Subtitling – Part I

Many clients who ask us for subtitling quotes don’t know exactly what they want, or what to expect. The explanation? They haven’t heard much about the process, let alone its steps or possible products. It’s understandable that those who have never needed to have a video subtitled might assume it’s as simple as typing the text onto the screen through some specialized software. Well, it’s far from that.

With the Q&A sheet below, we intend to give you an overview of the subtitling process. Our goal is in line with the general goal of this blog: to help you get the product that most suits you, and with the best possible quality, by better communicating your needs to the specialized professionals.

(1)    What information should I provide to get a subtitling quote?

Basically, you should discuss with the professional(s) all the pertinent specifications of your project. Give special attention to the format of the video you have and what end product you want. Do you have a “hard copy” of a video (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.) or a digital file (AVI, MKV, MPEG, WMV, MP4, etc.)? As usual, sending the original video up front is the most reasonable way of dealing with this, but we understand it’s not always possible. If that’s the case, don’t forget to inform the length of the material and its subject matter (how technical is it?). If you have the transcription (i.e. the text of the video in a written format), go ahead and send it. It can also be useful if you explain the purpose of the translated video: will it be shown at a film festival? On a TV channel? Sent as internal communication to your company’s employees? Serve as marketing material for your clients? Put on your website or YouTube? Last but not least, all steps of the project should also be crystal clear: who does what and when.

(2)    What are the most common products and their (dis)advantages?

First things first: do you only need the translated text so you can prepare a written training manual, for instance? If so, subtitling is not necessary, and most translators can work from the audio to produce a written translation (and charge accordingly). However, if you need a DVD or a video to broadcast, keep on reading.

Digital video files are becoming more and more popular. They can, however, have only one subtitle file attached to them, so if you need the video translated into two languages, you’ll need two video files. But the mobility of these files makes them incredibly practical. They can be easily uploaded to your website or USB drive, sent by email or through FTP servers, and so on. Also, they can be conveniently saved onto a CD-ROM whenever you need something “concrete” to hand to your clients, for example.

Another option is a DVD (category that also includes Blu-ray and VHS). This technology stores images and texts independently and allows for the existence of various subtitling channels, which viewers can switch on and off. This means you can have a video subtitled in multiple languages, and the audience can choose whether to read the French subtitles, the Spanish subtitles, or none at all. A possible downside of DVDs has to do with their “physical” existence: you have to carry them around and burn the number of copies you need, instead of being able to send the video by FTP or email, or uploading it to a USB drive or website. While a digital video file can be quickly burned onto a CD-ROM, a DVD is not easily converted into a subtitled video file; it’s totally feasible, but requires the right software and expertise.

(3)    What are the common steps throughout the subtitling process?

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of subtitling, I’d say most professionals begin with the translation proper. While they type the translated text into the subtitling software (or word processor), they need to decide where exactly each subtitle and each line begin and end, i.e. how to segment the text so that readable chunks are shown on the screen. As subtitles are constrained by space and duration, our job is to facilitate the reading process by making the text flow as much as possible.

The next phase is the synchronization of the written text with its oral counterpart. It’s crucial for the subtitles to be shown on the screen as their respective sentences are heard. For this to happen, the professional has to mark the exact time when each subtitle appears and disappears.

When translators use specialized subtitling software, the result at this point is a text file (TXT, SUB, SRT, etc.) containing the translation and relevant technical information such as timing, formatting, line breaks, and so on.

Strictly speaking, this is where the job of the audiovisual translator ends. The final step consists of editing the translated video with “attached” subtitles or authoring a new DVD in the translated language(s). This job is usually carried out by professional film producers, and many translators don’t perform this task. So, if you need someone to edit the final video, ask the translator if s/he offers this service or can recommend a video producer. Bear in mind that film editing is a separate task and, as such, will be charged separately according to the technical requirements.

Audiovisual translation

What do you do when you need to translate a video? Just send it to any translator, and s/he will know exactly what to do, right? Nope. Any serious professional will ask you how exactly you want it translated and might offer you an array of options. Now, would you know what choices you’d be given and which one would be the best for you?

Does any of this remind you of an earlier post entitled “Defining project specifications”? That’s precisely the reason Bianca highlighted in that post the importance of talking to your translator about all relevant details before every project begins. The problem is that projects in some specialized areas have even more specific aspects to be discussed, and of course you can only discuss them if you’re aware of their existence. The main motivation for creating this new category of posts is to explain a bit about the processes and nuances inherent to some specialized translation areas so that you feel more at ease when discussing your projects with professionals.

Let’s begin with a brief overview of what’s commonly referred to as audiovisual translation or multimedia translation. This field includes all modes of translation dealing with sounds and images, such as movies, documentaries, TV shows, advertisements, video games, institutional or educational videos, interactive software, and theatre translation, among others.

Although the script of an audiovisual product might seem to be an ordinary written text, some important elements are not easily retrieved from a mere sheet of paper alone, such as tone of voice, intonation, facial expressions, and visual prompts. That said, it’s almost always the case that the audiovisual translator will do a better job if s/he has access to the video and audio materials, to which the written text must be integrated. Scripts, transcriptions, and dialog lists are very important reference materials, but shouldn’t be used as the only source for translation.

Audiovisual translation modes

The development of technology has brought numerous advances to this field, which has resulted in the creation of new translation modes. For now let’s focus on a quick overview of the most common audiovisual translation modes:

  • Script translation

The written text proper is usually necessary in several stages of a video production, for instance. The translation might vary according to what exactly the text will be used for (the purpose of the translated material).

  • Subtitling

This mode involves the transposition of spoken speech into written text. The short written segments are usually a condensed version of the original, due to time and space constraints and the viewers’ reading speed—there’s only so much we can read in a few seconds. Subtitles are usually presented as one- or two-line segments that ideally appear and disappear in synchrony with the audio. This is the most popular audiovisual translation mode in many countries.

  • Dubbing, narration, voice-over

These modes belong to a wider category often called revoicing, i.e. when a new audio track is produced so that the original speech is (partly) replaced by a translation. It involves the reinterpretation of oral speech by professional actors or voice talents. In dubbing, synchrony between the original actor’s lips and the dubbing actor’s voice is one of the main goals. Narration in audiovisual translation usually refers to a descriptive translated text that is read by an off-screen narrator, meaning viewers can only hear the voice but can’t see the person who’s speaking. In voice-over, the translation doesn’t entirely replace the original: viewers can still hear a split second of the original voice at the beginning and end of the speech. For this reason, voice-over doesn’t deal with lip-sync constraints. These translation modes are more time-consuming than subtitling, especially because they involve the participation of more professionals, thus resulting in higher costs.

  • Simultaneous/consecutive interpreting

This option is often used for live events broadcast on television, such as Oscar ceremonies, live speeches by prominent politicians, etc. It works more or less as conference interpreting (simultaneous or consecutive), except that it’s done remotely: the interpreter is usually at a TV studio, and his/her output is broadcast over the original sound without replacing it completely.

  • Interactive software and video game translation and localization

Several aspects of interactive software and video games, such as written texts and audio files, have to be extracted and then translated and localized before being reintegrated. While the extraction and reintegration work is usually carried out by software engineers, translators take care of the linguistic matters. Dubbing, narration, and subtitling are often part of this process as well.

Audiovisual translation and media accessibility

Some audiovisual translation modes aim to facilitate the access of disabled/impaired people to audiovisual products. The translation here doesn’t happen from one language to another, but from images or sounds to verbal language, in the form of texts that can be heard or read. Below are the two most common types:

  • Closed captioning

Also referred to as subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing (or hearing-impaired viewers), this mode resembles regular subtitling. The difference is that the captions are designed so as to include relevant non-verbal sounds such as a dog barking, doorbell, laughter, and so on. Sometimes different colors are assigned to different characters, and the lines can also be displayed closer to the character who’s speaking, instead of in the center of the screen.

  • Audiodescription

A description of images is read out loud and integrated into the soundtrack of a video to help blind and visually impaired people understand the audiovisual media. This insertion of succinct and, ideally, objective information has to take place within the gaps between speech or important sound effects.