Why Subtitling can be considered an Art Form

Subtitlers carry a message and stand in-between cultural settings

Monica Paolillo is the Subtitling Team Leader at IT Pros (www.itpros.it). She recently wrote an article titled “Why subtitling can be considered an art form” where she outlined that subtitling is not just about studying languages or speaking multiple languages fluently.

In the article she quotes Henrik Gotlieb, summing up subtitling’s key role in the film industry today:

“Due to the complex nature of subtitling,
the subtitler must possess the musical ears of an interpreter,
the stylistic sensitivity of a literary translator,
the visual acuteness of a film cutter and
the aesthetic sense of a book designer”.

Monica feels strongly that subtitling is more in line with interpreting skills, rather than translation in itself.  In subtitling, you don’t just transfer ideas and words to make them accessible to the reader in the target language she says. “Subtitlers carry a message and stand in-between cultural settings, straddling the languages they work with the way simultaneous interpreters do. They have a profound knowledge of idioms and slang both in the source and target languages.”

Monica shares her thoughts on why producers and directors should consider subtitling at the start of film production, and not at the end in the post production phase:-  “In an industry where the required skills don’t seem sufficiently clear, the very perception of subtitle quality from the point of view of the client, director, producer and the audience is obviously biased. There must be thousands of subtitle translators out there producing low quality subtitles, what I very personally call “binnable subtitles”, subtitles that are of no use to anyone, but very few professionals taking on the whole subtitle production chain and contributing high quality to the industry. Thinking about subtitling in the production phase would obviously be ideal.”

She continues, “These days international distribution is a must and subtitlers play a crucial role in a context where viewers are global and thirsty for new, engaging, exotic audiovisual content, for stories coming from different parts of the world, as a way to learn and practice foreign languages, and a way to absorb different cultures. Therefore subtitlers literally accompany the audience in a completely new adventure.”

More generally, Monica adds that what she finds lacking in the industry is awareness at all levels. “Universities should be aware of the role they play when they train future subtitlers, and not just instil frustration and delusion. Graduates should be aware that they might be great translators with a dictionary and references at hand, but not necessarily great interpreters or subtitlers and refrain from jumping on the subtitling bandwagon just because they like the idea. Directors and screenwriters should be aware that if it took them one year to write a film dialogue, they shouldn’t expect subtitlers to rewrite it in three days. Film editors should be aware that if they use just a few frames for a shot change, on-screen text, and dialogue all at the same time, that it is going to cause issues in the subtitling stage. In a nutshell, we’re working under far from ideal conditions which ultimately impact how subtitling is perceived within the industry and beyond.”

On the expansive topic of interpreting and translation vs. subtitling, Monica elaborates further, “As one of just a bunch of small Italian companies focused on subtitling only, universities for language studies often reach out to us to promote their students for possible internship and training opportunities. Subtitling is creative, it’s dynamic, it’s special, you could say it’s sexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone, quite the opposite. If only universities informed their students of what it is about and trained them accordingly, maybe poor-quality subtitling wouldn’t be so widespread at this point and students, subtitlers and clients would be less frustrated.”

Monica further outlines what defines subtitling and the skills involved, “The very adjective “audiovisual” is a total game changer and turns translation into something that is definitely more similar to interpreting. Just like in the interpreting setting, you will have to deal with the spoken language, with idioms and cultural references. Just like in the interpreting scenario, a dictionary will not help you out. Just like in the consecutive interpreting context, where you summarise a speech under time pressures, you will have to be able to determine quickly what matters and what doesn’t and leave all unnecessary and redundant parts out. Just like in the simultaneous interpreting setting, you will work in a fast-paced environment with an almost instant production as content is always subtitled “by yesterday”.

In this scenario, your language proficiency will have to be comparable to that of a native speaker and you will have to use your work languages in the most natural way. When that happens, then you can invest all your time and resources in developing the necessary skills you need to become a professional subtitler: timecoding, dialogue division, text condensation, guidelines and standards and much more.”

Monica Paolillo: