Are You Watching or Reading? The Secret to Subtitles

It’s my first time editing subtitles. I’m working on a practice file of a Russian TV series, The Island. It’s about a reality show that goes wrong, leaving the cast stuck on a tropical island. The dialogue has been translated and entered into the subtitling programme; but just like any translation (if you want a really good translation), it’s got to be edited.


Editing subtitles for ‘The Island’


This time it’s different, though. We’re creating subtitles, not a written translation that you can look over at your leisure. You don’t want to miss all the action because you’re struggling with  the text at the bottom of the screen. It’s down to the subtitle editor to make sure you spend the most time watching and the least time reading.


Easier said than done.


After I’ve had a go at editing one episode, Sasha and Will give me feedback. A lot of feedback. It’s mostly about fitting the subtitles into the limited amount of time available.


‘Remember,’ Will says, ‘The person reading the subtitles doesn’t know what’s being said in the original language. You need to help them understand the message as much as you can, and balance that with allowing them to watch it, not read it.’


‘But I used to watch foreign films with English subtitles to help me learn the language,’ I say in surprise. ‘What good was that if the subtitles don’t match exactly what’s being said?!’


There’s a lot more to subtitles than I realised.


For one thing, the actors talk fast. There’s no way you can read a word-for-word translation of what they’re saying before the scene changes and someone else starts talking. You’d fall behind and get confused; and quite frankly, you wouldn’t enjoy the experience.


The kind of subtitles you get when you translate them word-for-word


Instead, the editor has got to slim down the subtitles as much as possible while preserving the essence and rhythm of what’s being said. The character’s style of speech shouldn’t be lost either; the highly educated professor doesn’t use the same words as the rebellious teenager. The scriptwriter put a lot of thought into the words he chose, and the editor has got to reflect this as much as possible, while making it sound natural in the target language.


It’s about finding the right balance between which words to keep and which to lose. It’s about finding other ways to say the same thing. For example, ‘put some clothes on’ is a lot longer than ‘get dressed’. And if it’s obvious that Jane is talking to Michael, does she really need to refer to him by name?


There are certain principles to subtitling. You should use a full stop to mark the end of a complete statement. A subtitle should stay on screen for at least one second and no more than 

six seconds. Numbers one to ten should be written out in full, but 11 upwards should be written numerically. And then there is that tricky note in the subtitling guidelines: where possible.


Sometimes the principles of subtitling come into conflict with one another.


For example: “Today is your seventh day on the island.” That’s 42 characters including spaces and punctuation, and 40 is the absolute maximum. How do you shorten it without losing any of the meaning? Perhaps, “Today is your seventh day.” But this is right at the beginning of the episode; the seventh day of what? OK, how about: “Day seven on the island.” But the word ‘today’ is emphasised in the original language; that’s no good. Well then, “This is your 7th day on the island.” It’s breaking the rules, but it works. That four character difference between ‘seven’ and ‘7’ is crucial.


When one principle takes precedence over another


Subtitling is governed by principles, not rules.


What about subtitles as a tool for learning a language? If you’re a beginner and you’re watching a foreign film with English subtitles, it’s not much help if you hear the actor say one thing but you read something else. Later on in the language learning process, you can use it to widen your vocabulary as you’ll pick up different ways to say the same thing; and, after all, the more you listen to a language, the better.


What I’ve learned, however, is that subtitles are a complex art in their own right. As subtitle editor, you’re not just thinking about the words; you’re thinking about the timing and the image on screen as well. Your job is to help the viewer understand and enjoy the film as much as possible, even if this means changing ‘awe-inspiring’ to ‘awesome’.


By Rebecca Thorne, Intern

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