Delving into the translation sub-genre of subtitling

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Having recently gone back to freelancing, I took the opportunity to broaden my horizons and try my hand at other kinds of translation work. If you’ve already read my article on what inspired me to become a translator, you’ll already know that I’m a bit of a movie buff. So it was almost a matter of course that I gravitated towards subtitling. But how did I train and find work? What have been the hurdles and the joys of subtitling? What have I learned along the way? Find out all about my foray into this new sub-genre of translation.




Guide your style


As with translation projects of any kind, subtitling relies on style guides that define the requirements the translator - or subtitler - must follow to produce a consistent, high-quality translation, including character limits per line. That being said, most of the instructions will detail elements that are specific to subtitling, such as how to treat on-screen text, foreign dialogues and dual speakers, to name just a few.

This is the easy part, even if you’re a beginner. The guidelines are normally straightforward, small in number and easy to apply. By and large, the industry tends to follow the style guides developed by Netflix and available for free on their Timed Text Resources Library. You can simply search by typing your language followed by “Timed Text Style Guide” to retrieve the style guide you need. If you’d like an idea of the type of information you can find in such a reference document, take a look at the English Timed Text Style Guide.




Let’s get technical

A man repairing a computer

This is without doubt (at least to my mind) the more complex, time-consuming side of subtitling, in part because there are certain technical aspects that are specific to subtitling, as opposed to other genres of translation. So, even if, like me, you have years of experience as a linguist and are well versed in all the usual translation software and best practices, you’ll have to teach yourself the theory and train before you feel comfortable enough to handle this side of subtitling.


The technical elements of subtitling can be divided into three main categories: text positioning, reading speed and timing. Let’s take a closer look at each one in a bit more detail.



Text positioning


Yes, I’m starting with the easy one! The rule of thumb here is that the subtitle should be centred and positioned at the bottom of the screen; the only exception being when some on-screen text is already being shown at the bottom of the video (such as the name and title of an interviewee in a documentary). In this case, the subtitle needs to be positioned at the top of the screen.


You also need to bear in mind that you may have no more than two lines of subtitles at any given time and that each line should be no more than 42 characters (unless a stricter character limitation is stated). By default, software is normally set to not allow more than two lines of subtitles. When starting a project, you can also set the character limit so that any subtitle exceeding this limit will be flagged to you.



Reading speed


This corresponds to the speed at which the reader will need to read the subtitles before they disappear. The reading speed is calculated based on the ratio between how long a subtitle is displayed on the screen and how many characters or words it contains. This is why the reading speed is indicated in Characters Per Second (CPS) or Words Per Minute (WPM).


There has been some debate over what counts as too slow or too fast a reading speed, but on average, a reading speed of up to 180 wpm or 20 cps tends to be the norm, though this can vary from project to project. In effect, the reading speed is also one of the main reasons why translating subtitles often forces you to summarise what is being said and to play around with the vocabulary and syntax so that you can meet the reading speed requirement. The other reason is the timing requirements.



Timing


Timing can be described as the adequate positioning of your subtitles within the video timeline, in relation to the audio to which the subtitles are linked and to the shot changes. Put more simply, timing is an essential component of subtitling, as it allows for a seamless experience between what you see, what you hear and what you read on-screen. Timing is also based on the frame rate, i.e. how many frames (or still images) there are within one second. The most common frame rate is 24 fps (Frames Per Second), but this can vary from project to project.


If you’d like to learn more about timing requirements, a good place to start is this Netflix article on subtitling timing guidelines. Among other things, it lists the best practises for the number of frames you need between two subtitles and for subtitle in-times and out-times, i.e. the frames on which the subtitle should appear and disappear so as to match the audio. Another series of requirements specify how to time subtitles in relation to shot changes in order to create a seamless experience for the viewer.


The reading speed and timing closely affect each other: The shorter the timing you have, the more you’ll need to ensure your subtitles are short and concise so as to meet the reading speed. This is made even harder when you need to combine subtitles for dialogues and forced narratives. At times, merging or splitting events may help you to meet all the necessary requirements. It’s also essential that subtitles follow the flow of the audio, especially to render a joke punchline or create suspense.




Find your software


Audiovisual software and hardware

If, technically at least, it is still possible to translate standard content without the use of translation software (though granted this demands more time and greatly increases the risk of producing lower quality), the same cannot be said of subtitling, because of the dual nature of the content: You need to use software to ensure your translation fits the video it is intended for. The technical aspects of timing, reading speed and text positioning require you to use a tool on which you can see and edit the position and timing of the text you are translating on the video and that will alert you when a subtitle in your target language exceeds the reading speed.


So, which software should you opt for? Of course, you can always go for the big guns: Similar to Trados for standard translations, EZTitles (for Windows PCs) and MacCaption & CaptionMaker by Telestream (for Mac computers) are the two leading names in subtitling software. If you’d like to get a feel of these tools, both offer a free trial (with some limitations).


Personally, having tried MacCaption, I didn’t find it as intuitive and user-friendly as I’d have liked it to be. I often had to search through the various menu tabs to retrieve the feature I was looking for. In the end, I also took advantage of the free trial of a cloud platform called Ooona with its variety of tools to test, and found it more to my liking. I felt it was a good place to start navigating the different technical aspects and for choosing the settings you need for your projects.


Windows PC users can also download Subtitle Edit for free: This software offers all the main features you need to create and translate subtitles. A perfect place to start without having to invest in a platform.




Where’s the money?


A piggy bank on a calculator

You’ve studied the theory, downloaded the software and even practised a little, but will it all pay off? That’s the final important practical question.


Let’s cut to the chase: I doubt you can make a good living by only translating subtitles, especially as a beginner. For one thing, you’ll probably start working for agencies who offer a rather low fee per minute (around $4 per minute in my experience). For another, in all likelihood, you’ll need more time to complete projects than a more experienced subtitler, making the fee even less profitable.


My advice is to keep a mix of translation projects and subtitling projects. It may also be a good idea to pick small subtitling projects: this will allow you to practice and gain speed, without committing to large, time-consuming projects. It’ll also give you the opportunity to decide if subtitling is for you and if you would like to develop it as your main source of work and income.


No matter what, I believe subtitling is a good skill to have, if only for your CV and technical expertise. Long before I got into subtitling properly, I often found myself being asked to translate subtitles for YouTube videos for companies I used to work for and such extra expertise comes in handy in such cases.




How to get started?


A few runners on a starting block

Needless to say, this short article is merely an overview and just a first starting point. If you’d like to study the subject in greater depth, you can find training online, such as the GoSub courses, which you can choose from by level and interest. Associations such as the UK Subtitlers’ Association can also provide you with resources, as well as good opportunities to network and promote yourself.


And then, of course, there are agencies. Following my research online, I registered with a few, including Collot Baca Localization. One of the main advantages of such agencies is that they give you access to their own software. Plus, you may find yourself quickly translating subtitles for big names: My first project with Collot Baca was for an Oprah Winfrey show. Others like ZooSubs also offer useful tutorials and guides.




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