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Matinee Blog

The Latest Question on Everyone’s Mind: Is Subtitling an Art?

As you settle down with a bucket of popcorn almost as big as a family car and something cool to drink, the subtitles that flash up on the screen can be almost as important as the action that you watch.

We are so used to seeing subtitles on TV screens, on YouTube and at the cinema that it is easy to take them from granted. After all, don’t they just appear by magic, doesn’t some subtitling troll type them from his gloomy cave up in the mountains?

No, a – gasp! – real person creates the subtitles that add so much enjoyment to your viewing time. Indeed, the process of adding this useful information to the screen is something that could be considered as an art form once you understand it fully.

Is Subtilting an art?

Why Do People Use Subtitles?

To get started, we need to first of all look at why people use subtitles in the first place. You might assume that this is a service purely aimed at the hard of hearing. However, there are plenty more reasons why using subtitling is now than ever before.

For example, if you are using your mobile device on the move then you might want to save battery power by keeping the sound off. Equally, if you are watching a video at work then you might not want your boss to know that you are addicted to old Little House on the Prairie episodes. The rising trend of auto-play videos on social media is another reason that brands are including subtitles and making their content easier to engage with

Interestingly, it is also common for people learning a second language to use subtitles as a tool. Listening and reading the same words at the same time is a brilliant way of fine-tuning your ear to a new language.

Getting the Looks Right

There is one issue that you might not think about as you pop another piece of popcorn into your mouth and worry what will happen to Laura Ingalls (spoiler: she grows up). This is how the subtitles actually look.

Eh, aren’t they all exactly the same? Well, not really. There are different types of presentation that can be used to get the right look and to make them easy to read.

If you have ever watched a programme or film and not been able to make out the words on the screen or they disappear too fast then this is an example of subtitle-smithery gone wrong, which is a great name for a new reality show now that we think about it.

On the other hand, if you can see every word clearly and easily then you might want to consider a moment’s applause for the skilled subtitler who just added to your viewing pleasure within a limited character allowance.

Lush - subtitles. Is subtitling creative?

A Creative Translation

Did you think that video subtitling was just a case of typing down whatever was said on screen? Ah, bless your sweet, innocent little head. We wish it were that simple.

In many cases, this is a complicated task that involves highly creative translations. Writing down English subtitles for a foreign language production is a good example, as there might be jokes and slang that can’t be translated directly. Furthermore, the translation has to fit to a limited space so the viewer has enough time to comfortably read the text before the next subtitles take over.

A creative video translation might also be needed when the subtitles are for a different market. Subtitling a British show for the US, a Spanish promotional video for Argentina or a Brazilian documentary for Portugal can include changing lots of words to make the meaning more obvious or to avoid slang that has different connotations in the target market.

The Perfect Timing

Oh, how we used to laugh at those tragically dubbed kung-fu films where the young fighter / wise old man would say a hundred words that would finally come out translated as “Go ahead” long after he had been beaten to a pulp.

Yet, have you ever seen the same thing happen with subtitles? The chances are that you haven’t, but that doesn’t mean that getting the timing right is easy.

Imagine how Gone with the Wind would have ended if that scoundrel Rhett had said, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” while Scarlett was still at the top of the stairs. Or what if Dirty Harry had asked the punk if he felt lucky after using his 44 Magnum on him?

Poor subtitle timing can confuse the viewer or unintentionally reveal what is going to happen in advance. However, a great job in this respect leads to a smooth and seamless experience.

Subtitling Laptop

A Job Done with Pride

Like most jobs in the world, it is easy to tell when subtitling is done with pride. Of course, a top class subtitle artist will take an enormous amount of pride in their work.

This means spending a lot of time thinking on the right words and the right presentation. They will then polish their work until it absolutely perfect.

The ironic aspect of this is that the better they do their job the less likely the viewers are to notice what they have done. Subtitles only become talking points when they contain mistakes, are poorly timed or are badly done in some other way.

Despite this, a high quality subtitle wizard will continue to work away with pride and dedication to get it just right.

We asked our audience on LinkedIn if they thought subtitling was an art and Thomas Carey, a freelance French and Italian to English translator, responded.

Yes, of course it is! Translation and subtitle adaptation is also a complex procedure which deserves a decent remuneration. Many agencies seem to forget that. This is one of the reasons why subtitling may be becoming less of an art, as the quality of the subtitling and skills of translators drop due to outsourcing at ridiculous rates that only freelancers living in low-income countries can accept.

Talented Workers

Can you now imagine a talented subtitling artist sitting down and doing a fantastic job on bringing dialogue to life in text? The truth is that getting a top class subtitler will make a huge difference to the end product.

While it may be tempting to save money by hiring a cheap and cheerful freelancer, this is likely to lead to disappointing results. Instead, paying a fair price will give you terrific subtitles that you are proud to see on the screen of your video.

For everything you need to know about subtitling and to find out if you could DIY check out this blog.

For subtitling projects get your free personalised quote here.