Introduction to subtitling: basics for starters


Getting the feel for subtitles

Do you ever watch a movie with subtitles and think, “who’s the person behind this text?” Most people will go through their lives without asking this question while having watched hundreds of films with subtitles. Viewers rarely consider how subtitles are made, and most tend to think that speech-recognition technology can, in fact, generate perfect subtitles, but this is not the case yet. There is a substantial amount of human effort that goes into creating subtitles.

There are three components in the subtitled media: visual image, spoken word, and the subtitles. The partnership of these elements is what makes the product readable to the viewer.

“…whereas literature and poetry evoke, films represent and actualize a particular reality based on specific images that have been put together by a director.”

Thus, unlike pure text which involves the use of our imagination for constructing images, subtitles need to represent the reality intended by the film. They cannot contradict or evoke new imagery in the viewer’s mind, and thus need to correspond to the original purpose of the media product.

Additionally, timing is important. It may have an altering effect on the experience to the viewer if the audio and the text are out of sync, as they can come across as if the words don’t belong to the speaker. And this is precisely the point I would like to pay close attention to. The subtitles are integrated so that the actors and text merge as one. Reading the subtitles and watching the visual imagery are meant to be one and the same activity, integrated like the sound and the image, and if this harmony is violated, the experience of watching a film can become tedious.


Choosing your aspect

As a subtitler, there is only a limited amount of characters per line to work with, and the characters include punctuation marks as well. Managing these important details requires a strong control over language, both technically and creatively. This task is primarily done by adaptors, a specific group of subtitlers whose task is to edit the given text so that it fits the screen minimizing discomfort and is easily readable by the average viewer. There are two other sub-specifications of subtitlers: translator and spotter. Translators as intuitively guessed are the ones responsible for the language transfer from one to the other and are expected to have a strong command over both of the languages. Their task is primarily focused within the translation realm, making sure the meaning gets across from one language to the other. While knowledge of a language may provide the essentials of translation, it is also an imperative for the translators to know the cultures of the languages, for the purpose of translating idioms for instance, as well as be intelligible towards the cultural idiosyncrasies of the languages to better comprehend the meanings of original film. Lastly, the spotter covers perhaps the most technical side of subtitling process. Spotters are in charge of deciding the timing of subtitles and are expected to work on the synchronization of the voice and the text.

 Some professional warnings

According to Ivarsson (Ivarsson in Cintas & Remael, 2014: 39), subtitlers “have the same copyright under the Berne and World Conventions as writers and therefore have the right to see their names on works that are published”. However, not every media product credits the subtitlers by mentioning their names. Oddly enough, the best subtitles are considered those that go unnoticed by the viewer. This invisibility tends to affect subtitlers’ social recognition and keeps their anonymous. In truth, how many subtitlers does an average person know by name? let alone by face.

This is what happens when you google famous subtitlers:

Fame of subtitlers

Subtitling is certainly a no-way if you’re looking to get fame from your career. If you google famous subtitlers, you’ll get breadcrumbs. Even being a number one subtitler in the country won’t get your photograph published on Wikipedia as we see from the example with the Japanese pro subtitler, Natsuko Toda.

It should also be mentioned that subtitling is overlooked as an academic discipline, and most get their subtitling expertise outside universities, by themselves freelance experience or with private courses. So to seek a degree in subtitling is not the most common way to learn the skill. However, if your inner drive is strong and fame is not important to you, subtitling may be what you’re looking for.


Nikoloz Vachnadze


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