Arts, Culture & Media

Meet the folks behind the subtitles on your favorite movies and streaming TV shows

This story is a part of a series

In Other Words

This story is a part of a series

In Other Words

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Credit:

froussecarton

In the beginning there was light, a little music and subtitles, technically called intertitles. I'm talking the beginning of the 20th century, during the silent era of moviemaking, when an image really spoke a thousand words and intertitles were used sparingly to explain action, and dialogue, and exposition.

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And then the talkies came. But while Al Jolson's voice in The Jazz Singer did away with the need for the intertitle to do all that explaining, The Jazz Singer became the first film to need translating. In fact, it was the first film to officially use foreign language subtitles when it opened in Paris in 1929.

In the 80-plus-years since, subtitling has gone from a necessity to an art.

“People aren't supposed to notice subtitles, if we're doing our job properly. The ideal situation is when they aren't even aware they're reading subtitles,” says John Miller. Miller makes a living as a subtitler in Paris, where he went to school to learn the art of subtitling.  And he's been at it for 20 years translating French films into English.

“The French call 'subtitlers' 'adapters.' You do have to adapt it, you can't just take a literal translation of the screenplay and throw it up on the screen. You would spend the whole time reading it and you wouldn't be able to watch the film,” Miller says.

People can read an average of 12 characters a second, Miller says. A subtitler has about two seconds to relay everything being said to the audience and within those 24 characters, the subtitler not only has to translate what's said, but all the complexities of everyday speech: puns, jokes, word play. 

Sometimes you get lucky and expressions will easily translate from one language to another. But sometimes, says Miller, an expression gets lost in translation or, worse yet, doesn't translate into American English at all. This happens all the time. In a recent film that Miller had to work on he had to translate the French expression "tu la boucles"

“Tu la boucle, which means shut-up, also means put your seatbelt on. So I [translated] the British English [expression], what I thought was American English too. 'Belt up!' which fits perfectly for both meanings, but it apparently [doesn’t mean the same thing] in American English. So I had to lose the double reference and just end up with “Buckle up!”

While subititling may be an art and a profession, increasingly this art is undergoing another evolution. Just like when sound came and turned moviemaking upsidedown, the digitization of film and TV has upended the subtitling industry. Digital media has allowed people around the world to access more content, more quickly. And more content means more subtitles, right?

Enter VIKI, just one of several online crowd-sourced subtitling platforms. The name VIKI is a mash-up of "video" and "wiki," as in Wikipedia. And the service acts much like Wikipedia: Subtitlers submit translations for peer review, the crowd evaluates the translations, voting things up and down. 

VIKI CEO Razmig Hovaghimian began to appreciate subtitles as a kid. He grew up in Egypt but spent his summers in Lebanon — watching Bollywood movies with his dad.

“Neither one of us speaks Hindi, but we just loved it. I remember the Amitab Bachchan movies," he recalls.

VIKI licenses TV shows and movies from around the world — from Korean dramas, to Latin American soaps to Japanese Anime — and then puts them online so fans from around the world can subtitle them.

“[Some] 200 languages with over 700 million words translated by fans — for free,” Hovaghimian says.

 Just who are these fan subbers doing the work for free? They're teachers, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers, people like you and me, says Hovaghimian. Including retiree Patricia Pon from San Francisco.

Pon is a Cantonese speaker and the translator of more than 200,000 subtitles. What motivates Pon to do this in their spare time for no money? Simple, she says. She got fed up with bad translations. Bad, as in what she considers racy language. Like, for example, she says she was offended by a subtitle from a recent episode of the Korean Drama, Empress Ki. In the soap, the emperor's concubine gets pregnant and the subtitle was written in a rather colloquial fashion.

“The tramp got knocked up”

“I don’t think so,” Pon says.  She would’ve translated the line as “The consort was pregnant.”

Consort, tramp, concubine — subtitling risks a certain subjectivity.  Would a retiree translate a Hong Kong gangster flick the same as a teenager?  Does it matter? No, according to Razmig, that's the beauty of the crowd. Subtitles are vetted and edited by many. And then the content can quickly be consumed by many more. And these rapid translations have led to the globalization of film and TV at hyper-speed in rather unexpected places.

“We had Egyptian movies that were doing great in Dutch. We have Korean movies that are doing phenomenal in Saudi Arabia. It's actually our number one country for it. And it’s in Arabic subtitles,” Hovaghimian says.

VIKI is just one service in an ever-expanding world of crowd-sourced subtitles. While professional subtitler John Miller isn't worried about being "crowded out" of his profession, he and fellow English-language subtitlers in Paris have felt the squeeze.

“It is a professional job. You wouldn't necessarily want to have crowd-sourced surgeons or crowd-sourced mechanics. So, while what we do isn't life or death, it is to the detriment of the films if they're being done by people who, well, they're certainly not professionals,” Miller says.

Certainly, Pon and her subbing pals aren't claiming to be professionals. And the subtitles you'll be reading at your local art house theatre aren't the crowdsourced kind — at least not yet.

The World in Words podcast is on Facebook and iTunes.

National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities