The Case for Subtitle Editing

Colour photo of a cinema from the back row looking at a blank screen.

 

The explosion of access to international shows and films from independent filmmakers and from (S)VOD* suppliers like Netflix provides viewers with diverse and exciting choices. Many series and movies are outstanding. Except in one area.

If you hope to reach viewers around the globe, your production’s subtitles or captions must communicate flawlessly, and currently many are failing miserably.

You only have about 2 seconds per title to enable the viewer to absorb the content, so it needs to be picture-perfect.

What does picture-perfect mean in subtitling? It requires quality-control editing to catch more potential problem areas than you’d think. Recently, I did a survey of pitfalls in the final episode of a foreign TV series I’d been watching on Netflix. During that one episode, I documented 84 discrete errors—meaning 84 usage errors, not repeated occurrences like “hte” or even the possible multiple errors within one word or phrase.

At that rate, the reader stumbles due to incorrect subtitles about every 30 seconds and loses concentration on the dialogue.

By the time the brain has sorted out the discrepancy or compensated for misunderstanding, another title has flown by. Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.

The problems I found in the show I surveyed involved not just typos but also errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, timing, capitalization, speaker identification and, most often, idiomatic usage.** Never mind missing titles or titling a character’s use of the English “Okay.” with “alright”. [Can you identify the 5 errors there?] A subtitle editor would catch and fix those.

Why does this happen? It’s probably not the subtitler’s/captioner’s fault. They work under extremely tight deadlines. Good translation takes time. The technology is intricate. And they are usually not briefed to copy edit—nor should they be: translation and copy editing for film are totally different skill sets.

Many shows are titled by people contracted to do the freelance work by companies that, frankly, want output quantity rather than quality. But if you’re working with a professional subtitler and translator, such as those affiliated with SUBTLE, the international Subtitlers’ Association (full disclosure: I’m a member), you are likely dealing with a highly trained and invested individual contractor or small company. Just like writers who need copy editors and proofreaders, as the filmmaker you may wish to hire a collaborative team: the translator/subtitler and the subtitle editor to check for idiomatic correctness. Did you know that “English” in print and film is edited by country? Editing English texts from Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia requires education and experience in working with those countries’ conventions. Like all types of editing, to edit titles for film you need more than experience helping your friends with their resumes or teaching English for 20 years. You need formal training and ongoing professional development because “the rules” are always changing.

“Native speakers only” is not an adequate qualification requirement for captioning.

Subtitle editing is affordable because the subtitler has done the bulk of the work; the editing just cleans up the titles with a fresh pair of eyes and ensures that your long and expensive project is professional and truly accessible.

The goal of subtitles and captions is to communicate while making viewers forget they are reading titles. Good titling is as important as movie soundtracks: they should enhance the experience while being unnoticeable in the moment.

 

 

*(Subscription) Video on Demand

"Facilitate viewer immersion" (and all grammatical variations of it) is a copyrighted phrase. © Vanessa Wells, 2017.

 

 

 

Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008, Flickr.com

 

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