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.