Thursday, August 30, 2018


If you weren’t a writer, would you still be in the book business? (bookseller, agent, editor, publisher) or would you do something completely different?

From Jim

If I weren’t a writer, I’d probably be in the subtitling business. It’s what I did for sixteen years before embarking on a full-time career as a mystery writer. Subtitling is one of those invisible professions that few people think about unless they’re directly involved in it. But it’s important work.

At its most elemental, here are the component parts of a subtitle:
1. Text (translation) It has to be right. Not verbatim, but it must convey the correct meaning.
2. Timing (In and Out) ideally, the subtitle should pop up when the dialogue begins and pop off the screen when the speaking ends. Some allowance should be made for readability, of course. That means that if the dialogue is quick, you may need to extend the out time code to allow the viewer time to read.
3. Positioning (where does it sit on the screen?) Normally, subtitles sit in the bottom third of the screen. If there is other text on the screen, such as signs or textual elements in the video, the subtitle should move to avoid covering that text.

Simple, right? Not so fast. Language is so subtle. Translation and accuracy can be incredibly difficult. Then there are technical details such as font, color, antialiasing, and frame rate. And speed. Dialogue just gets faster and faster these days. Watch The Gilmore Girls if you don’t believe me. And then there are shot changes. Traditionally, subtitles weren’t supposed to cross shot changes. Not a problem for Hitchcock’s Rope, perhaps, where the only shot changes come at the end of the reels (up to ten minutes long). But try doing that with today’ lightning-fast cuts, some as short as fractions of a second. Impossible. Something’s got to give.

And that’s the point of subtitles. They’re an imperfect compromise. A movie is about the movie, not the subtitles. Subtitles are an aid to help a foreign audience understand and follow the film. They shouldn’t get in the way.

During my subtitling career. I was fond of saying that the best subtitle was the one no one remembered. Viewers only ever recalled the bad subtitles. The ones that were off. Or funny, unintentionally so. Or worse still, obscene, unintentionally so.

To be sure, there are some creative angles to subtitling, but ultimately subtitles exist as a discipline that depends on another product to exist. They enhance the experience and expand the audience for a film or television show. That’s why I’m glad I am a writer. As rewarding as my career in subtitling was, I prefer to be the creator, not the interpreter.



Unknown said...

I love to watch thriller movies. The review I did not get that. On the other hand, I love to watch criminal stories in the movie. I am also a big fan of horror movies too. I watch online horror videos of new upcoming films. Last I watch The Nun 2018 online a horror movie.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Interesting post, James.

Karen in Ohio said...

Because my husband is deaf in one ear, and because of watching a lot of British shows with accents different than our own, we leave the closed captions on all the time.

Some British shows are especially bad at the captioning, I've noticed. It's fascinating to see how well or badly the subtitles are done.

I've never known of an actual person who did this, Jim!

Cathy Ace said...

Excellent piece, Jim. :-) And you're right - people only recall the BAD subtitles

Susan C Shea said...

Opera sub-titling has different problems. People sing the same line over and over again but who knows if they aren't familiar with opera in general? And the tenor is often singing something different at the same time the soprano is going on at length with her own thoughts.

But,, Jim, come back to explain what "antialiasing" is, please!

Kaye George said...

I've actually thought about the people who do subtitles often. Moreso, as you mention, when they annoy me. But I also appreciate a very good job that makes the movie or show easy and fun.

James W. Ziskin said...

Susan, Antialiasing is the blending of the pixels. It makes the letters blend better and look better. Rather than pixelated, jagged edges.

James W. Ziskin said...

Here’s a link for the antialiasing.

Lyda McPherson said...

I am now well and properly schooled in the art of subtitles! I'm going to save this. There has to be a place for all of this in a short story. What a wonderful place for a clue to be hidden - in a subtitle! Thank you.