Subtitling is a profession

Hire a subtitler? Why would I? Can’t a computer do it just as well?
Of course, Machine Assisted Subtitling (MAS) is rapidly developing. It is cheap and at first sight it seems quick. But the software misinterprets words, does not always add correct punctuation, fails to distinguish between speakers, and the timing of the subtitling is often incorrect. Experience has shown me that correcting a computer translation takes just as much time as directly translating the source text myself.

This is because subtitling a foreign language comprises two disciplines; translating and subtitling. For both, experience and professional skills are required. If you can translate, you can’t necessarily subtitle, and vice versa. Vangarmen has more than 25 years of experience, both translating and subtitling movies, documentaries, TV series and commercial videos from and into English. If you put the unabbreviated dialogue on screen, there would generally be too much text. Reading simply takes more time than listening, so the reader would not be able to finish reading before the title disappears. Vangarmen has over 30 years of experience, both translating from English to Dutch and vice versa and subtitling movies, documentaries, TV series and commercial videos.

Large audience
Subtitles are by far the most read texts. Every day, millions of people watch the fruits of our labour. When you are a subtitler and tell people what you do, their reaction often is that they have spotted mistakes. This is a pity, especially since 99 percent of man-made subtitles are correct. But this stresses the point that a good subtitle does not arrest attention. And this is where my expertise comes in. Nowadays, many well-meaning amateurs subtitle movies, which puts professional subtitlers in a poor light. All the more reason to hire an experienced, professional subtitler.

How does it work?

On average, a viewer can process no more than 37 to 45 characters per line, so a maximum of 90 characters per subtitle. A subtitle is on screen for a minimum of 1 second and a maximum of 8 seconds, depending on the dialogue duration. This makes subtitling largely a matter of condensing/summarising.

An advantage for translating and subtitling Dutch to English is that English generally requires fewer words to express the same thing as in Dutch.

But what can you leave out so the viewer won’t notice? You obviously never omit anything that is necessary to follow the conversation or that is referred to later on. And while the focus is on the essence of the content, things like slang, jargon, register and culturally related humour are relevant too. You want to compress all this into a correct, clear and fluent sentence.

One sentence? Sometimes you combine two sentences into one, or they would be on screen too briefly. But time permitting, it is sometimes better to split a sentence, for instance to prevent giving away the point of a joke prematurely.

Line breaks
Of course, a professional translator breaks off titles at a logical and grammatically correct position. When spreading the subtitle over two lines, you make sure the two lines have approximately the same length, but you always follow the logic of grammatical units. The break-off position is not only important for the intelligibility; you also want to leave as much room as possible for the image.

So not: I love my house, but not my

but:       I love my house,
             but not my neighbourhood.

This is the guideline for a 4:3 video format. To 16:9 formats, for example, other rules apply.

And then a tricky issue. What do you do when people speak simultaneously? Subtitle the person you see on screen? But suppose someone else, for instance in a talkshow, puts forward something that is then pursued? Or that someone else simply talks louder? The viewer expects it to be translated in a subtitle. So, subtitles are always tailor-made.

Viewers can’t read everything before the title disappears. A subtitler uses a reading speed of 10 to 20 characters per second. With an average reading speed of 15 characters per second, an adult person reads an average of 180 words per minute. Both with titles in the same language and translated from a foreign language, a viewer can’t read more than 45 characters per line.

Spotting means deciding when a subtitle appears on screen and disappears again; the incue and outcue. If subtitles disappear too soon or too late, it will disturb the viewer. Well-spotted subtitles follow the rhythm of scenes, dialogues and shot cuts and enhance the viewing pleasure.

But what is well-spotted? The time code determines the margins of the subtitle. The incue lies a few frames before the moment the dialogue starts, so the viewer has the impression they are synchronous. I use two frames for this, because I feel it looks most natural. The outcue frame depends on the question whether the dialogue continues, by the same or a different speaker. If not, the subtitle disappears around twelve frames after the dialogue finishes. You can let the subtitle stay on screen across a shot cut, for a minimum of ten frames, to not disturb viewers, but a subtitle never stays on screen across a scene change.

MAS or Machine Assisted Subtitling
It is a development that has been going on for quite some time, and that will be applied more and more in the future: computer or machine translation, where the source text is translated by a software programme. Different apps are available to have video automatically subtitled. The advantage: It’s cheap. The disadvantages: It takes quite a bit of perseverance to familiarise yourself with the possibilities and limitations of the software, the result is far from ideal and correcting it takes a lot of time. The software ‘understands’ words incorrectly, fails to use correct punctuation, does not distinguish between speakers and the timing of the subtitling is often incorrect.

In all cases, I choose to do a translation, whether it involves plain text or subtitling, myself, without the support of translation software. This has several reasons.

Experience has shown me that correcting a computer translation takes just as much time as directly translating the source text myself.

The range of computer software is limited. A computer will always translate a certain word or phrase in the same way. A translator takes into account the context, the register, the target group, the client’s wishes etc. and on this basis will determine his choice of words and formulation.

Subtitling Guidelines by the Auteursbond
The Dutch Auteursbond has drawn up Guidelines for Subtitling in the Netherlands. These guidelines describe the demands that a proper subtitling – for the Dutch market – should meet. The aim is to improve the quality of subtitling. The guidelines were drawn up by four dyed-in-the-wool subtitlers within the framework of a broader European project. Most Dutch subtitling companies adhere to these guidelines and the Union for the Dutch Language (Taalunie) also supports the initiative.

Also see this: 

Subtitlers Are The Unsung Heroes of Filmmaking