A Doorway to Subtitling: Open or Closed. About Subtitling Types and Styles

On the internet we can watch a movie, read the news, explore endless options of items to purchase, order food and even take online courses, among countless other actions. We have access to that content (text, video, images, audio) across the globe because, in most cases, it is available in different languages. This is possible due to media localization, a process that not only involves the translation of text or audio but also other services, such as subtitling, graphic design, web design, audio recording, etc.

Specifically, for translating e-learning courses and audiovisual material, subtitling is a very common resource. But there are many types and styles of subtitling available when deciding how to translate content, depending on every need. The most important distinction is between closed captioning and open subtitling, because their aspect, audience and function are different.

1) Closed Captioning

Closed Captioning is a specific type of subtitle, an accessibility resource. Its function is, primarily, to make content available to people who have hearing impairments. In real-time captioning (used in live shows or news programs), online subtitlers create a caption of what is being said so people can read it. They type, use a dictation software or a stenography system. Also, it is possible to generate a caption file offline, with pre-recorded material.

Some of the Closed Caption characteristics are the following:

  • It includes sound effects, such as [laugh], [music], [thunder].
  • They can be turned on or off with a remote control (in TV systems).
  • Audio language and text language are the same. 
  • It’s widely used in e-learning courses, streaming platforms and TV.
  • Text is displayed on a black background.
  • It’s also useful where silence is required (offices, waiting rooms) or as a hearing support (to learn languages, bad audio quality).

2) Open Subtitling

Open Subtitling is the most common type of subtitling, the one we can find in movies or programs in foreign languages. Its function is to translate source text and audio into another language.

However, SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing) are a type of open subtitle that has another purpose. They have the same function as Closed Captioning but look like common subtitles.

The main characteristics of open subtitling are the following:

  • In traditional TV systems or theatres, subtitles cannot be turned off, because they are embedded in the video.
  • Subtitles are displayed without a contrasting background.
  • Audio language and text language are different: it’s a translation.
  • In SHD, audio and text language are the same.
  • SDH have sound effects and speakers’ identification.

Rules and Guidelines

Before working on a subtitling task, it’s important to know if the project has any technical parameters,  as well as preferences about subtitling type and style, speakers’ IDs treatment and letter case. 

Furthermore, subtitlers must comply with the specifications provided in customers’ style guides, if any, which set style and technical expectations for the captioned or translated text.

As we can see, there are a lot of options when looking for a media localization solution. All of these promote inclusion while helping clients’ audiences expand one subtitle at a time.

How the 2020 Boom in Streaming Affects Audiovisual Translation Needs

I stream, you stream, we all stream everything! Across the globe people have come together by staying apart in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing can limit our entertainment options to ones we can find easily in the home which has led to an uptick in relying on streaming services to pass the time. Let’s take a quick look at why more people are streaming than ever before and how this affects audiovisual translation needs.

The Need to Stream

During past U.S. crises, we’ve seen television usage increase by 60%, according to Nielsen data. It’s no surprise that a crisis that has forced millions of people into their homes for extended periods of time is expected to increase that percentage. From television shows to movies to news broadcasts, entertainment as well as vital updates come straight from streaming services. Streaming was already on the rise before the pandemic and will likely remain that way after life resumes to normal. Before social distancing began, Americans consumed just shy of 12 hours of content each day through media platforms.

Global Content is a Must

Thanks to the massive success of foreign television programs and movies, like Academy Award winning movie Parasite, consumers are becoming increasingly receptive to viewing foreign content. It’s fair to assume that with more and more time on our hands at home, viewers will be even more open to widening their horizons and exploring content from foreign creators. Due to cinema closures and film delays, experts are estimating that the film industry alone may experience $5 billion in losses. In order to increase revenue, content creators should consider upping their audiovisual translation game to cast as wide of a viewer net as possible for potential streaming purchases. 

Where Audiovisual Translation Comes In

Audiovisual translation helps transfer the verbal components of audiovisual works, such as movies and television programs, into another language. Theatrical plays, web pages, and video games also utilize audiovisual translation efforts. Audiovisual content is intended to be both seen and heard simultaneously which brings unique translation challenges to the table. Not to mention, cultural references and wordplay often require a skilled translator to deliver the intended original meaning in a culturally correct context to the audience. Whether that be through subtitles or dubbed content. 

In order to best bridge the gap between not just languages, but cultures, entertainment producers will want to work with talented audiovisual translators who can help their story come to life clearly and appropriately for audiences who not only speak a different language, but who live in different cultures. To do so, they will want to work with a transcreator who can maintain the original message, context, and emotion of the source content. Transcreated content is customized to adapt to the culture, slang and dialect of the target audience. Taking these extra steps can increase access to content across the globe, which is something that benefits everyone.

Subtitling Challenges: Cultural References and Wordplays

Subtitling for streaming platforms implies translating content that will be distributed to a very large audience. For on-demand sites, Spanish subtitles are available globally, even in countries where it’s not an official language. Given that the target text should be understood by Spanish speakers across many countries, translating wordplays and cultural references is a task for skilled audiovisual translators only.

While this challenge may also be common to other localization tasks, translating subtitles has another specific and crucial characteristic. They are moving text that doesn’t stay long on the screen, and depending on the media (TV, cinema, on-demand platforms) they cannot be re-read. Thus, the translated text should be effective and as easy and fast to understand as possible.   

Cultural references: challenge accepted

Sometimes, dialogues refer to very specific aspects of the culture of origin of the show, such as cultural products, personalities, food, brands or institutions. Whether to localize them or not should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Leaving the reference as is or translating it literally may leave all the audience to not understand the reference, but adapting it may result in losing some of the original meaning. A skilled audiovisual translator will know which reference is better to leave unlocalized, and which is better to translate or adapt by choosing a similar but not equivalent referent in the target culture, among other available strategies. The translator will decide what is more effective and useful for each situation. Technical requirements are also a factor that can restrict the choice of the target text.

For a better understanding of what cultural references are and how they are treated in subtitles, we can analyze samples of some strategies, for example, in the Spanish LA subtitles of Mad Men’s pilot. 

Screenshot
Source Text Lucky Strike here.
Translation Yo, Lucky Strike.
Used strategy Retention of the source reference as is.

 

Screenshot
Source Text Not just another Jewish department store?
Translation ¿No es otra tienda judía cualquiera? (“Store”)
Used strategy Generalization.

 

Screenshot
Source Text He left his manners back at the fraternity house.
Translation Olvidó sus modales en la universidad.  (“University, college”)
Used strategy Substitution of the source reference with a less specific one.

Pun intended

Comedies take the challenge to another level because they are also full of puns and jokes that are difficult to recreate accurately in other languages. The translator of the subtitles has to choose between a literal translation or adapt the joke in the best way possible. Creativity plays a major part in the task, since the translator invents equivalent jokes or wordplays in the target language. Let’s consider one example from BoJack Horseman (S01E01).

Screenshot
Source Text Hey.
-Where? I’d love hay.
Translation Hola. (“Hi”)
-¿Ola? Me encanta surfear. (“Waves? I love surfing”).
Used strategy Transcreation. The translation can recreate the wordplay based on the homophony
between the greeting and another word, and also relates to the character’s action.
However, to maintain the wordplay between the word (“hay”) and the fact of being a horse
was not possible.

A matter of consistency

Regardless of the strategy used to translate cultural references and jokes, maintaining consistency across episodes is crucial. In large team projects, KNP sheets (key names and phrases) are a very common resource. There, the linguistic team can register proposed translations for names, cultural references or jokes, in order to maintain a consistent criterion.

Behind the Scenes: The Producer, The Director… The Subtitler

A Spanish-speaking audience lives in a world surrounded by translated content— from books to user manuals, websites to advertisements. The localization process that made these materials available is not always visible. But when watching a subtitled movie or a TV show, we take notice of the translation’s textual process because the source text (the audio) and the translation (the subtitles) are simultaneously present before us.  

Therefore, the job of audiovisual translators has salient visibility. Translating movie or TV show dialogue is subject to the same constraints of other localization tasks (semantic challenges, large volumes or tight deadlines). It also has specific technical requirements that only audiovisual translators master professionally. 

Common technical requirements: line limit and reading-speed limit

Sometimes the text in subtitles is not a literal translation or may seem shorter than the dialogue. This is mostly on account of two important requirements that restrict the translation of audiovisual products. The first is the line limit, which sets how many characters each line must have for a subtitle event. The range typically varies from 32 to 42 characters per line, therefore, a long sentence or idea must be rephrased in a shorter version. In this case, the audiovisual translator can choose either a shorter but non-literal translation that catches the core meaning of the original or they may crop some words out.

The second constraint on subtitling text is the reading speed limit. Generally, for a positive viewing experience, the reading speed is around 17 characters per second (CPS) for adult programs and 13 CPS for children programs with a flexibility of around 30 percent give or take. This can change according to the genre of the TV show. For example, in unscripted shows like reality TV, a higher value can be admitted such as 20 CPS because they tend to have faster dialogues.

Audio wave or shot change preferences

Depending on the clients’ requirements, subtitles must be synchronized (or “timecoded”) to mirror the  exact length the dialogue lasts (so it’s timecoded to match the audio) or to fit in scenes. Therefore it’s preferable if subtitles begin to display when the scene starts and finish when there is a shot change. The sequence is more immersive and, hence, better for viewing experience. This practice is actually Netflix’s preference. 

These conditions may also restrict the task of translating. The linguist needs to catch the semantic and pragmatic meaning of the source text and also fit the subtitle according to the scene or the audio wave. 

Why hire professional audiovisual translators?

Considering these requirements (only a few of the specifications an audiovisual project may have), we can see that audiovisual translators master both creative and technical skills. In addition to the task of translating text, they have to be proficient in the software application they use to comply with all the requirements and deliver the highest quality in every project.

Some visual examples

32 characters per line as limit
42 characters per line as limit
Bad line break