On TV Subtitles: The Art and Science of Subtitling

Do you ever really take note of how your tv subtitles are arranged, crafted, and used?

It seems like the only time that anyone notices the subtitles is when there is an error. But what about all of the time and effort that goes into making these things? It’s something that we don’t often think about, but maybe we should.

Here’s a brief intro on the science of subtitling.

The Science of TV Subtitles

Imagine every movie and show on Netflix, one of the hundreds of streaming services online. While the platform is currently losing a fair amount of high-profile content, it still has over 5,000 programs to choose from.

Each of those programs is translated into roughly 20 languages. That means that there are at least 100,000 translated programs on Netflix alone. There are also a great deal more pieces to translate when you factor episodes in.

All of these pieces need to be subtitled because most shows on Netflix aren’t dubbed. Subtitling is essential to the success of any streaming site, but the average consumer doesn’t have a great idea of how subtitles are made. We use streaming as an example, but most media requires subtitles.

We rarely think to appreciate the people who are subtitling for us. It could be argued that subtitlers are as valuable as any other person in the equation, yet they don’t get much credit.

We’re going to give an overview of the job that rarely gets talked about, yet always plays a part in the daily lives of media consumers. Read on to discover the art of the subtitle.

How Subtitlers Do Their Jobs

While we only see a “subtitles” button and watch the letters pop up on the screen, we seldom think about how those words got there in the first place. The secret lies in someone called a “subtitler.”

When you pull the curtain back, behind every good news or sports reporter is an equally good subtitler. These people operate with two things–their voices and a computer system that transcribes them.

News reporters often muddle their words, fumble around, and make mistakes on the air. How would it look if the subtitles read “the Prime Minister?” Errors like that would be constant if the captioning software took information directly from the newscaster’s voice. A subtitler listens to the news recording as it happens, then repeats their own voice into the computer software.

Who are Subtitlers?

These are people who are trained in controlling and monitoring the clarity of their voice. The captions don’t reflect speaking errors and the software doesn’t pick up on the clapping and outside noise. Subtitlers need to speak into the voice recognition software very clearly to avoid errors.

There are other things that need to be considered as well. As they read back what they hear, they use a speech pattern that puts equal weight on each syllable. This comes out in a monotone way which would be difficult to have a face-to-face conversation in.

In pre-recorded television pieces, the subtitlers have time to make sure that what they read is accurate. They also have the ability to go over the text in detail, making sure that what they’ve recorded is grammatical with no typos.

Live broadcasts are different because there’s more preparation that’s required. Subtitlers can predict which words will be dominantly used in the upcoming broadcast. They take unusual words and put them into the system before the recording.

This prevents things like mispronounced names of foreign leaders, which can lead to harsh consequences. Vladimir Putin, for example, was once mis-subtitled as Vladimir Puking. You can imagine how embarrassing that was.

They Have to Make it Readable

The speed of the person speaking also has to be leveraged against the average person’s ability to read. The main goal of the whole process is to make people feel like they’re not even reading subtitles, but only watching the whole broadcast.

Subtitles shouldn’t be distracting. If there are too many words on the screen at one time, it’s difficult to follow. People are going to get frustrated and change the channel.

The average person can read three words per second, and needs roughly four seconds to get through two lines of text. All of these things need to be taken into account when creating subtitles.

Translators Aren’t Given Enough Credit

Another thing to think about is the fact that, while you can always get subtitles in English, there are a number of other languages to read in as well. This means that someone of each language is watching the broadcast and translating it immediately.

That takes a great deal of concentration and skill. Especially at events within the EU and UN (as examples) where representatives wear headphones to understand what’s being said.

Many artists and film directors gain a lot of inspiration from films that aren’t in their own language. The only way they can access the dialogue is through the work of subtitlers.

People around the world are able to access art because they have captions to read. No one would be able to understand what was going on in these programs if it weren’t for the hard work of subtitlers.

Hopefully, this intro to subtitling has enlightened you to the hard work that some people do behind the scenes. It’s no easy task, and it helps a lot of people.

Interested in Getting Involved?

If you’re looking into the subtitling industry, we recommend that you think about becoming a translator.

While there’s a market for domestic subtitling, a language specialization can help to open up your options even further.

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