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IamA translator and subtitler working in-house at one of the largest subtitling companies in the world. Have you ever wondered why professional subtitles are so different from amateur ones? AMA!

Jan 10th 2018 by Birdseeding • 19 Questions • 119 Points

I work as a translator and subtitler for a large localisation company - that is, it does dubbing and subtitling in something like 41 languages, as well as SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) and audio description (spoken segments that help blind and visually impaired people follow along in films). It's one of the market leaders and has offices in over a dozen countries, as well as many thousands of freelancers.

Personally, I do subtitles from scratch in two languages (both translated and same-language), translate existing subtitles, write audio description scripts, and to a lesser extent translate synopses, dubbing scripts and other text. I end up doing work for a huge range of clients, from the world's largest media conglomerates to small museums and everything in between. I work in-house in one of the offices of the company rather than from home.

As long as I don't break any non-disclosure agreements or reveal industry secrets, I should be answer to most things about the work and the ideas behind it. AMA!

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/iOXO5

Q:

How do professional subtitles differ from amateur ones?

A:

One thing I think we do so differently to your average SRT-based home anime subtitler is that we're bound by a bunch of principles that constrain what we can write, like:

  • Reading speed - this is huge. We constantly shorten things in order to make even slow readers be able to get what's being said. A lot of people who use TV subtitles are older and often hard of hearing, and they need subtitles that keep a very moderate pace. Two full lines of text? They need to be on screen for six seconds. That's not negotiable.

  • Line length and line breaks - we spend a lot of time on dividing lines into easy to read units, and work to technical standards that limit how many characters each line can have.

  • language choices, like having a totally consistent way of writing every word and term, across entire languages and at the very least entire series of TV shows.

(And of course better QC and stuff. But you knew that.)


Q:

Are you (or your company) getting calls from government agencies and other organizations that need help getting in compliance with Section 508? One of the major issues with this new federal law is videos posted online without captions. I’ve read about universities deleting thousands of videos rather than retroactively add captions, but from your post above it seems like you could be a huge help to organizations that are trying to meet the new accessibility requirements.

A:

Not that I know of, sadly. (I work in Europe, so I may just be disconnected from it.) I think it's definitely something that we could do, yes, but of course it's hardly a free service, and perhaps something government grants really should help with.


Q:

Some dialogue can be really hard to hear, so it's helpful when subtitles make it clear. Do you always have the script to work with, or do you sometimes have to figure it out using your own awesome hearing powers?

A:

The thing is, even if we have a script, often the script is a post-production one, outsourced to a low-wage country somewhere, and they will also have tried and often failed to hear what has been said. Never trust the script!

Luckily in an office we are several people who can work together to try to listen and decipher stuff. It's not often that we all fail, but it happens.


Q:

But what about lines that are never said? I always assumed there was a script on hand from preproduction because sometimes there are captions for things that never actually get said, or words at the start of a sentence as the audio fades in, or really quiet whispers or background dialogue from extras that wasn't even meant to be discernible but somehow is heard and captioned.

A:

Honestly, things that aren't heard shouldn't be captioned, in my opinion. Captions are there to help deaf and hard of hearing people get the same experience as hearing people, not to hint at secrets. :)

But yes, some production companies will include pre-production material in their post-production scripts, including from barely audible extras. And then insist the material be included. But it's very, very rare in my experience.


Q:

Hi! I'm an aspiring subtitler. I graduated as a translator an I've attended conferences and also I had the chance to subtitle some movies for a festival. I know this what I want to do for the rest of my life because I'm really passionate about it and I'm always trying to improve my work. I'm from Peru but I'm currently staying in Mexico. My plan is to eventually live here and live off of my subtitles.

The problem is that I know very little about the financial side of it. Could you please tell me how did you start and how you got to where you are? I hope this isn't too late.

A:

Cool! It sounds like you've got your mind set and you're going for it properly. :)

Because of streaming becoming so large worldwide, the industry is currently undergoing rapid expansion and is hiring lots of new people. Personally, I just applied with one of the big worldwide subtitling companies and was made to do a test, and was then hired immediately. I have heard similar stories from friends, so it's a good time to step into the fray I think! Just write to them and see.

If you can't find one with an office in Mexico (I know e.g. SDI has an office there), consider becoming a freelancer. There are always thousands of more freelancers than people working in-house, and new ones are constantly needed. I'm sure with your degree and experience you should have no problem finding work.


Q:

Thank you so much for answering. Could you give me some names of the companies you know? Also, if I were to start as a freelancer, am completely lost on how to charge for a subtitling service; do you think you could help me with that?

A:

The four biggest ones, as far as I know, are BTI, VSI, SDI and Deluxe. But have a look at this list of preferred Netflix text localisation vendors, there's plenty more there: https://npv.netflix.com/originals-localization

If you work as a freelancer through a localisation company, they will all have standard rates of pay. (Usually per minute of subtitled material.) I'd suggest starting out that way, getting a feel for the kind of clients available and more experience, and then seeking out clients of your own once you know what the market pays.


Q:

I just noticed I'm 1 kilometer away from the SDI offices. I can't belive it. Thank you again for the information you are giving me, I really appreciate it. Who says browsing reddit at work is a waste of time! I wish you all the best!

A:

Good luck! I hope everything goes well for you!


Q:

Swift? *barfs*

A:

There's a reason they went bust.


Q:

What is the main formatting for subtitiling?

A:

Do you mean like file formats?


Q:

No, I mean how they're typed. Words versus sound effects, one person talking vs two people talking. That kind of thing.

A:

Oh! Well, the thing is, that depends a lot from country to country. A lot of countries started doing subtitling 50+ years ago, and in that time formatting has had time to diverge quite a lot.

For instance, in England, two people talking in one block will look like this:

- Hello

- Hello, how are you?

In Sweden, the same lines would be (translated, of course):

-Hello.

-Hello, how are you?

In Finland, they would be

Hello.

- Hello, How are you?

And so on. :)

Edit: Sorry, took ages to get formatting right. :)


Q:

Why are 99% of the subtitles on opensubtitles.org absolute garbage? For example, there are many Game of Thrones subtitles that have subtitles that say "Speaking Valarian" instead of what they are saying in English. Unless you speak Valarian, why would anyone want that?

A:

Well, I'm guessing that there are few Valyrian speakers around to translate those sections. :) Although I doubt we can fix a fictional language, if it was e.g. "Speaking dutch" instead, a company as big as the one I work for can easily get hold of a translator for those few lines. Someone sitting at home probably can't.

In all seriousness, sometimes it's the intention of the production not to translate spoken dialogue. For instance, if you want to convey how scared a protagonist is when stuck in a jail where everyone shouts at each other in a language the protagonist doesn't speak, subtitling the dialogue won't have the same effect.


Q:

sometimes it's the intention of the production not to translate spoken dialogue.

In that case does a film come to you with notes “don’t translate the foreign language dialogue at 13:54-16:37”?

A:

Sometimes. But more often we have to ask the client when we've already started.


Q:

no, amirite?

A:

Trust me, I didn't either :)


Q:

Do you have to know another language fluently to do subtitle work? Is there a market for closed captioning English to English?

A:

There's definitely a market for same-language closed-captioning! My office just hired like seven new people in the past month because they got new contracts from clients. They also do templates (i.e. English subtitles that are used by translators to base their versions of, which saves a lot of time.)


Q:

What's the pay like?

A:

Absymal. Barely above minimum wage here. There are cleaners that earn more than an entry-level subtitler, and they don't have a master's degree student loan to pay back.


Q:

How does swift compare to aegis sub?

What work has been the most challenging to subtitle for you so far?

A:

It's endlessly, endlessly more flexible for different workflows and so much faster to use. I have used Aegissub for some home projects sometimes and it has me in tears. Just stuff like not being able to set a standard caption separation...

Probably Angels in America - see previous answer.


Q:

hello!

do you have any resources you reference for subtitling guidelines? for example, 3 seconds per line is putting the name in front of their subtitle when two people are speaking.

i have referenced the BBC guides before and looking for any other resources or the most trusted/go-to resource.

A:

Sadly, the ones we use are all in-house and not public. Do a search for "timed text guidelines" and you'll get a few from different companies though. The thing is, different countries and different applications have different standards, so it's definitely not possible to find one model that will fit everyone. The name thing you mention is only done for one specific type of subtitle, for instance.


Q:

are there captioning services or databases dedicated to accurate translation (or even transliteration) rather than brevity?

A:

Yes - certainly the companies that do post-production scripts and templates will do completely word-for-word accurate captions. Some media companies (and many corporate clients) also request to have fully accurate translation or transcription done.


Q:

which shows do you think have the most accurate translations done?

A:

Boring answer, but generally stuff like "Big truck company announces its new line of trucks". That will have several revisions with every line pored over by the truck company headquarters until it's as close the the original as possible.