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subtle subtle subtle

Subtitlers should have the normal translation skills and,
in addition:

  • A thorough knowledge of the source language - perhaps more than most translators, since we are constantly having to deal with the latest idioms and slang expressions.
  • An eye for detail: the smallest typo or odd punctuation becomes far more disturbing in a subtitle than on the printed page.
  • Sensitivity to cultural differences and nuances - for instance, appreciation of the impact of swearwords that are written on the screen, as opposed to spoken, and appropriate use of the familiar or polite forms (and exactly when one form of address needs to take over from another), etc.
  • An understanding of when straight translation is inappropriate and creative adjustment is therefore needed to transmit the intended understanding or feeling to the viewer.
  • The ability to come up with equivalent plays on words or suitable alternatives.
  • The ability to divide dialogue into sensible subtitles (and within subtitles, into lines) at points which will not cause difficulties in understanding, taking into account average reading speeds (and whether it is a children's programme), shot changes and so on.
  • The ability to shorten dialogue without losing the essence of what is being said, making use of visual cues to reduce the wordiness of the subtitle where possible.
  • Knowledge of cinematographic terminology (for DVD bonus material).

What subtitlers are required to do:
  • Cue the subtitles: sometimes we are involved in cueing, i.e. deciding when a subtitle appears and when it disappears from the screen, although often we work from "templates" or subtitles made in the original language which are distributed for translation.
  • Edit translated subtitles on the screen.
  • At one time we worked at home with a word-processing program and then revised the subtitles in the subtitling company's office. Nowadays we are increasingly expected to have our own (expensive) software, saving the companies office space and costs.
  • Check work by other subtitlers - where these are not of a certain standard, this is onerous on the professional since we are usually paid a fixed rate for work that tends to take much longer than the client allows for. Result: either we (over)work for low pay, or produce bad subtitles due to having to increase our output, or both. Increasingly studios are seeking to cut costs by supplying subtitles done on the cheap and expecting professionals to improve them for a fraction of the cost, when it would probably be less work to do the whole thing again.
  • Work to often unreasonably tight deadlines - necessarily affecting either the health of the subtitler, the quality of the subtitles or both.
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