I work as a translator and subtitler for a large localisation company - that is, it does dubbing and subtitling in something like 41 languages, as well as SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) and audio description (spoken segments that help blind and visually impaired people follow along in films). It's one of the market leaders and has offices in over a dozen countries, as well as many thousands of freelancers.

Personally, I do subtitles from scratch in two languages (both translated and same-language), translate existing subtitles, write audio description scripts, and to a lesser extent translate synopses, dubbing scripts and other text. I end up doing work for a huge range of clients, from the world's largest media conglomerates to small museums and everything in between. I work in-house in one of the offices of the company rather than from home.

As long as I don't break any non-disclosure agreements or reveal industry secrets, I should be answer to most things about the work and the ideas behind it. AMA!

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/iOXO5

Comments: 134 • Responses: 47  • Date: 

BoringOldPerson45 karma

How do professional subtitles differ from amateur ones?

Birdseeding45 karma

One thing I think we do so differently to your average SRT-based home anime subtitler is that we're bound by a bunch of principles that constrain what we can write, like:

  • Reading speed - this is huge. We constantly shorten things in order to make even slow readers be able to get what's being said. A lot of people who use TV subtitles are older and often hard of hearing, and they need subtitles that keep a very moderate pace. Two full lines of text? They need to be on screen for six seconds. That's not negotiable.

  • Line length and line breaks - we spend a lot of time on dividing lines into easy to read units, and work to technical standards that limit how many characters each line can have.

  • language choices, like having a totally consistent way of writing every word and term, across entire languages and at the very least entire series of TV shows.

(And of course better QC and stuff. But you knew that.)

Moose_Hole14 karma

Reading speed

Gilmore Girls must be a nightmare for you.

Birdseeding26 karma

Haha, we actually did Gilmore Girls during our training, for precisely that reason. You watch, try, fail, cry a little and then remove half the jokes.

WormTop3 karma

Whereas SRT's are just text, are the subtitles you create actually images, which should look the same on every device? So they're not dependent on installed fonts etc.?

Birdseeding7 karma

It varies wildly from channel to channel and application to application. Some will do images, but much more common are standardised formats that include formatting information like font size, or formats like teletext/closed captioning that are ancient industry standards. We even use a DOS computer to do work for one channel because they've not updated their system in 20+ years.

ShittyMcShitface018 karma

Hi! I’m not sure if this is a valid question or if you’re allowed to discuss specific works but can you describe the most interesting project you’ve translated/subtitled?

Also, does your line of work also allow you to see blockbuster films in advanced?

Birdseeding14 karma

Once or twice, although relatively rarely, I've been given huge stage plays to translate, for those "live from the National Theatre" type screenings that a lot of cinemas do. One of them was the first three-hour part of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which was truly a lot of fun to work with - it's steeped in history, gay politics and mormon theology (!) and it was a lot of fun to research and deliver. Like a lot of things, we're given way, way too little time to finish the project, so I had to very quickly understand, get a feel for, collate and quality check a very long play. It was hard, but I'd totally do it again.

Not blockbuster films, no, at least not personally. But definitely some major television shows. As you might guess, security and non-disclosure around them are pretty high.

Zodde2 karma

Do you have any say in what shows you sub? I imagine getting stuck doing subs for a show you hate must suck.

Birdseeding2 karma

We do get some choice sometimes, like sometimes a whole series will be offered to whoever can take it, but often we end up doing stuff we don't like. Only twice have I said no to stuff I felt was straightforwardly offensive, and that's been okay both times.

The_Greek_God_1 karma

Can you give an example of what offensive work would be?

Birdseeding2 karma

I would avoid translating anything homophobic or racist, for instance. But I've only ever said explicitly "no" twice in two years, so I tend to let a lot of borderline stuff pass.

Bonnie8179 karma

Are you (or your company) getting calls from government agencies and other organizations that need help getting in compliance with Section 508? One of the major issues with this new federal law is videos posted online without captions. I’ve read about universities deleting thousands of videos rather than retroactively add captions, but from your post above it seems like you could be a huge help to organizations that are trying to meet the new accessibility requirements.

Birdseeding10 karma

Not that I know of, sadly. (I work in Europe, so I may just be disconnected from it.) I think it's definitely something that we could do, yes, but of course it's hardly a free service, and perhaps something government grants really should help with.

WormTop7 karma

Some dialogue can be really hard to hear, so it's helpful when subtitles make it clear. Do you always have the script to work with, or do you sometimes have to figure it out using your own awesome hearing powers?

Birdseeding7 karma

The thing is, even if we have a script, often the script is a post-production one, outsourced to a low-wage country somewhere, and they will also have tried and often failed to hear what has been said. Never trust the script!

Luckily in an office we are several people who can work together to try to listen and decipher stuff. It's not often that we all fail, but it happens.

a_provo_yakker3 karma

But what about lines that are never said? I always assumed there was a script on hand from preproduction because sometimes there are captions for things that never actually get said, or words at the start of a sentence as the audio fades in, or really quiet whispers or background dialogue from extras that wasn't even meant to be discernible but somehow is heard and captioned.

Birdseeding3 karma

Honestly, things that aren't heard shouldn't be captioned, in my opinion. Captions are there to help deaf and hard of hearing people get the same experience as hearing people, not to hint at secrets. :)

But yes, some production companies will include pre-production material in their post-production scripts, including from barely audible extras. And then insist the material be included. But it's very, very rare in my experience.

Jorlap6 karma

Hi! I'm an aspiring subtitler. I graduated as a translator an I've attended conferences and also I had the chance to subtitle some movies for a festival. I know this what I want to do for the rest of my life because I'm really passionate about it and I'm always trying to improve my work. I'm from Peru but I'm currently staying in Mexico. My plan is to eventually live here and live off of my subtitles.

The problem is that I know very little about the financial side of it. Could you please tell me how did you start and how you got to where you are? I hope this isn't too late.

Birdseeding5 karma

Cool! It sounds like you've got your mind set and you're going for it properly. :)

Because of streaming becoming so large worldwide, the industry is currently undergoing rapid expansion and is hiring lots of new people. Personally, I just applied with one of the big worldwide subtitling companies and was made to do a test, and was then hired immediately. I have heard similar stories from friends, so it's a good time to step into the fray I think! Just write to them and see.

If you can't find one with an office in Mexico (I know e.g. SDI has an office there), consider becoming a freelancer. There are always thousands of more freelancers than people working in-house, and new ones are constantly needed. I'm sure with your degree and experience you should have no problem finding work.

Jorlap1 karma

Thank you so much for answering. Could you give me some names of the companies you know? Also, if I were to start as a freelancer, am completely lost on how to charge for a subtitling service; do you think you could help me with that?

Birdseeding3 karma

The four biggest ones, as far as I know, are BTI, VSI, SDI and Deluxe. But have a look at this list of preferred Netflix text localisation vendors, there's plenty more there: https://npv.netflix.com/originals-localization

If you work as a freelancer through a localisation company, they will all have standard rates of pay. (Usually per minute of subtitled material.) I'd suggest starting out that way, getting a feel for the kind of clients available and more experience, and then seeking out clients of your own once you know what the market pays.

Jorlap3 karma

I just noticed I'm 1 kilometer away from the SDI offices. I can't belive it. Thank you again for the information you are giving me, I really appreciate it. Who says browsing reddit at work is a waste of time! I wish you all the best!

Birdseeding1 karma

Good luck! I hope everything goes well for you!

sock20145 karma

What happens to your industry when people are needed only for light edits? Machine transcription is getting better everyday. For example look at recent youtube autogenerated subtitles.

Birdseeding20 karma

Well, so far the YouTube autogenerated subtitles are... well... you've seen them. But it's a fast-improving field for sure. I'm fully convinced that within a decade 90% of the jobs in the industry will have gone. It's one of the reasons I'm getting out.

xNepenthe2 karma

What are you planning to do if the translation industry gets dry? You dont need to answer if this is too personal. Im just curious!

Edit: answer instead of ask.

Birdseeding1 karma

I'm planning to quit the office job, go freelance, and mix the possibly dwindling translation jobs with copywriting, grant writing and audio description. I've done all of that before and have a few contacts to get started with, I hope.

SonnyVabitch3 karma

Movies from famous books, do you adhere to established book translations if one exists, or do you effectively translate from scratch? Especially curious about geographical or personal names that have meanings.

Birdseeding6 karma

Book translations are copyrighted, so unless the text has fallen into public domain, we can't use established translations, unfortunately. One public domain source we use sometimes is a 19th-century translation of Shakespeare, who as you can imagine is occasionally alluded to.

We do try to use established translations of geographical and personal names, but it's not always easy. We rarely have access to books and other text materials and have no time to order them in. If it's googlable, we'll usually find it.

c0wg0d3 karma

Why are 99% of the subtitles on opensubtitles.org absolute garbage? For example, there are many Game of Thrones subtitles that have subtitles that say "Speaking Valarian" instead of what they are saying in English. Unless you speak Valarian, why would anyone want that?

Birdseeding5 karma

Well, I'm guessing that there are few Valyrian speakers around to translate those sections. :) Although I doubt we can fix a fictional language, if it was e.g. "Speaking dutch" instead, a company as big as the one I work for can easily get hold of a translator for those few lines. Someone sitting at home probably can't.

In all seriousness, sometimes it's the intention of the production not to translate spoken dialogue. For instance, if you want to convey how scared a protagonist is when stuck in a jail where everyone shouts at each other in a language the protagonist doesn't speak, subtitling the dialogue won't have the same effect.

Eagle6942 karma

sometimes it's the intention of the production not to translate spoken dialogue.

In that case does a film come to you with notes “don’t translate the foreign language dialogue at 13:54-16:37”?

Birdseeding2 karma

Sometimes. But more often we have to ask the client when we've already started.

Polemist3 karma

Swift? *barfs*

Birdseeding1 karma

There's a reason they went bust.

Polemist2 karma

Softel? They didn't go bust. They were acquired by Miranda Technologies, which, in turn, changed its name to Grass Valley after getting bought by Belden. And it's much more expensive nowadays; some say it's about the most expensive subtitling software out there. I myself am an EZTitles guy :)

Birdseeding1 karma

There you go :D I didn't know that. I just heard it had been discontinued, and assumed the worst.

Honestly, I'm a bit surprised all the freeware editors are so abysmal. It doesn't seem like a particularly hard task for a computer to do. :)

evohans2 karma

How many words per minute can you type? Is speed a requirement?

Birdseeding7 karma

Not that many. I don't even touch-type :)

There is a speed requirement, but it's in minutes-per-day of work rather than in typing speed. Say that each minute has maybe 15 blocks of 30-60 characters, and we do like 30 minutes of text per day. That's not going to be more than 4000 or so words in a day, less than ten words per minute of your work day. So if you type fairly fast and think a lot faster, you'll be fine.

bICEmeister1 karma

I work as a copywriter, and recently had to do some subtitling (and translation) of just over 6 minutes worth of documentary material with three different people conversing in a mix of two languages.. I thought I would knock it out in like an hour.. but it took me well over four. And that was after trying to get used to the software, and reading up on some best practice standards from a couple of different sources. Mad props for doing 30+ minutes a day.

Now, for some questions: To make it as clear as possible, how do you label dialogue so it’s understandable for people fully without audio who’s speaking what phrase when they’re out of frame? Name in brackets? I tried marking every new speaker with a preceding long dash so that it wouldn’t be as repetitive over time.. because with a high tempo of dialogue, constantly displaying the same three names over and over again looked so messy and in my opinion it became quite distracting. In this case it’s English subtitles, and for cross-European markets. It’s not meant to be fully transcribed for the hearing impaired, but it’s for contexts where audio might not be reliable (social media, trade shows with loud surroundings e.t.c.). What would your approach be? Also, even with heavy editing and leaving a bunch of things out.. sometimes the CPS is nearing 20 (18-19 in some bursts), is that acceptable?

Birdseeding2 karma

Good work, anyway! It would take me almost that long to do it if I didn't have specialised software and a lot of training. :)

The convention to put new speakers in brackets is almost exclusively used in deaf and heard of hearing subtitles/closed captions. In most other contexts, it is assumed that audio clues and visual clues will be enough to make it clear who is talking. I'd probably leave it at that, and just go for the text. But the client would generally specify what they wanted.

En dashes are generally used when two speakers have a line each in the same block. If only one speaker has the whole block, dashes are almost never needed.

18-20 CPS is very high, but in the context you mention it might make more sense. You can always rewind a YouTube video or rewatch a loop at a trade show if you miss anything. For TV, 10-12 CPS is much more common.

bICEmeister1 karma

Thanks for your guidance! I’m using en dashes to make it more apparent when dialog shifts between two people with none of them in frame - the director/editor has put a lot of the dialog on top of other footage (more showing the contexts they’re talking about rather than the people who are speaking), so without hearing the different voices it might be very disorienting to understand one line is a response to the other by a second party, and not just another sentence from the first speaker. But maybe I’m overthinking it?

Birdseeding2 karma

It's not the orthodox approach, certainly, but in this context just do what works. I've even seen people use different text colour for different speakers, so anything is possible. I don't think the general public has as firm a grasp of industry conventions as we do, anyway.

TheManWhoHasThePlan2 karma

My wife is a bilingual teacher and her first language is Spanish. When we are watching movies and the subtitles come on for the translation from Spanish to English, she constantly gets irratated bc she says they constantly screw up the translation i.e. "that (blank word) doesn't mean that" why is this? Is it like you said you guys are trying to shorten the sentence down for slow readers?

Birdseeding2 karma

There's a huge amount of competition in the business, with many companies competing for contracts, and the main thing they can compete with is price. Less scrupulous companies will go for the cheapest translations and translators they can find, and that often means stuff is sped through and quality becomes less and less of a concern. My company tries to keep a more balanced approach, but even so, the amount of time you have to do to make a translation has halved in the past two decades. So that bad stuff slips through is sadly no surprise.

Tessaract22 karma

What is the main formatting for subtitiling?

Birdseeding3 karma

Do you mean like file formats?

Tessaract22 karma

No, I mean how they're typed. Words versus sound effects, one person talking vs two people talking. That kind of thing.

Birdseeding8 karma

Oh! Well, the thing is, that depends a lot from country to country. A lot of countries started doing subtitling 50+ years ago, and in that time formatting has had time to diverge quite a lot.

For instance, in England, two people talking in one block will look like this:

- Hello

- Hello, how are you?

In Sweden, the same lines would be (translated, of course):


-Hello, how are you?

In Finland, they would be


- Hello, How are you?

And so on. :)

Edit: Sorry, took ages to get formatting right. :)

frogred2 karma

Did you know that Google is most likely using your work to make Google Translate work?

Birdseeding2 karma

Yup. And lots of other big publicly available corpuses of text.

Mantisbog1 karma

Have you ever worked with super titles?

Birdseeding1 karma

I have, actually.

Succubic_Unicorn1 karma

Do you have to know another language fluently to do subtitle work? Is there a market for closed captioning English to English?

Birdseeding2 karma

There's definitely a market for same-language closed-captioning! My office just hired like seven new people in the past month because they got new contracts from clients. They also do templates (i.e. English subtitles that are used by translators to base their versions of, which saves a lot of time.)

chriscwjd1 karma

What's the pay like?

Birdseeding4 karma

Absymal. Barely above minimum wage here. There are cleaners that earn more than an entry-level subtitler, and they don't have a master's degree student loan to pay back.

cheesecake_factory1 karma

What was the hardest sentence/word/whatever to translate? Were you proud with the result?

Birdseeding2 karma

I... can't remember. It's a bit awful, but a lot of stuff we do is in one ear and out the other, because we constantly, constantly have to filter in new ideas. We keep no database of previous translations (unlike, say, a literary or technical translator) and everything is too fast-paced to really stick.

I do have to say it's probably something involving field-specific jargon, though. Car shows, especially, are notorious for using terms that are not really part of general knowledge but that the specialist audience need to get exactly right or they'll complain.

That or puns. Puns are amazingly fun to do but translating them can be a nightmare. I do have a few I'm pretty proud of. :)

Supernatantem1 karma

How would someone get into subtitling - maybe as something to do in their free time to begin with? I'm in the process of learning a second language, but would more than happily start with SDH.

Birdseeding1 karma

I would contact a localisation company straightforwardly - if you've got a good degree and a decent CV you can come in and do a test, and if you pass that you can be hired doing SDH, closed captioning or templates.

shitsouttitsout1 karma

have u ever done live captioning?

also, im interested in this line of work. how do u get your foot in the door?

Birdseeding1 karma

Never, unfortunately, so I have little insight into that.

Seriously, to get a foot in, all I did was apply to a job opening with no background in the field at all. All training was provided in-house.

ReedSummers1 karma

Do you live type as content is broadcast or do you receive content ahead of time and subtitle it before it goes on-air?

Birdseeding1 karma

Only the latter. Live captioning is a separate speciality, although there's some overlap, of course.

Sacklpicka1 karma

Weirdest/funniest lines or other funny incidents related to your work?

Birdseeding1 karma

Well, we do a lot of recuts - ie. changing the format of a programme to fit into a new context, shorter/censored/whatever - and get to see other peoples' translations, often from really old files and sometimes from other companies. Occasionally, you get to see some major, major hilarious slip-ups there. I'm not sure I'm allowed to share any, sadly. :/

KyloRenKardashian1 karma

no, amirite?

Birdseeding1 karma

Trust me, I didn't either :)

Schnitzelkoenig1 karma

What is keeping subtitles from not just appearing at the bottom of the screen but instead beside the characters heads for example? The series Heroes did that in some scenes for the Asian characters and it was much easier to follow the dialog and facial expressions. Is it too much work or are the established subtitle formats/viewers not capable of it?

Birdseeding2 karma

Tradition and legacy formats, would be my guess. Also, remember they must be renderable on all sorts of devices, including smartphones these days.

DigiMagic1 karma

How do 3D subtitles work - do you have to put each subtitle at the correct depth manually in advance, or some electronics does it automatically at run time?

Birdseeding1 karma

I've never done 3d subtitles, but aren't they always at the same depth?

nicasucio1 karma

How does swift compare to aegis sub?

What work has been the most challenging to subtitle for you so far?

Birdseeding1 karma

It's endlessly, endlessly more flexible for different workflows and so much faster to use. I have used Aegissub for some home projects sometimes and it has me in tears. Just stuff like not being able to set a standard caption separation...

Probably Angels in America - see previous answer.

msmlska1 karma


do you have any resources you reference for subtitling guidelines? for example, 3 seconds per line is putting the name in front of their subtitle when two people are speaking.

i have referenced the BBC guides before and looking for any other resources or the most trusted/go-to resource.

Birdseeding1 karma

Sadly, the ones we use are all in-house and not public. Do a search for "timed text guidelines" and you'll get a few from different companies though. The thing is, different countries and different applications have different standards, so it's definitely not possible to find one model that will fit everyone. The name thing you mention is only done for one specific type of subtitle, for instance.

liamquane1 karma

I have a video approximately an hour I need subtitling, how would on go about getting that done?

Birdseeding1 karma

The easiest way would be to write to a localisation company directly and ask for a quote. New customers come in all the time, and you can definitely shop around, too.

There are also freelancers who can do it for you cheaper, but that's more a contacts thing.

coryrenton1 karma

are there captioning services or databases dedicated to accurate translation (or even transliteration) rather than brevity?

Birdseeding3 karma

Yes - certainly the companies that do post-production scripts and templates will do completely word-for-word accurate captions. Some media companies (and many corporate clients) also request to have fully accurate translation or transcription done.

coryrenton1 karma

which shows do you think have the most accurate translations done?

Birdseeding3 karma

Boring answer, but generally stuff like "Big truck company announces its new line of trucks". That will have several revisions with every line pored over by the truck company headquarters until it's as close the the original as possible.

coryrenton1 karma

are there any popular media translations that aim for fidelity or are they all pretty much designed for expediency?

Birdseeding1 karma

Some media companies ask for more fidelity, yes, including one of the biggest streaming companies in the world.

TheJokersChild1 karma

Have you ever done online captioning or are you strictly offline?

Birdseeding2 karma

No, we do a lot of online stuff these days - not even counting that practically every old-fashioned media company also does streaming. We do a lot of work for one of the biggest streaming television companies, for instance.

In the business streaming is called "Over the top" for some bizarre reason: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over-the-top_media_services

Direnaar1 karma

Have you ever worked with Spot software (current version is 6)?

If yes, is it considered good in professional translation?

Thank you

Birdseeding1 karma

Sorry, I haven't. It does look like it's reasonably feature-complete though, at least for the kind of applications we have for software. I'll let someone else with more experience answer if it does it competently.

PrussianBleu1 karma

do you do any work for NBCUniversal?

Birdseeding1 karma

Yes. Not allowed to tell you what or how much though. :)

BeautifulMorioh1 karma

I'm finishing up a dual major in Japanese and Linguistics and looking to get into the localisation/translation business.

After I become, to what I believe to be, proficient in Japanese, I'm looking to study Chinese.

What languages does the field tend to value/what do you believe will be valuable in the future?

What advice do you have for those looking to join the field?

Birdseeding2 karma

I would say 99% of everyone who works in this field has native proficiency in the language they translate to. The entire office is filled with a variety of nationalities, all mostly translating English to their native language. So ideally you'd find an application where Japanese-to-English is the desired direction rather than the opposite. I've got little insight into that aspect of the business, unfortunately.

As for advice, I'd say - just go ahead and start applying for jobs. It's a fast-growing business at the moment.