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Subtitling: Changing Standards for New Media?

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As one of the best-known figures in the subtitling business, Mary Carroll, Managing Director of Titelbild Subtitling and Translation GmbH (Berlin), joined another well-known figure in the field, Jan Ivarsson (former Head of Development for Swedish Television) to draw up the Code of Good Subtitling Practice in 1998. The Code has been adopted by ESIST, the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation and is now used throughout the industry. In the article below, Carroll provides some historical perspective on the subtitling field, along with problems and recommendations for new standards for DVD multilingual subtitling.

Some Historical Background

Mary Carroll
Managing Director
Titelbild Subtitling and Translation GmbH Translators were not considered to have the technical talent required for handling the equipment.

By the 1990s, the advance of personal computers had revolutionized the way subtitles were prepared and gave rise to a new job profile within the language professions. Prior to this, technicians “spotted” a film at a flat bed, i.e. they defined the in and out times of the subtitles by identifying the start and finish of actors’ utterances or the end of a take and marked these times on the original script. A certain amount of time (or feet and frames in the case of film) corresponded to a specific number of characters that the translators were allowed to use for each respective subtitle. Translators worked from a script, usually writing their subtitles by hand. In a best case scenario, they would view the film before starting their work, or they might be called on to check the subtitles against the film after a stenographer or technician (who mostly did not understand the language of the film) had transcribed their subtitles. Generally, the translators were not considered to have the technical talent required for handling the equipment.

As television subtitles became commonplace, broadcasters soon realized that subtitled film prints were not suitable for transmission as the size of the lettering was far too small to be legible. Various techniques were used to address this problem. Translators wrote their subtitles on paper. From the 1940s, technicians filmed each subtitle on a single frame and then put the negative print on a telecine machine. Blank frames were inserted between the actual subtitles, and the subtitles were then placed in black or semi-transparent boxes to ensure their legibility, even against a light background. The subtitler cued in the individual subtitles manually while the film was being broadcast or recorded. A time delay was inevitable, depending on the subtitler’s concentration level and reaction time. In some countries such as Denmark, a later development was to use punch cards, which allowed the subtitles to be inserted automatically. These methods were used up until the 1980’s in many European countries, and even longer in less affluent parts of the world.

Caption Generators

From the 1960’s, when caption generators were developed, it became easier to insert subtitles directly into video material. However, caption generators, as the name suggests, were designed for captioning and were not really a practical solution for subtitling. Their price, size, user unfriendliness and rudimentary word processing capabilities disqualified them as a panacea for open subtitling (the name commonly given to subtitles which cannot be switched off at liberty by the viewer). Caption generators were cumbersome, so the work process remained divided. Translators were the foreign language wordsmiths, while technicians and typists remained responsible for the timing and actually getting the words onto the screen.

Videotext and Teletext

Meanwhile, development was afoot on videotext and teletext systems, which viewers could access by means of a decoder. Although videotext systems were conceived primarily as a means of providing viewers with advertising and information on demand, the Deaf and hard of hearing were to benefit from it in many countries through increased accessibility to television programming. The first subtitles for the hearing-impaired were broadcast in Great Britain by the UK Independent Television teletext service, Oracle, in 1978. Two years later, they were launched officially in Britain, the same year that they were introduced to television in the United States.

The U.K. Led the Way for the Hearing-impaired

While teletext spread fairly quickly throughout Europe in the 1980’s, subtitles for the hearing-impaired did not catch on equally fast everywhere. Britain maintained its head start, however, so public and independent broadcasters set up in-house units for preparing closed captions that the hearing-impaired could access via teletext by means of a decoder. In 1996, Britain passed the Broadcasting Act, specifying that 50% of terrestrial broadcasts (excluding advertising) must be subtitled for the Deaf within ten years of the start of any digital programming service. The Broadcasting (Subtitling) Order 2001 increased this figure to 80%, ensuring greater access to television programs for the Deaf and hearing-impaired in the United Kingdom, and at the same time, ensuring a greater demand for subtitling companies capable of preparing these subtitles.

Originally, the people responsible for the writing of closed captions were teletext staff and more likely to be stenographers or typists than language graduates. The job focused on typing the spoken text into the teletext system, and preferably providing a 1:1 rendition of what was said on the screen. As the prime users of the captions were the hearing-impaired, speakers were identified by color coding or alignment of the lines to the person speaking, rather than by precise synchronicity with the spoken word.

The Profession of Subtitler Is Born

London is now one of the major centers for multilingual DVD subtitling for Hollywood studios.

By the mid-1980’s, time codes and personal computers had revolutionized the preparation of interlingual subtitling throughout Europe. The changes were driven by television subtitling practices in the so-called subtitling countries of Scandinavia. The profession of subtitler was born. Subtitlers’ workstations comprised a PC with dedicated subtitling software and a video recorder with a jog shuttle. Their working materials were a VHS copy of the film and a script in the original language. They now spotted the film themselves and worded their translations to fit the time slots they themselves had timed. They could simulate their subtitles on the screen and alter both the wording and the times as they saw fit. Now subtitlers could truly match their subtitles to the images and replay difficult passages as often as needed in order to find the optimum solution. The completed files no longer had to be retyped. After revision and proofreading, the files were used for inserting the subtitles electronically into a dub of the master tape. Nowadays in many subtitling companies, the subtitlers’ VCRs have been replaced by digitized workstations where the subtitlers access their films from a server’s hard drive. Subtitlers in Central Europe are invariably university graduates of translation studies who have undergone specialized training in subtitling and translation for audiovisual media.

In the 1990’s, British television stations started to outsource their closed captioning in order to cut costs, so the demand for private sector captioning companies increased. Many of these enterprises in and around London, which started off as suppliers of intralingual closed captions in English for domestic television programs and commercials, are – several fusions and takeovers later – key providers of multilingual DVD subtitles for the major Hollywood studios today. Their style of timing subtitles often reflects their origins in closed captioning for the hard of hearing.

Today’s Film Subtitling Workflow

The system described above is also widely used for the preparation of film subtitles. A technician scans the film print. The resulting video working copy is either played onto a hard drive or copied to VHS for the subtitler, who then proceeds to spot, translate and formulate the subtitles. Usually the subtitler will receive a script, which, if well prepared, will include annotations to help ensure an accurate translation. After revision and proofreading, the files are converted and laser engraving of the individual reels can begin.

If subtitled prints in multiple languages are required, the first version is normally taken as a basis for subsequent languages, mainly to benefit from accurately timed starting cues. The subtitlers of second and subsequent languages are free to alter all in and out times to accommodate the different syntax and idiosyncrasies of their particular languages and translations. It would be exceedingly unusual to have identical in and out cues for subtitles in different languages due to the intrinsic disparity of languages and variations in sentence structure.

DVD Subtitling: The L.A. – London Axis

The price wars are fierce, the time-to-market short, the fears of piracy rampant.

In many instances, the procedure for DVD subtitling is similar. The source material for DVD is normally a Digibeta cassette, i.e. broadcast quality video material. It is recorded on a hard drive or copied to VHS or CD-ROM for the subtitler to work from. In many organizations, the work procedure will be exactly as described above for film and video, with the exception that the proofread files are converted to TIFFs or bitmaps for the DVD authoring process.

However, the quantity of DVD subtitling has boomed to such an extent in the past few years that quite different work processes have emerged. Unlike the small-scale DVD subtitling of up to approximately six languages that is common for corporate DVDs and European films, a Los Angeles – London axis has evolved to coordinate the localization of subtitles into 40 or more global languages for Hollywood releases on DVD. The price wars are fierce, the time-to-market short, the fears of piracy rampant. The aim of the subtitling companies is to deliver the best multilingual subtitles possible under the given circumstances.

Editor’s Note: For the Asian perspective on quality and training issues in subtitling, please read Middle Earth Poses Challenges to Japanese Subtitling and Training the Next Generation of Subtitlers.

Subtitling Workflow Reinvented

A subtitler translates and formulates in accordance with three rhythms.

Clearly, the evolved working procedures are no longer up to the task of rapid turnaround times and depressed prices. Furthermore, while an original language script may be available for the main feature on a DVD, audio commentaries, “making-of’s” and other bonus material are rarely documented, although they are invariably hard to understand. This additional content is often poorly enunciated due to the rambling nature of a director recounting how a particular scene was made or why it was deleted. Sometimes, it is simply poor acoustic quality that causes the headache.

One way to overcome this problem has been for the contracted subtitling company to create a template (usually English), which is also known as a master list or “Genesis” file. Such a template can make sense if it is thoroughly researched and well-timed, especially if subtitlers are free to use it as an aid but are not compelled to force their translation, regardless of its structure, into its mold. However, the rigidity of such files can result in poor subtitling with little adherence to now common standards of good subtitling practice (see Code of Good Subtitling Practice). (Editor’s Note: For more details on the Code of Good Subtitling Practice, please refer to the following books: (1) Subtitling, Ivarsson and Carroll, 1998 and (2) Introduction to Subtitling for Film, Video and DVD, a Training Handbook, Carroll, Mary et al., 2004.) The template with English subtitles and fixed in and out times is often emailed to the “territories” where local translators transform the English lines into their own language, usually with the aid of a VHS cassette, which has to be shipped. Lower rates of payment in many of the countries in question help reduce the overall costs for subtitling.

One of the major problems encountered by the translators is the dissimilar linguistic structure between the source and target languages. Regardless of the medium, a subtitler normally translates and formulates subtitles in accordance with three rhythms:






  1. the visual rhythm of the film as defined by the cuts,
  2. the rhythm of the actors’ speech
  3. and an audience reading rhythm.

However, when using the template, translators are permitted only in exceptional cases to change the in and out times, since this increases the workload and the time needed for quality assurance checks prior to authoring. Performed in this way, the nature of the work has more in common with the localization of texts than with traditional subtitling, which calls for creative solutions in timing and adapting language to complement the audiovisual medium. In recent times, the trend has been more towards employing foreign translators resident in London for this type of mass DVD subtitling, thus reducing the risks of piracy and the loss of time caused by sending cassettes abroad.

Enhanced Software Solutions Are Needed

Mass-produced translation for DVD content is one area of subtitling among many. All types of subtitling would benefit from enhanced software solutions, ranging from integrated CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools to automatic voice and cut recognition, which are starting to appear. E-tools should build on established professional practices, which will continue to rely on the discretion and talent of the human subtitler who, as a member of a team, works with a copy of the film to match words to images.

Mary Carroll is Managing Director of Titelbild Subtitling and Translation GmbH and co-author of Subtitling (1998). She is a subtitling trainer with many years’ experience in translation, subtitling and training and currently appears as a keynote speaker and guest lecturer at universities and international conferences.


Reprinted by permission from the Globalization Insider,
14 September 2004, Volume XIII, Issue 3.3.

Copyright the Localization Industry Standards Association
(Globalization Insider:, LISA:
and S.M.P. Marketing Sarl (SMP) 2004

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