Thoughts on subtitles, part 1

Subtitling is seriously undervalued in the South African film and television industry. This is the first in a series of blog posts covering subtitling concerns.

In a country with 11 official languages, subtitling is not only used for deaf and hard-of-hearing people but also for the inclusion of the various language groups, because South Africans are not a homogeneous people, nor can everyone speak all the official and unofficial languages. English is therefore often used as the mediating language.

Some of the factors that contribute to the distinctive nature of subtitling:

  • Subtitling is different from most forms of text editing, as the medium is more dynamic.
  • Comprehension and enjoyment of normal text are enhanced for the reader by the ability, if necessary, to re-scan the article. Comprehension of a television programme, however, is typically gained only at the time of viewing.
  • Readers normally have only text to absorb. By contrast the user of subtitles must take in simultaneously the action within the television image as well as the information provided by the subtitling.
  • The pace of programmes sometimes means that subtitles cannot reasonably be expected to convey the full range of information contained in the television image. However, deaf and hard-of-hearing people naturally expect to receive as much as possible of the information which is available to the general audience.

Careful and sensitive editing is needed in order to produce subtitles which will suit the intended audience, while still conveying the full meaning of the dialogue or commentary within the limitations set by the pace of the programme.

Guidelines from the ESIST

There is no one single rule for broadcast subtitling and the standards vary slightly from country to country, from one TV channel to another. But some basic rules should of course be respected, such as the standards set by the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (ESIST).

The ESIST promotes screen translation as an additional skill to the qualification of translator and encourage the creation of innovative courses in screen translation in European higher education institutions. They have developed a dialogue between higher education teachers who offer courses in and on screen translation and persons concerned with the profession of screen translation in the television and film industries. ESIST promotes professional standards in the teaching and practice of screen translation.

  • Subtitlers must always work with a copy of the production and, if possible, a dialogue list and glossary of atypical words and special references.
  • It is the subtitler's job to spot the production and translate and write the subtitles in the (foreign) language required.
  • Translation quality must be high with due consideration of all idiomatic and cultural nuances.
  • Simple syntactic units should be used.
  • When it is necessary to condense dialogue, the text must be coherent.
  • Subtitle text must be distributed from line to line and page to page in sense blocks and/or grammatical units.
  • Ideally, each subtitle should be syntactically self-contained.
  • The language register must be appropriate and correspond to locution.
  • The language should be grammatically correct since subtitles serve as a model for literacy.
  • All important written information in the images (signs, notices, etc.) should be translated and incorporated wherever possible.
  • Given the fact that many TV viewers are hearing-impaired, "superfluous" information, such as names, off-screen interjections, etc., should also be subtitled.
  • Songs must be subtitled where relevant.
  • Obvious repetition of names and common comprehensible phrases need not always be subtitled.
  • The in and out times of subtitles must follow the speech rhythm of the dialogue, taking cuts and sound bridges into consideration.
  • Language distribution within and over subtitles must consider cuts and sound bridges; the subtitles must underline surprise or suspense and in no way undermine it.
  • The duration of all subtitles within a production must adhere to a regular viewer reading rhythm.
  • Spotting must reflect the rhythm of the film.
  • No subtitle should appear for less than one second or, with the exception of songs, stay on the screen for longer than seven seconds.
  • A minimum of four frames should be left between subtitles to allow the viewer´s eye to register the appearance of a new subtitle.
  • The number of lines in any subtitle must be limited to two.
  • Wherever two lines of unequal length are used, the upper line should preferably be shorter to keep as much of the image as free as possible and in left-justified subtitles in order to reduce unnecessary eye movement.
  • There must be a close correlation between film dialogue and subtitle content; source language and target language should be synchronised as far as possible.
  • There must be a close correlation between film dialogue and the presence of subtitles.
  • Each production should be edited by a reviser/editor.
  • The (main) subtitler should be acknowledged at the end of the film or, if the credits are at the beginning, then close to the credit for the script writer.
  • The year of subtitle production and the copyright for the version should be displayed at the end of the film.

Copyright Mary Carroll and Jan Ivarsson
, Endorsed by the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation in Berlin on 17 October 1998