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That's not what he said!


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A brief talk on the thankless job of the foreign-language subtitler presented at Skillswap on Speed in Brighton, England in 2008.

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That's not what he said!

  1. 1. That’s not what he said! The thankless job of the subtitler.
  2. 2. Translator - I’m a German-English translator - I mostly translate normal texts like press releases, magazine articles, presentations
  3. 3. Untertitler Subtitler - I’m also a subtitler: I write the English-language subtitles for German films - Before I started subtitling, I knew nothing about the subtitling process and was quite critical of some deficiencies in subtitles - Now that I’ve subtitled for several years, I have a much greater appreciation for the difficulties and constraints subtitlers face
  4. 4. SPACE - The biggest constraint is space - or the lack thereof
  5. 5. One or two lines of text at the bottom of the screen. - Subtitles are generally one or two lines of text at the bottom of the screen
  6. 6. 45 / 40 / 35 - The lines will vary in length depending on the format they’ve been designed for - At most you might get 45 characters per line - On average, I have 40 characters per line to work with (for DVD/VHS) - Some television formats only give you 35 characters per line
  7. 7. 6 seconds - A two-line subtitle will generally have to stay on screen for around 6 seconds - This is enough time to read the subtitle - It also provides lead-in time for your brain to process the appearance of linguistic information as well as buffer time at the end so there’s a comfortable interval between the disappearance of one subtitle and appearance of the next
  8. 8. 150 - 180 wpm - These subtitling constraints are based (rather controversially) on the “average” speed of an “average” reader of an “average” text - For subtitling purposes, this is considered to be 150-180 words per minute - People can and do actually read much faster than this, but the issue isn’t how fast you can read, but how fast you’re comfortable reading for an extended period of time (1 1/2 - 2 hours for a feature film) while also watching what’s happening on screen
  9. 9. How much text is too much text? How much text is too much text? How much text is too much text? How much text is too much text? How much text is too much text? - If subtitles were considerably longer, they would take up too much of the screen and be too cumbersome to read
  10. 10. Translation - Subtitles, like all good translation, should be “invisible” - cognitively invisible - You shouldn’t be continuously aware that you are reading subtitles while watching a film - Reading subtitles shouldn’t be a strain - Subtitles have to match the visual and spoken rhythm of a film (appearing when actors begin speaking, disappearing when they stop, not remaining on screen when there are cuts in the film or scene changes)
  11. 11. Fast-talkin’ - The problem is that people also speak much faster than 150-180 words per minute - If dialog is being spoken at a rate of 300 wpm and you have subtitles designed for 150 wpm, something has to go
  12. 12. condense - Subtitlers have to condense, edit, adjust, reformulate, adapt dialog to fit the space - This is when viewers may read the subtitles and say, “But that’s not what he said!” - and they’d be right
  13. 13. 1There’s no space for a footnote in a subtitle. - Subtitlers face all the problems “regular” translators face: idiomatic expressions, cultural references - There’s no room to explain cultural references on screen, so they must be adapted to fit an entirely different audience and a very small space
  14. 14. Talking over each other - The medium of film itself can cause difficulties for subtitlers: people talking over each other, background conversations that need to be understood, song lyrics that are relevant to a scene, signs on buildings, writing on documents - all of this (ideally) has to be put into the subtitles
  15. 15. 2 lines 40 characters 6 seconds - Two lines of 40 characters each on screen for 6 seconds: it’s really not a lot to work with, so the next time you’re watching a subtitled film and you have one of those “That’s not what he said” moments, spare a thought for the poor subtitlers - we’re doing the best we can...
  16. 16. Thank you! Jessica Spengler Picture credit: 2361449172/