary we eventually opted for.

We established that our common goal was to convey her meaning to a foreign audience as clearly and accurately as possible, but that she was the one who knew the film best, while I was the one who knew how to convey it in English best and that her job was to make crystal clear what each line meant in Korean, not try to do it in a second language. Once we had that don, we were able to concentrate more on making accurate subtitles that were closest to her original meaning. Although that time was also a rush job with only two 6-hour sessions with much discussion, it was an enjoyable experience since the director was so enthusiastic about transmitting her meaning, and she respected the process and made it work for her.

Another issue that directors have to face when they want to work on subtitles is that you cannot put all the dialogue in the subtitles. The human eye can read only so many letters in a limited amount of time, and people don’t want to go to the theater just to read subtitles while the acting and images race by. I faced this problem when working on my first film: “My Heart” by Bae Chang-ho. Mr. Bae speaks English and subtitles were important to him. However, he had some very long dialogue and he wanted to put everything in the subtitles – every little verbal bit, piece, and nuance. I understand how hard it must be for an artist to condense his own work. But you must not forget that what you are translating is a film, and sometimes more is less. Even today, although some people did congratulate me on “My Heart”, I still think the subtitles are much too long.

My relationship with the director also goes beyond translation and subtitles. I can’t say that I am the first foreign viewer of the movie, but I am in between and I can think of the environments these films will be sent out into as well as the films themselves. It is actually quite advantageous for the film companies when they ask the translator to also work on press kits, trailers, and even consider marketing and advertisements, since the translator usually becomes the sole bicultural, bilingual person most intimate with the ins and outs of a film.

Tan’gun : Are there any difficulties that are typical to Korean language ?

Jean Noh : Yes, and in subtitling we face the same difficulties that book translators do, along with the technical difficulties of having the subtitles match the timing of the action. As you know, in Korean, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. Instead of “I eat rice,” in Korean the sequence would be “I rice eat,” so sometimes you don’t know until the end of the sentence what it is someone is doing or what they are really getting at, and in a dialogue, this can usually be the deciding factor of the whole conversation. Many Korean dialogues use that structure to create an effect or a tension. It’s especially notable in comedies since the funny part can come in the end of a long sentence. The beginning will seem perfectly innocent, you’ll be listening all along thinking everything is normal, but then when you get to the predicate all your expectations can be overturned.

Some people just go with the “I eat rice” sequence and give up on being in sync with the actor’s timing. So a non-Korean speaker reading the subtitles would find out before a native speaker what everything is about, and they loose a lot of the tension, suspense, and fun, too.

Another obvious problem can be the language levels. In Korean, you can tell a lot about the dynamics between characters just by what level of language they use with each other. Maybe they are of the same age or close, or on formal terms, a superior and subordinate, family, strangers, lovers, whatever, and you can just tell by a few syllables in the way they talk with each other. It isn’t impossible to reflect these dynamics in English, but it usually takes up a lot more space and it’s harder to be subtle about it. If in a film someone uses a “yo” sentence to talk to an older or more important person, the dialogue has a disrespect aspect that I must take in consideration. Since the subtitles have to be short, people sometimes use a curse word even when there wasn’t any in the original dialogue. This is the kind of thing I avoid because it feels irresponsible, and it can give the wrong idea about the character. Sometimes you just have to be creative.

I once worked on a comedy called “Just Do It”, which was later screened at the Vancouver festival. Once again, the title was chosen before I was brought in, but it was too late to do anything about it. Of course, I didn’t really like the idea of using a phrase that initially brings to mind a famous sneaker company’s ads. But in one scene, an insurance investigator enters the fraudulent family’s home and reads a sign that says « __ __ » (literally, ‘if you do it, it’ll work’, in other words, ‘just do it’). It’s their family motto, reflecting their determination to grit their teeth and keeping getting injured so they can collect insurance money. The whole family tenses as the investigator reads the sign, but then he says out loud, “Did you used to run a noodle shop?” The calligraphy is such that he read “__ __ (We do noodles/You can have noodles here)”. But you can’t go about explaining the whole calligraphy-vocabulary misunderstanding in subtitles, so even though I didn’t like the title, I used it by subtitling “Here we have noodles” by “Just do it” and the character says “Did you used to run a Nike store? ”.

I guess some of the most difficult problems are cultural. I worked on “Tell Me Something” and it was a very easy job because it is a thriller very much in the way of a ‘universal’ Hollywood-type thriller, with not much Korean references. On the other hand, a movie set in the beginning of the century and in the countryside like “My Heart” is filled with difficulties. I realize when watching Hollywood films with Korean subtitles that it is just as hard to translate the English dialogues as it is the Korean. They can have absolutely great dialogue that shoots out fierce and fast with pop-cultural references et al., but foreign audiences would still need footnotes for it, and the subtitler still only gets a limited amount of space and time to communicate it.. So with a lot of American films in theaters here, too, you see the dialogue cut down to readable bits and pieces. I think that has to be a part of the reason why more and more Korean audiences are going to domestic films these days. It isn’t just the artistic films, but also the commercial comedies, action flicks, and thrillers that have that cultural edge on the Hollywood films.

Tan’gun : Do you consider subtitles to be very different from book or play write translation ?

Jean Noh : Subtitles are probably closer to theatrical drama translation than book translation. But that doesn’t mean that the job is less creative or purely technical. Some production companies try to gain time and save money by dividing a dialogue list into several parts and giving it to, say, seven different translators. This never worked, and never will: the story suddenly becomes unbelievable because the characters don’t speak the same way in the beginning, the middle or the end of the film. The script becomes disconnected and there’s no cohesion, no rhythm and rhyme. You need one person behind the subtitles because one word can have different meanings: it doesn’t always mean the same thing in the beginning or in the end of the movie, but it can be used over and over throughout. So you need to understand the film and understand the director to do a good translation. But you have to accept that you can’t translate everything by subtitles and that it can be a very frustrating job. Doing subtitles, I am not really translating the film like one translates a book or a play, the film is still a story told with images : the subtitle is just a pointer that guides you along with the image, not the other way around.

Seoul September 2001

Le CRIC, centre de recherches internationales sur les Corées, est l’éditeur de la revue tan’gun (site et papier). Ce centre de recherches est une association de loi 1901 à but non lucratif, tournée entièrement vers l’étude des trois Corées et le développement des moyens de cette étude, en particulier les voyages.

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