On one of the first warm and sunny days of the year, a dedicated group of YTI members and students headed to a computer suite at the University of Leeds to learn all about the mysterious art of subtitling. Given the discussions that took place before the training started, it seems I wasn’t the only translator who made a regular habit of picking holes in the subtitles on my foreign language shows and films of choice. What I learned on this very informative course would give me a whole new perspective on the issue however, and a very healthy respect for the professionals who toil over this tricky task. Read on to find out why.
Leading the workshop was Alina Secara, Director of Translation Studies at the University of Leeds, very ably assisted by Faustine Roux, a professional subtitler. After introducing themselves and giving us a rundown of their respective (extensive) experience in the subtitling industry, Alina proceeded to dive straight in with an in-depth explanation of the different types of subtitling a professional subtitler might encounter. The first type is intralingual pre-recorded subtitles, which are produced for the benefit of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and for the purposes of language learning. As well as subtitling the words of the speakers, this kind of subtitling also provides a description of sounds and accents and non-verbal information. The interesting example of action films was discussed, where there is little dialogue to subtitle but instead the challenge of a huge number of sound effects to convey through the medium of text! In addition, Alina and Faustine discussed intralingual live subtitles, also intended for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and used for the news and live events, and finally interlingual subtitles, the kind that we linguists are most used to seeing. The main challenges entailed in all three types of subtitles included a lack of time and space for the subtitle, meaning that the translation must by necessity be condensed, constraints related to the time it takes the viewer to comfortably read the subtitle and how best to deal with line breaks.
Next we were taken through the main concepts of subtitling, including reading speeds, timecodes, scene and shot changes and templates – all highly technical – and the challenges that these all pose. Challenges such as having to fit the subtitles around shots and camera angles, prioritizing certain aspects, unfinished sentences and deciding how to deal with swear words. And then once you have juggled all these constraints, you still have to make sure you can fit it all on the screen in a readable format, deciding how best to split the text between two lines. It is unsurprising in the light of all this that the end result is very different to what a translator might produce when given the written script and no word limit. After all, the purpose of subtitling is very different.
Bursting with enthusiasm, we were later given the chance to get some practical experience with WinCAPS, the subtitling software that Alina teaches at the University of Leeds. She was at pains to make clear however that it is just one of the many on the market, and that it is up to the individual subtitler to discover which software suits them best. An English-language video from Médecins Sans Frontières was provided for us to practice on, along with comprehensive instructions and plentiful assistance from the two experts. It was such an absorbing task that most attendees even worked through the final afternoon coffee break – something unheard of when a group of translators and interpreters get together!
I am certain that everyone found the workshop as informative and interesting as I did, and I would like to express my gratitude to Alina and Faustine for running such an excellent event, and to Raquel for organising. I came away with an enormous amount of respect for the work that subtitlers do, and a real appreciation of the challenges they face. Never again will I criticise professional subtitles in so offhand a manner!