SubComm Infographics – The Business of Subtitling

By Tiina Tuominen

In the infographic The Business of Subtitling, we want to depict the variety of tasks professional subtitlers tackle as a routine part of their work. Some people may assume that a subtitler’s job simply consists of typing subtitles and watching tv, but the truth is much more complex. During a normal workday, a subtitler must deal with many things in addition to actual subtitling, and even the subtitling task itself consists of numerous elements that may not be obvious to a non-subtitler. That is why we wanted to create this infographic as a way to illustrate how many things require a subtitler’s time and attention, and in order to bring attention to the various skills all the different elements of the job require.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Many subtitlers are freelancers or entrepreneurs, so they have to spend a significant proportion of their time on managing their business and taking care of administrative tasks. Some of these responsibilities are listed in the infographic under the headings “Planning and Scheduling” and “Communicating with Clients About Project Specifics”. Subtitlers may work with multiple clients and schedules may be tight, so they need to be able to have a realistic understanding of how much time various tasks take and then organise their work so that they can meet their deadlines, respond to unexpected circumstances and handle client-facing tasks such as invoicing and responding to questions in a timely manner. Working with multiple clients also requires effective communication skills, understanding of the business and attention to detail. Different clients may use different tools, their delivery processes and guidelines may be different, and there are always specifics to clarify or negotiate, so communication with clients is an important element of the job. 

Some subtitlers work with direct clients, while others receive their work through subtitling or translation agencies. In other words, the client may either be someone who produced the programme in question, or a translation company that acts as an intermediary and specialises in managing subtitling workflows. The conversations may be different depending on the type of client. Sometimes a subtitler may work with just a single translation agency that provides a regular flow of subtitling assignments. Even in such a case, the agency may have numerous clients with differing practices, so there are still plenty of moving parts to negotiate.

Of course, much of the subtitler’s time is spent on actual subtitling, and we wanted to make the most important aspects of the subtitling process visible in this infographic. They can be found under the heading “Subtitling”. These are only examples of things a subtitler needs to consider, and if you want a more detailed picture of the intricacies of subtitle creation, you can take a look at our other infographic called “Subtitles: A Balancing Act.” In addition to these immediate components of the subtitling process, there are many additional tasks. Many of them are related to the resources a subtitler uses, as seen under the heading “Managing Translation Resources”. The list shows the multiplicity of materials a subtitler works with, and many of them require specific steps in the process, such as setting up the video file and ensuring its quality, and managing the settings of the subtitling software to accommodate project specifics and resources. In addition to the video file to be subtitled, there are supplementary sources of information, such as scripts and dialogue lists, lists of key names and phrases (KNPs), task-specific guidelines, and translation aids such as online/offline dictionaries, and terminology data banks. 

The Key Names and Phrases, or KNP for short, is a typical resource in subtitling projects these days. It is just like a glossary or a list of preferred terms. If many subtitlers work on the same series, it is important to ensure that the translations of recurring elements are consistent throughout the episodes, and that the subtitlers are aware of their meaning and significance. That is why the most important and recurring names and phrases are collected into a document and shared with everyone working on the project. This document often provides subtitlers with useful information or pre-existing translations, but if a recurring name or phrase or its translation has not been entered yet, the subtitler may in some cases add it to the file for future reference. Therefore, KNPs are both a helpful resource and another task a subtitler may work on during a project.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Another important and frequently used resource for subtitlers is a template file. Templates are used especially by big subtitling agencies that work with multiple languages to streamline multi-language subtitling processes and to ensure consistency between language versions. A template is a file that a subtitler opens in the subtitling software. It contains a transcription of the elements that are to be translated, i.e. the spoken content of the programme, and some relevant written information from the screen as well. The text is segmented into subtitle-sized chunks, and those chunks are timed to match the pace of the programme. The subtitler then uses the template as a basis when creating the target-language subtitles. The template should reduce the subtitler’s workload, because someone has already timed and segmented the subtitles, and the transcription will help make sense of the spoken language. However, templates are not always perfect, and different languages may require slightly different timing and segmentation, because the structures of languages are different. Therefore, it can improve the quality of the subtitles if the subtitler is allowed to adjust the template. That means that while templates reduce the subtitler’s workload to some extent, the subtitler does need to keep an eye on the timing and segmentation, and editing the templates is an important task in the subtitling process. If you are interested in finding out more about templates, you can read this article by Panayota Georgakopoulou. For subtitlers’ views on templates and recommendations on how they should be used, see this article by Magdalena Oziemblewska and Agnieszka Szarkowska.

Another aspect of the subtitler’s daily work is collaboration. We often imagine translation as solitary work, but even if subtitlers work at home as freelancers, they come into contact with many people in the course of their work, including the ones mentioned in the list titled “Collaboration With”. You can find further examples in this article by Sevita Caseres, which charts some collaborative networks of French subtitlers. Colleagues are, of course, a great source of support, which is one of the reasons why we at SubComm have wanted to help people find each other and create forums to talk about subtitling. Ideally, colleagues working on the same material or for the same company should be able to keep in touch to help each other with various aspects of the work, and to simply combat isolation and feel like a part of a broader professional community. In addition to colleagues, the “Collaboration With” list shows some other partners with whom subtitlers work, including project managers who hand out and coordinate projects, and quality controllers, such as reviewers and proofreaders who provide feedback. Subtitlers often also work as reviewers and proofreaders themselves, and provide feedback for their colleagues. For more on quality control, see this article by Kristijan Nikolic.

We also mention filmmakers and production companies as potential collaborators for subtitlers. Quite often, subtitlers work through large subtitling agencies without direct contact with the ultimate clients who have commissioned the translations and who know the audiovisual products best: those who have created them. However, in some cases, subtitlers are able to communicate with the content producers. This type of communication can be very productive, because it can help the content producers understand the challenges of subtitling, and it can help subtitlers understand the content they are translating on a deeper level. It will also allow subtitlers and content producers to work together to discover the best subtitling approaches for a particular programme. One form of such collaboration is a simulation, where the subtitler views the subtitled film together with its director or producer (read more about simulations in this article by Hannah Silvester). Understandably, these practices are rarely possible in massive media localisation projects where subtitlers may be in a different country than content producers. However, some success stories have shown how much added value this kind of collaboration can generate, so we can hope for more open lines of communication between subtitling professionals and content producers.

We also mention continuing professional development as a crucial aspect of a subtitler’s work. Subtitlers may not engage with CPD every day or every week, but it is important to maintain one’s skills and acquire new ones to keep up with developments in the industry. The examples we have provided are just a sample of the kinds of things subtitlers may want to learn. These days, it can be especially important to learn about new technological tools, because they change rapidly, and subtitlers may need to adopt new tools quite frequently. Sometimes technology, such as machine translation, can present challenges and even jeopardise subtitle quality, and at other times it can make the work easier, so keeping an open but critical mind and understanding the latest developments is helpful. Translators’ associations often provide and help their members discover relevant CPD opportunities, so being a member of a local association can be very helpful in terms of professional development.

Photo by Jessica Lewis 🦋 thepaintedsquare on Unsplash

Finally, the infographic mentions creativity as a characteristic that may help subtitlers navigate all these tasks. When schedules are tight and tasks overlap, or when you have to explain your decisions to a client or a colleague, or when technology presents challenges, a creative mind can help make sense of the everyday chaos, and perhaps even find humour in challenging circumstances.

We hope this infographic illustrates the variety of the subtitler’s work, the multiple skills it requires, and the long list of tasks a subtitler regularly performs. When calculating the time needed for a subtitling project, and assessing fair rates, this long list of tasks should be kept in mind, because they all need to be accounted for as necessary parts of the subtitler’s work. Of course, the items listed on this infographic are only examples, and the real work of a subtitler can contain even more varied tasks.

Further resources

Data on European audiovisual translators’ working conditions from AVTE (Audiovisual Translators Europe)

AVTE is the European federation of associations representing audiovisual translators and works to improve audiovisual translators’ working conditions.

Are there further open access resources you would recommend on this topic? Please comment below with links!

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