“Frozen”: Differences between Subtitle and Voice-over Translations

Challenging Factors to Consider when Translating for Films like Disney's "Frozen"

January 25, 2016

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Frozen subtitles, Frozen voice-over, Frozen translation

The Disney film "Frozen" was localized the world over, including in Japan, where it drew a huge audience. The title tune "Let It Go" became a megahit here, the English original and the Japanese-adapted version alike, even to an extent that non-viewers of the film can hum the song. In fact, many people in Japan reportedly watched "Frozen" at least twice; they saw it in both Japanese-subtitled and Japanese-dubbed formats, a testimony to the great quality of the localization of the film.

The success of "Frozen" in Japan cannot be explained without reference to the superb translations made for the film. Let's take a look at the hard work and effort dedicated by the translators.

Film Translation is Different from Document Translation

All films, including "Frozen", have a script written in the original language. So you might think that all you have to do is to translate the script, but things are not that simple, because film translation requires an approach different from that for document translation.

The Japanese lines of "Frozen", whether subtitled or dubbed, are brief and easy-to-understand. No wonder; the original "Frozen" uses plain English to target a wide range of ages. It is, however, also because some new twists were added for further simplicity when the film was localized for Japan. In film translation, compared with document translation, a bigger focus is placed on the aspect of whether the viewers can understand what they are reading or hearing promptly.

Techniques required for subtitle translation and those for voice-over translation are also different because of their different output forms, namely, written or spoken. Many lines of "Frozen" are expressed differently between the subtitled and the dubbed versions. Visual elements, i.e., letters, matter for subtitle translation while audio elements, i.e., sounds, matter for voice-over translation. Now, what are the specific techniques for these two types of translation?

Not Every Sentence Needs to be Translated for Subtitles

Since there is a limit to the number of characters a subtitle line can contain, you need to learn to reduce information to the necessary minimum. Kanji-letters or kanji-idioms are an effective tool because they are visually straightforward. Sometimes you even have to decide on what information can be conveyed through the image and what information not; you are requested to pick from a lengthy line only one single phrase to translate - a phrase that the image cannot convey. You cannot be a good subtitle translator by just translating every original line.

The song "Let It Go" has a section where the title-hook phrase is repeated twice, but its Japanese subtitle does not repeat it twice. The Japanese translation for this section is absolutely outstanding; it is catchy and yet tells all.

Become Anna and Elsa when Translating for their Voice-over Lines

Voice-over scripts, meanwhile, must be written with words that are audibly easy-to-understand. Unlike the case for subtitling, a frequent use of kanji-idioms can be ineffective and more colloquial expressions should be used. You also need to pay attention to the movements of the lips and the length of the original lines.

When translating a song for voice-over, you also have to take the melody and rhythm into consideration. For example, the Japanese version of the "let it go, let it go" section sings "a-ri-no, ma-ma-no"; that is, one Japanese syllable is allocated to each English word. Moreover, the Japanese syllable "no" coincides with the English word "go", a design for a lip-sync effect that works both visually and musically. The Japanese-adapted "Let It Go" sounds natural and spontaneous, but it is actually a product of hard-thinking and craftsmanship of a professional.


Limit of time or letter count, lip movement, melody, etc. - translators have to deal with various challenging elements to create subtitles and voice-over scripts that read or sound natural. Which do you usually prefer - subtitles or voice-over? It may be a good idea to switch them over sometimes; it can be an eye-opener.

The success of "Frozen" in Japan owes a lot to the superb translation quality for the subtitles and voice-over scripts, but it equally owes to the spot-on casting of the voice-over actors who re-created marvelously the atmosphere of the original and also to the ingenious promotion strategies. Indeed, there are many things we can learn from Disney's localization works, not to mention its translation techniques.

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