I just read a great movie!

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We’ve all seen people glued to their phones. But have you ever seen what they’re looking at? Very often, it’s something with subtitles. Subtitles are a great way to reach a broader audience for movies, TV shows, in-house training videos, or ads for new sneakers. But subtitles should never take all your viewer’s attention away from the actual programme.

By Débora, Paris-based audiovisual content specialist, filmmaker, language teacher and Argentine Tango dancer.

When a video needs to be “translated”, many people overlook a very important fact: While all subtitlers know how to translate, not all translators know how to subtitle.

Subtitling is an art and similar to dancing tango.

Just as, when you dance tango, the best lead is the one you don’t consciously feel, the best subtitles are the ones you don’t consciously read. Two tango dancers, foreigners from different countries, can move as one, instinctively and effortlessly. When subtitles are properly created, international audiences can watch a foreign film practically effortlessly. The key words here are “unconsciously”, “instinctively” and “effortlessly”.

For content producers looking to broaden their reach, the goal should be to make their content accessible to an international audience and give non-native viewers the possibility to experience it as closely as possible as native-language viewers would. Lately, however, reducing time-to-market and getting a job done as cheaply as possible to maximise profit is the goal. The viewer experience is not considered. While this strategy may work fine for some business sectors, it’s a bad idea for quality subtitling.

Quality subtitling involves three steps.

I personally do all three but some people may only handle one aspect. The first step, “timecoding”, “timespotting” or “detection”, is technical. Here, we determine where and when each subtitle will appear and disappear, taking into account shot changes. We create the rhythm which allows the viewer’s eyes to move constantly down to the subtitle and back up to the program instinctively and effortlessly. When this step is not done properly, the result is endless flashing of painfully long subtitles that no one has time to read. This frustrates viewers who quickly stop looking up at the programme. That is the wrong viewer experience.

After timecoding comes “translation and adaptation”. Here, we create the actual content for each subtitle and the subtitler’s creative, cultural, linguistic and technical talents come into play. In addition to finding the shortest way to say what is said in the original, while matching tone, register and emotion, we factor in reading speeds. We can only use a set number of characters per second, per line and per subtitle.

In the third step, called “simulation”, we watch the programme with the subtitles to make sure everything is working properly. We can further reduce the number of words, check for errors (typos, line breaks, syntax), and tweak the timecodes to ensure a comfortable viewing experience.

When the work is done properly, the result is a series of carefully-written subtitles that are timed and positioned on screen so that the viewer can read them quickly and with minimal effort. Instinctively and almost unconsciously. We’ve crafted an adaptation that will give the non-native viewer a near-native experience while watching the content. Yes, watching the content. And that is the right viewer experience.

Content that crosses borders boosts revenue and subtitling definitely has a major role to play in this arena.

But with technology galloping along at ever-faster speeds, language processing tools are now being used to cheaply produce subtitles. This is an interesting concept for content producers who have their eyes are glued to the bottom line. So glued that they don’t see that talented, human, audiovisual authors, to use the official term, are actually a resource to help ensure the cross-border success of their content.

The writer who created the original content took time to choose just the right words to convey a particular message. Given that professional subtitlers approach their task with all the same care and attention, it is worth asking yourself this question: Why would you entrust the cross-cultural adaptation of your creative, multimedia work, even partially, to a machine?

Next time you’re watching something with subtitles, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re watching it or reading it.