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Subtitling Motion Pictures: Techniques and Technologies

November 8th, 2012 | by LTD

Session LT-5 at ATA 2012
Presenter: Alain Martinossi
Reviewed by: Alexis Rhyner

Watching a subtitled film as a professional linguist is akin to a classically trained pianist listening a symphony, or a world-renowned author reading a novel. The art of transferring the dialogue across languages and cultures is often more intriguing than the plot itself. As a linguist, it seems impossible to watch a foreign film without closely inspecting each and every line of dialogue, waiting on edge to proclaim, “That’s not what she said!” Several questions typically follow this statement, including how could that translation even be considered for that source? Did they not hire a professional? How did that line pass the editing process? Upon delving further into the wonderful world of subtitling via Alain Martinossi’s presentation at the American Translator Association’s 53rd annual conference at San Diego, we see that many constraints impact a translator and subtitler’s work with film. Alain’s engaging presentation offered a rare peek into the world of subtitling from the perspective of a seasoned professional as he provided insight into the skills outside of the linguistic realm, outlined the process from start to finish, and rendered it all in an easy to understand, humorous at times, and informative snapshot into the highly specialized sub-set of our industry.

To begin, Alain emphasized non-linguistic skills required, first being the importance of trust, earned by always closely following instructions and never altering a text. Typos can be fixed but the text may not be altered in any way without approval. Failure to comply can be costly in many ways. Next, the mechanics of formatting subtitles were introduced: simulation, correlation, spotting (timing), shot change, reading speed, positioning, and line breaks. Essentially, the visual aspects of the film itself dictate placement and timing of subtitles upon applying translation to the screen. The mechanics of formatting the dialogue presents many difficulties when paired with visual constraints. Both untimely and manipulated (italics, parenthesis, underlining, etc.) subtitles can distract and confuse viewers and must be avoided at all costs. The ultimate goal when rendering subtitles is allowing them to appear as unobtrusively as possible. When time constraints interfere, multiple portions of the puzzle, often with overlapping priorities, must be pieced together with in order to render a smooth, yet faithful translation. Alain provided many examples for the audience, which greatly enhanced the understanding of such instances.

Software is an essential tool that allows the subtitler to seamlessly combine the aforementioned mechanics with the video, including pairing the video with segments (single instances of subtitles), observing timecode, monitoring WPM (ideal reading speed is 180 WPM, although reading speeds of up to 250 are not uncommon), and lastly deciding final positioning during the rendering and QA processes. Several subtitling software packages were suggested (see list below) with the encouragement to familiarize yourself with at least one freeware by experimenting at home. Technicolor, for example, uses WinCAPS. Due to the high investment, this is most likely not a viable option for freelancers, yet many options exist.

In conclusion, Alain’s expertise and encouragement have provided many ATA members with a revealing peek into the popular world of film and translation and demystified the process of subtitling for motion picture. Below you will find a list of software in addition to a list of several websites relating to subtitling provided by Alain. If you find yourself interested in gaining experience, take Alain’s advice and “Give it a try!”


PDF file of Power Point presentation


Spot Software

DivXL and Media Subtitler


Real Subtitler

Substation Alpha

RUSoft Subtitle Workshop



Subtitle Edit






http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1471267 (Radio broadcast)






Alexis Rhyner is a Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese into English translator specializing in Entertainment, non-profits/NGOs, and fine arts. She recently relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles, CA where she is seeking to build a local community of translators and interpreters and looks forward to your correspondence at alexis@mellowtranslations.com.

One Response to “Subtitling Motion Pictures: Techniques and Technologies”

  1. John Di Rico Says:

    Thanks for all the resource links Alexis, great article!

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