Subtitling Rap

I’ve hated rap for most of my life. Really – found it repulsive. The noise. The negative energy, aggression. The whole ‘smack ma bitch up’ culture. Hate, hate, hate. Old man, grumpy-sod hate.

Ignorant hate.


And once again, Oleg Vorobiev, one of the partners behind, has been the catalyst for a change in me. He came to the Eclectic office a few weeks ago, and asked if I’d heard anything about the rap battles now filling Russia’s headlines.


I stared at him blankly, wondering which of my idiotic, closed-minded high horses to get up on, in order to deliver my rant about ‘not listening to that awful noise’.


He didn’t give me time.


“You guys should do something really impossible; you should try to subtitle some rap.”


Again, he didn’t give me time to voice my highly cultured, suave, dismissive, ill-informed opinions.


“Here, look.” He opens up the latest rap battle between Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS, the rap battle that brought this whole phenomenon to the attention of the wider Russian public, and subjects me to a few minutes of it. “It’s amazing what these guys are doing, and it’s even more amazing how much people are talking about it.”


I’m disgusted.


It’s two sickly-looking white men, crowded around by a bunch of tattooed, bizarrely decorated mouth-breathers, swearing at each other, abusing each other, and being quite surprisingly homophobic.


It’s vile, and everything I’ve always hated about rap.


And the idea of subtitling something like that is… fascinating.


I feel the twinge of excitement at a new, unfamiliar challenge.


Rap relies heavily on slang: often culturally exclusive, largely untranslatable; it has rhyme; and it scans. Oh, and did I mention how fast it is?


In 2014, Eminem held the Guinness World Record for speed in rap, at 258 words per minute, in his song Rap God. He’s since been outdone by a chap called Twista in a song called Mista Tung Twista, at a speed of 280 words per minute.



For context, the fastest TED talker rattled the words out at 188 words per minute. That’s a whole 92 words per minute slower than the fastest rapper.


In the films we subtitle at Eclectic, we count an average of 70-100 spoken words per minute – though that includes all the long dramatic pauses, the silent sweeping landscape shots, the women staring out of windows, etc.


Even so, when subtitling, we remove around 30% of the text from the dialogue, in order to make subtitles that are readable.


Can you imagine the scale of the challenge when subtitling rap?


We decided to experiment with subtitling a 30 second clip of the rap battle. Just to see what the technical challenges would be.


Simply transcribing (typing up word for word) what was said in Russian was already difficult. An average hour of audio takes around 6 hours to transcribe. A pro can do it in around 4 hours, if the audio is clear. But here you’ve got fast-paced rap, with all kinds of obscure references, and swear words to make a sailor blush.


That 30 second clip took 10 minutes to transcribe. Not much? That translates into one hour of audio taking not 4 or 6 hours, but 20 hours to transcribe!


Next up was spotting the text – putting the Russian transcription into preliminary subtitles on the video file. We do this so that the translator can see where they’re supposed to be, and how much time there is for each subtitle.



As you can see from all the red numbers in the C/Sec (characters per second) column, a lot of the subs are simply too long. And that’s before we add all the articles and prepositions that English requires in order to make sense. Fine, if you want to sit down and have a good read, but not much use if you’re trying to watch the video.


Now it was time for the translation. As this was just an experiment, we decided to do the translation in-house; sure, none of us are rappers, but we wanted to understand what aspect of the process to emphasise. Should we just try to translate it? Should we take the message, and re-write it, shorter? Should we make it rhyme? Should we try to match the scansion? Which of these important elements would have to be sacrificed in order for the others to be achieved?


Our subtitling process includes what we call a ‘basic’ translation, where we translate the Russian subtitles, keeping as close to the original as we can. We make no effort at this first stage to shorten the subs to fit them into the time available; we just try to get an accurate translation with all the meaning from the original. This ‘product’ cannot be shown to any client; it’s just a raw material for us to work with.



As you can see – still plenty of red in the C/Sec column! Now comes the most difficult stage – subtitle editing. This is where an experienced subtitle editor has to look at the film, understand the Russian original text, check that all the meaning has been reflected in the translation, and, by juggling the various principles of subtitling, decide what to sacrifice. The editor’s decision depends on how much time is available, how much context the action on screen is giving us, etc.


This stage can progress as slowly as 15 minutes of film per day. I didn’t keep a record of how long it took us, but perhaps a good 2-3 hours, for a 30 second clip. Again, you can see how much slower that is than standard.


And the result?


We had a look at it in the office. We weren’t that inspired: not enough rhyme for some people; not enough fluency and meaning for others; and too quick for most of us, meaning that we didn’t see the action on screen.


But there was lots learned as a result, and it was fun to be experimenting again.


Incredibly, the very next week, we got a call from one of our clients…  Would we be prepared to subtitle a 35 minute rap pilot episode for a TV series?!


Remember, this is the guy who hated rap just a few weeks ago. Now he’s being asked to subtitle a rap TV series… Will he? Won’t he?


Watch this space for more 😉

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Will Hackett-Jones

Co-Founder & Partner

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