Rome, Italy

Translating and Subtitling: Documentaries

Documentaries are often considered a good practice and starting point for audiovisual practitioners – with a huge impact on the quality of the end product. 

A good understanding of film techniques is always a plus, and knowing more about documentaries and the theory behind them could help us as language professionals to guarantee the best quality possible. So, always keep an eye on:

  • Terminology: I mean, translating documentaries is all about terminology. You can’t mistake one species for another and although you can find everything on the Internet, sometimes a careful research is needed. (Test yourself: what is the Italian for Birch polypore? Note: we are looking for the common name, not the scientific one). Consistency and coherency are essential, that is why I use professional tools to keep my glossaries always up-to-date. 

  • Register: Although the mantra is “Stick to the source”, sometimes Less is more and word per word translations never work out well. Popular-scientific language must be rendered properly in order to recreate the original tone and to involve the audience. When people are involved, we must not forget that while people are considered as “actors” in fiction, in documentaries they are “social actors” and represent themselves. Again, sticking to the source, understanding the language and register of the speaker is central to deliver a good-quality translation.

  • Knowledge: researching is okay and turning down an assignment because you know nothing about a certain topic is okay as well. Find the right person! Contact me if you think I might be the one (but first, check this out!)


Introduction to Documentary is a great book to guide you through the many aspects of documentaries. It is thought for filmmakers but it is so well-written and interesting that I really recommend it.