Why is it that film subtitles often differ so frustratingly from the actual dialogue spoken onscreen? Subtitler Guy La Roche explains:

[P]eople process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough. It is your fault, not the subtitler’s.... Sure, there are people who can read really fast, but we also have to take into account that there are many people who cannot. The elderly, the less educated, children, etcetera. The reading speed is therefore set to accommodate the average viewer.

For anyone interested in the subject, La Roche has some fascinating details to offer, including the size of the European subtitling market (a hard-to-believe 372 million -- 465 million ), which countries prefer subtitling and which dubbing, the difficulties in translating the expression "it's raining cats and dogs," the still greater difficulties in translating that phrase when cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky onscreen, and, of course, why he hates to subtitle porn:

The first reason is the appeal of porn. People often ask me what kind of stuff I translate. Typically, I’ll then cite a list of movies and documentaries and make sure to proudly mention that I have done notoriously difficult things like Shakespeare and comedy. The British bard and comedy, however, do not generally impress people much. When I mention Japanese anime the reactions get a little better, “way cool” and all that, but not much. By now you must know that subtitlers have a frustrating job with little or no gratification and that it is always nice for us if we can extract at least a glimmer of recognition out of somebody. So, inevitably, I will be forced to bring up the subject of porn. Remember the enthusiasm with which Obama was recently welcomed in Berlin? That is exactly the reaction I tend to get when I mention porn. All of a sudden I am the toast of the party. How humiliating is that?

(via Andrew Sullivan)

--Christopher Orr