The Difficulties of Subtitle Translation into Vietnamese

Posted by Anne Quach on January 07, 2021.

As more and more Vietnamese people watch films and television programs not only to relax but also to learn foreign languages and cultures, the translation of subtitles becomes a common business for many language service providers. Therefore, subtitles have exerted a strong influence on the audience and played a significant role in communicating foreign languages and cultures to the Vietnamese audience.

Within this post, GTE will walk you through some basic concepts of subtitle translation and then specific attributes for subtitling translation of Vietnamese.

The Importance of Subtitle Translation

The whole process of creating subtitles for a video requires several steps: transcription, timing, translation, proofreading, quality control, and encoding. While timing and encoding focus more on technological aspects, translation, proofreading, and quality control are aimed at contents. Among the three steps relating to content, subtitle translation plays a key role as the ground for the two remaining steps.

To put it more simply, if the subtitle translation step is conducted carefully and accurately, fewer efforts need to be put into the proofreading and quality control stages, reducing the turn-around time of the project significantly while remaining the best video quality.

To achieve that goal, subtitlers are required to work hard, fast, and patiently to meet very tight deadlines. Translators, reviewers, and proofreaders are not only good at foreign languages but also knowledgeable about cultures and capable of using the target language smoothly and flexible to convert subtitles in the most natural way. Paying attention to small details is a must to avoid spelling mistakes.


Normal Procedures Applied in Subtitle Translation

Literal translation – As the language in videos is spoken language used in daily life, literal translation seems to be prevailing.

Cultural equivalent – Measurement units and currencies shall be converted into local units. Imperial system units (e.g. feet, inch, pound) shall be transferred into Vietnamese metric system units (e.g. meter and kilogram).

Transference – Several words that are hardly translatable are kept the same in the translation. For example: “Alakazootiful!” (The Smurfs).


Difficulties of Vietnamese Subtitle Translation


Slangs may be the most difficult content to translate in a video subtitling translation project. Even native speakers cannot understand all the slang in their language. Because of cultural differences, translators must find an equivalent expression of the slang in the target language instead of translating the literal meaning of it.

For example, “Feeling blue in English literally means Cảm thấy màu xanh but it should be translated into Cảm thấy buồn” (Feeling sad) or “In the pink” in English literally means Trong màu hồng when it should be translated into Rất khỏe” (Very healthy, very well).


Nicknames are peculiar to cultural and behavioural meanings so it is difficult to find a compact translated name with similar meanings. Nicknames can be seen the most in films about crimes or gangs, in which characters’ nicknames are created carefully to describe their habits, interests, hobbies, features, etc.

For example, “sticky fingers implies people stealing or pilfering and luckily, Vietnamese has the term hai ngón with the same meaning and expression.


Idioms are rarely understood by their literal meanings. Instead, they use figurative images to express the world. These images are based on people’s cognitive and cultures; therefore, idioms in each language are different and unique. For example, in English, “Man proposes God disposes” is used to highlight the importance of luck. Unfortunately, most Vietnamese people are not Christian so “God” should not be translated literally into “Chúa”. Meanwhile, “thiên” (天) is the Supreme God appreciated by Vietnamese people due to the influence of Confucius’s ideas. Thus, “Hành sự tại nhân, thành sự tại thiên” is the best translation for this idiom.

Swear and Taboo Words

Swearing and the use of taboo words are quite common in daily life, in films, and on television. However, some swearing words can give offence or shock people from different cultures. In other cases, they are considered inappropriate and the whole movie might be banned.  The challenge to translators is to translate honestly to keep original ideas or use euphemisms to meet Vietnamese content control requirements, especially politics-related words. For instance, the F word in movies should be lessened and translated into “Chết tiệt” (Damn).

Fictional Terms

They are new specific terms and hard to translate. For example: “He timed himself out” = “He killed himself” (Anh ấy tự tử) (In Time). In Time is a sci-fi movie about a world where people stop ageing when they are twenty-five and their “life clocks” start to count down. They work and earn time to live and pay all living expenses. If they run out of time, they will die. The example is spoken by the main character of the film (Will). He talks about a man who deliberately gave all his time to Will and died.

That is to say, “time himself out” is rendered functionally to “kill himself” (tự tử) and it is more precise than its original idiomatic meaning.

Fictional Terms in Subtitle Translation


Pronouns in Vietnamese are various and flexible depending on the speakers’ roles. For example: “I love you” in English means “Wo ai ni” in Chinese Mandarin or “Te Amo” in Spanish without considering anything about pronounces; but in Vietnamese, it may mean “Anh yêu em/Con yêu mẹ/Cháu yêu bà/etc” (perhaps, there are hundreds of translation for this sentence). Therefore, translators must watch the video and listen to the audio carefully to determine the correct pronounces.

Character Limit

Speaking speed in English is much faster than that in Vietnamese. A word in Vietnamese is also much longer than one in English. These facts force translators to choose compact words with similar meanings to deliver the expression correctly and completely but still meet requirements on the character limit.


Vietnamese Subtitle Translation – Challenging Mission

It cannot be said that translating subtitles is an easy mission because it involves many communication aspects, from words to behaviours in cultural contexts. GTE Media has a big team with years of experience in translating subtitles, understanding thoroughly cultures in the world, and mastering the Vietnamese language. To allow us to offer the best localized, please contact us here.



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