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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What IS a Subtitle or Caption Editor?

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You might wonder what a subtitle editor is, since many companies already offer subtitle translations. Those like my colleagues in SUBTLE (Subtitlers' Association) produce professional results—yay! But frankly, subtitling companies are hanging out their shingles despite lacking one important component: editing skills. (Not technical video editors: that's a different area.) I realized this when I worked in captioning and saw how the products needed editing. It's like expecting authors to turn out perfect books without manuscript editing: not good.

Subtitles cannot be flawless or even excellent without editing, and they require a trained, professional editor who is also knowledgeable about captioning and subtitling, translation, foreign languages, linguistics and the conventions of different kinds of English. Otherwise, the results are unsatisfactory: even if you aren't reading them critically, imperfect subtitles are distracting.

Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.

A subtitle editor checks, adjusts and polishes the text so that it is clear, consistent and correct.

Did you try to solve the challenge I included in a recent post? After seeing 84 discrete subtitle errors in one episode of a show on Netflix, I posted one example and suggested that there were 5 errors in it and asked if you could find them. The subtitle read:

Alright

for a non-English-speaking character saying

Okay.

In fact, I'd even argue that there are 6 errors in that one word. (Email me if you think you can figure out the problems in that example.) But that word distracted me, and I didn't even have my editor's cap on—I was just chilling with a show on the weekend. Not the end of the world, granted; but my reading brain stumbled, and that caused me to pause, which caused me to miss the next title, which made me lose the thread of the dialogue, and I had to rewind. (This is especially problematic if you're watching a show that is info-heavy, such as a mystery or crime thriller.)

While providers like Netflix are rolling out new services to try and produce better subtitle translations, they're still missing this essential step in the process. No reputable book publisher would release a book without editing or proofreading done. But more on that in a future article.

So if you watch shows and films to relax and to rest your weary brain and you don't want to have to think while you're doing it (isn't that the point of recreational viewing?), you should be demanding this level of production from providers. Part of your monthly subscription fee or movie charges goes to subtitling, so you might as well get good product for your money. Would you want to buy a new book that hadn't been edited? No, but we constantly do because it's considered too costly by a lot of publishers now. If you expect your can of paint to be sold with a handle attached or fruit not to be sold when it's moldy, why are you settling for second rate in your entertainment? Rise up, good people, and demand excellence! It doesn't look like online viewing is going away anytime soon, but if we continue to accept second-best quality, we'll soon be given third.

Clear communication is not a frill, it's a basic requirement.

To see the areas of both work and play which need excellence in captioning and subtitling, see my post, Who Needs Subtitle Editing?

 

 

 

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

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