A few years ago, I translated several books by Trino, one of Mexico's most famous cartoonists. Translating comic books represents a unique challenge because the translator usually must fit the translated text into the same speech balloon as the original, and as all translators know, the best translation of a word or phrase can be much longer or shorter than the original. This makes translating comics analogous to subtitling a movie, because each subtitle must fit into an exact segment of time, which is measured in seconds and milliseconds.

As I was translating Trino's comics—and I should mention here that Trino is one of my favorite cartoonists—I noticed something that surprised me: the text itself wasn’t always that funny or clever. And then I started noticing the same thing in all comic strips. What makes the text in comic strips so amusing is the characters and their expressions. The words themselves are certainly important, but they are secondary.

The same is true of subtitles. It would be great if subtitles could always capture every nuance of the dialogue, but we have to remember that the audience must read subtitles, and reading takes effort. The time the audience's eyes spend on subtitles is time they lose watching the action.

There are of course major differences between translating comic books and creating subtitles. In comic books, with few exceptions, the translated text must be neither longer nor shorter than the source text, but the rule in subtitling is that, for ease of reading, every subtitle should be written in as few characters as possible. As I told a director once, subtitles are useless if the audience must possess superpowers to be able to read them.

The subtitler, like the translator of comic books, rarely has the luxury of rendering a perfect translation. For us, perfection is getting as close as we can while respecting the audience and the absolute limits of the medium.