Following on from my own blog on subtitling, when I took a look back at my first steps into what is still a new skill for me, I decided to explore the topic further through the eyes of a more expert subtitler. Thankfully, I didn't have to look very far, as my friend Sophie, with over 10 years of professional experience, was the perfect candidate. While sipping on a coffee in a local café, she kindly answered my questions, reflecting on her career and giving her views on subtitling.
So Sophie, how would you describe yourself in a few words?
My name is Sophie Paleologos. I’m a translator and subtitler. I’m a French native speaker. I’ve been living in London for 15 years and I’m a freelancer.
What made you decide to become a subtitler?
Ah! That’s a good story. When I was 15, I saw a documentary on TV about subtitling. They were interviewing this French guy who was subtitling “Law and Order”. And at the time, “Law and Order” was a show I used to watch a lot, because it was always on TV. And he was describing how he would go about translating that show and I thought it was super interesting, because it is really technical actually. It’s a judicial show, you know. And I thought, “Wow! It seems like a cool job.” And I was pretty good at languages already at school. So I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do.”
How did you train to become a subtitler?
I studied applied languages back in France, so English and Spanish. And then, I went to live in Spain for a year to improve my Spanish. Then I went to live in the UK for a year to improve my English. Then I went back to France and I tried to look for an internship in subtitling and I couldn’t because France is quite… I found that it was quite hard to get into subtitling in France. So I went back to the UK and I applied for an internship in subtitling companies. I found an internship straightaway in Central London for six months. And then they hired me as a freelancer. That was back in 2008.
So you said you work as a “regular” translator and as a subtitler. Do you have a preference between the two types of tasks?
Well, “regular translation” is a very vast term. So I do mainly marketing translations and copywriting or.... It’s also called transcreation because it’s not translating word for word, you have to steer away from the source. So I do that. I quite like it. I think they’re both creative styles of translation, just like subtitling. So in that way, they kind of work together. I mean, the skills are similar. Which task do I prefer? I prefer the regular translation because it’s much easier and it pays better.
So money aside, what do you like the most about subtitling, and the least?
What I like the most about subtitling is the creative side of it, the fact that it’s both visual and written, so you have to take into account what’s on screen and also what’s being said and sort of make it work. I think that’s an interesting exercise. What I like the least about subtitling is that it’s really badly paid. It’s a very long task, a very long process to do. It should be paid more.
What’s the hardest part of subtitling?
One of the hard aspects is the technical aspects that you… You need to be good technically to reach a certain output, so as to be quicker at your job. Ideally, you need to do at least 5 minutes of film per hour. If you do less than that, then you’re actually losing money. It’s not profitable at all. So I’d say the hardest part is to be productive.
Would you add or remove anything from the beginner’s blog on subtitling I wrote?
I’d like to talk more about the reading speed. Since I started subtitling in 2008, I’ve heard many different points of view about the reading speed. Now the current trend is to follow Netflix’s style guide and Netflix are very strict about their reading speed. I would just like to say that it’s not the case everywhere. Some clients want something different. Subtitling for the cinema does not care about reading speed. I know that from working at MPS in London, subtitling for 40 different languages. And reading speed was never taken into account. So you hope that the translator who worked on the subtitles thought about the reading speed, but sometimes there were reading speeds at 35 [words per minute]. It was just crazy. So, the reading speed is important, but also you have room for, how do I say it, flexibility on reading speed. Not with Netflix.
Talking about Netflix, how do you feel about the recent Squid Game polemic, about the English subtitles for hard-of-hearing people?
So I think some people pointed out that not all the content was present in the subtitles. I think for hard of hearing subtitling, the reading speed has to be even lower, because you have to take into account that the spectators can’t hear anything. So they only rely on the subtitles. So, with that in mind, you can’t have all the content of the audio in the subtitles. It’s simply impossible. So the subtitler had to make choices. Some people disagree with those choices, which is fine, but, you know... Subtitling is a creative choice. You’re not a machine. Subtitling is an art, let’s not forget.
Would you have any advice to give to somebody starting in subtitling?
To master the software, whichever one they’re using, because that’s what’s going to help them be more productive. If they want to make a living, they need to work fast. And to improve their listening skills in whichever language they’re working with, because you don’t always work from a template or a script. Another advice I would give to somebody starting in subtitling is to know your worth, know that subtitling is a skill and do not take jobs that are paid too low, because you’re worth more than that.