How to Subtitle Movies and TV Shows: Reading Between the Lines

When people think of subtitles, their thoughts may go to foreign films, hard-of-hearing subtitles you see in the gym or the notorious subtitle fails that are pointed out after major events are broadcast with live subtitles.

Posted on Aug 02, 2017 by Sophia Klippvik  | Tags: blog, subtitles, translation

In the midst of all these associations, many people begin to wonder what the process of subtitling a movie or TV series entails... 

BTI Studios has been offering subtitling services for over 20 years and continues to work with over 4,000 language translators, subtitling various movies and shows into more than 50 languages.

It’s hard to understand that subtitling a movie or show isn’t a simple translation process. I was able to steal Kristofer Fredriksson away from his desk this week and interview him about what happens behind the doors here at BTI Studios. Kristofer is one of BTI’s veteran subtitlers who has been with the company since 2001. He also happily briefed me on the history of subtitling and the improvements we have made.

Subtitling process from receipt of video assets to translating subtitles

When a client sent in a project 16 years ago to be subtitled, it arrived as a VHS tape. Everything was very manual and took longer because when the subtitler needed to repeat a scene to accurately hear the words, they would need to rewind the tape every time. Now everything is digital and video files are sent via links, speeding up the turnaround time.

A subtitler has to be extremely skillful at translating foreign spoken language into written language. The subtitling process involves a lot of adept multitasking because they are listening to the original dialogue while simultaneously translating and writing the subtitles in the new language.

Subtitlers have to stay within a limited line length which is usually about 37 characters per row, each row to preferably be on screen for 3 seconds. Not to mention customizing the text blocks for image shifts and scene changes. A subtitler takes a few seconds to analyze the material that needs subtitling, then creates the space where the maximum number of lines should be presented and the duration of seconds those subtitles will be on the screen, all done with a program that holds both video files and text files that they create.

Despite having their individual areas of expertise, subtitlers continually need to train themselves to extract correct information in a short period of time from all types of sources such as glossaries, Google, and even trusty dictionaries, so that the translation comes across accurately. So to say that a subtitler’s eyes move rapidly between each screen like a tennis ball in a match is an understatement.

Once the subtitler has produced the subtitle file, it is checked by a second linguistic expert and goes through a further technical QC to ensure it meets the individual client’s specifications.

At BTI Studios we make sure we hire great people who not only deliver quality subtitle adaptations but do so in a timely manner. Across our 21 global offices, we employ over 400 in-house staff who understand the local markets which means we specialize in multi-language versioning. 

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