In my previous post, I shared my data collection process and the great experience I had when interviewing and observing seven English to French subtitlers at work for my doctoral thesis. Thanks to the contributions of these wonderful subtitlers, I am now able to share the results of my research.
First of all, how did I analyse my data?
My aim for this research was to analyse the data I had gathered through the interviews and observations in a way that was centred on the human translators and their experiences. I wanted to understand how these subtitlers worked, how they interacted with other people, and how their workflow and subtitling production network were organised. To analyse my data, I used the qualitative data analysis software NVivo to do a thematic analysis. This method of analysis allowed me to define patterns and identify similarities in the subtitlers’ practices, by coding the files into different themes for discussion. The themes emerged as a result of combining categories directly derived from the data with predetermined aspects of the subtitling process that I had planned to observe. For each of the seven participants, I had collected two interview files (introductory and retrospective interview), an observation file and fieldnotes. In order to give a glimpse of the final results of my thesis, I will share here my main findings in three general areas for discussion: clients, workflows, and collaboration with other agents in the subtitling process. It should be noted that these results apply specifically to the seven subtitlers I observed, and despite showing some similarities with other studies, these cannot be generalised to all French subtitlers.
The participants’ clients
I started by asking participants about their demographic and educational background, and their work habits. I then also asked about their distribution medium and their clients, their interactions with them, and what package they were sent in terms of information and materials. This allowed me to discover that interactions, materials sent, and pre-translation tasks varied a lot from one client to another, but mostly from one distribution medium to another. Let’s have a look at the type of distribution these subtitlers work for.
As I could not analyse every project the subtitlers worked on, in this study, I focused on subtitling for Video on Demand (VOD) and cinema distribution. Beyond the specific primary client, I observed similar patterns in the subtitlers’ processes within the same distribution mediums: cinema or VOD platforms. In both cases, there was an intermediary that was a post-production company, but their involvement in the project differed.
The three translators who often worked for cinema shared in the interviews that they usually negotiated rates and interacted directly with the technical director of the primary client, whether French distributors or major companies (i.e., big studios based in the USA). They were informed about which post-production company they will work with and then received the materials from this secondary client, submitted their files back to them and then did the simulation (the quality control process in which the subtitlers present their subtitles in real viewing conditions with the clients and a simulation operator) at their laboratory. However, this secondary client only acted as an intermediary and did not have much decision-making power in this case.
In the second case I observed, when the primary client was a VOD platform, especially for Over the Top (OTT) platforms – which are streaming services accessible online – the post-production company had a bigger impact on the subtitlers’ process. When working on such projects, the subtitlers were rarely in touch with the primary clients, and sometimes even had no idea who these were. They were contacted only by the secondary client – a French post-production company or the French branch of a global Language Service Provider (LSP), with whom they discussed rates, deadlines, and information, and then submitted their files to a project manager for feedback. Except in Participant E’s workflows, no external simulation took place for these projects. The other VOD subtitlers carried out their own simulation and then project managers proceeded themselves or commissioned someone in the company to do a quality control (QC) and provided the subtitlers with comments. As this was only analysed in a small sample of participants and cannot be generalised, it would be interesting to compare this data with other workflows.
The interactions with clients were the first main difference, however, these two different approaches depending on the primary clients then also had an impact on the workflow.
Differences in workflows
Of course, each subtitler has their own subtitling process: some like to print their English dialogue lists to work on paper, others like to have them in a PDF file; some like to proofread their subtitles with the video in the software and others like to export them to read them in a Word document, etc. I will not go deeper into each subtitler’s personal translation process, because beyond this, there was an overarching workflow to which they all had to adapt.
One main difference lay in the materials sent and pre-translation tasks. On one hand, the subtitlers working for cinema always received the video, a dialogue list, and an empty spotting file, which contains entry and exit time codes that could be adjusted. This allowed them to focus only on dialogue translation. On the other hand, when working for VOD platform distribution, the subtitlers were never sent a spotting file. These subtitlers often did their spotting themselves. However, when working for some OTT clients, mostly when going through global LSPs, they were sent a template. A template is a master file containing English subtitles and spotted time codes, which are not always editable. When templates were locked, it made the subtitlers’ job more laborious, because they had to ask project managers at the post-production company to make changes every time they wished to adapt time codes, or merge or separate subtitles, which can be very frustrating.
Templates are of variable quality and quite a bit of editing can be required. Therefore, sometimes when templates are locked, it can impact the quality of the subtitles in French, as well as in many other languages, as the same English template is generally sent globally. The globalisation of content can also include additional pre-translation tasks such as filling out Excel tables for each language with translations for Key Names and Phrases, the title of episodes, or summaries of episodes – all of this sometimes before having seen the episodes or the full season to orientate their translation choices.
Collaboration patterns: different modes and areas
I have identified two main modes of collaboration: formal and informal. When collaboration was solicited, this created formal modes of communication that were known by the client. However, subtitlers often also collaborated in informal ways. For some clients, collaboration was simply encouraged and, in this case, subtitlers decided to get in touch with colleagues or experts when necessary. When collaboration was voluntary, subtitlers chose for example to ask subtitler friends to proofread their subtitles.
Therefore, the type of collaboration depended on the client’s needs and requests. An example of collaboration that was often solicited by the client was with the dubbing translator or team. This was often the case for OTT platforms as they are releasing content globally at the same time and wish for both versions (dubbed and subtitled) to be similar. It was also requested for some cinema majors, who needed famous catch phrases to stick with the audience and thus asked subtitlers to keep the same phrases as dubbers.
Who do subtitlers collaborate with, both formally and informally? According to my findings, they collaborate mainly with three groups: clients, colleagues, and other agents.
Formal collaboration with clients (primary, secondary, or both), happened mainly when clients sent the brief and materials, for proofreading, feedback, simulations and QC, or when subtitlers had questions about the content. Formal collaboration with colleagues included other subtitlers or dubbers. For series, they almost always collaborated with another subtitler as seasons are usually split between two or sometimes three co-subtitlers. They often communicated to harmonise their subtitles, ensure coherence, and proofread each other’s episodes. This usually does not happen for films, but subtitlers for both films and series said that they can collaborate formally with dubbing translators or teams as it can be solicited or encouraged. In rare cases, they also collaborated formally with other agents, such as experts who proofread technical content. This was the case for Participant F, who had a formal verification of her subtitles by a doctor for a medical series that was commissioned by the client. Nevertheless, collaboration with other agents is usually rather informal.
Informal collaboration was indeed often performed with colleagues or other agents. All subtitlers said they use informal forms of collaboration, either with English-native friends, other language consultants when translating from English as a pivot language, or other French subtitlers, to do informal proofreading, simulations, and receive feedback. Some of them also collaborated informally with other agents such as experts of a field to receive feedback and guidance on terminology.
Informal collaboration can also happen within the ATAA (Association des Traducteurs/ Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel) network, the French association for audiovisual translators. ATAA was often mentioned as a united and collaborative community in which subtitlers could discuss their issues on different social media groups or channels, find answers and keep encouraging good practices, fair rates, and good working conditions. France offers a unique perspective in terms of author status and royalties, and this association also promotes the subtitlers’ status and their copyrights. Despite being tacit, this community collaboration is in a way also formalised with the client, because when recruiting subtitlers through ATAA, clients should adhere to the community’s recommendations for practices and rates.
To summarise, collaboration and communication between subtitlers and different stakeholders in the subtitling production network thus happen at many levels. This often-overlooked aspect of the subtitlers’ process is of crucial importance and deserves more visibility. Indeed, despite working as freelancers on their own, subtitlers do not produce subtitles alone: they are impacted by collaborative practices.
Translation is usually depicted as a solitary activity, but subtitlers are in fact linked to a whole production network that includes clients, colleagues, and other agents. They all collaborate on different levels and following different patterns and contribute in different ways to the subtitling creation process. In an era in which research seems to focus more on the product and technologies behind audiovisual translation than the producers of subtitling, I aimed to focus on the human translators who often work in the shadows. This study has highlighted how essential and fascinating it is to analyse and understand the subtitlers’ roles and interactions in the production of subtitles and how multifaceted the job of a subtitler actually is. This cooperation and contact with practitioners have been very enriching and have been essential to develop our understanding of how French subtitlers work. I wish to sincerely thank all the subtitlers for generously sharing their time and knowledge with me, and for providing invaluable insights into their work. I hope that through my research, even if based on a small scale of participants, I can interest more people in looking into subtitling practices from a human perspective.