We live in an era of easy access to video production and consumption. An example of this is the incredible metrics for YouTube. (300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and almost five billion videos are watched on YouTube every day.)1 To this number, add data from a recent Nielsen Company Audience report saying that U.S. adults spend an estimated 10 hours and 39 minutes per day staring at their phones, computers, and other media devices.2 As media consumption continues to increase, other stats are equally mind-blowing: the average user spends 88% more time on a website with video,3 and by 2019 video will account for 80% of global internet traffic (85% in the U.S.).4
All of this is to say that video has become vital to marketing strategies, and nowadays, translating movies is not the only market for audiovisual translators. With the increased demand for video localization, there is also increased interest from everyone, from translators to language services providers and language technology providers, to enter this market.
Focusing on video subtitling, there are numerous software solutions available for all tastes and budgets. With a bit of poking around, you might find one that fits your needs. Before discussing the specific application that I’ve been testing this past month, I’ll provide some introductory comments on the pitfalls inherent in this type of translation. This should help you grasp how the right tool can help mitigate the challenges.
Challenges of Translation for Subtitling
Audiovisual Translation (AVT) scholars have conducted subtitling studies focused on audience attention or engagement. By using methods like eye tracking they can make recommendations on such factors as the optimal length of time to display the subtitle on screen, text segmentation (line breaking), subtitle shape, reading speed, etc. The goal of these studies is to allow viewers to follow the text in the subtitles comfortably while making sure that they understand the information conveyed. Appropriate subtitle speed and segmentation allow viewers to follow the text in the subtitles with ease and have enough time to take in the on-screen action. If subtitle speed is too fast and segmentation doesn’t adhere to linguistic rules, viewers may find it difficult to follow and understand the information contained in the subtitles. Even a translation deemed grammatically perfect, with the most accurate terminology, could be considered useless if your viewer can’t read it. Having this in mind, below are the main challenges an audiovisual translator faces daily.
Time and Space Constraints (Reading Speed): The subtitle must be displayed on the screen during the appropriate time. The audience should have enough time to read the text, and the text should not cover more space than necessary on the screen. Reading speed varies according to the audience (e.g., children, adults, level of education, to name a few). So, the decision about how many characters to display per second is relative to your viewing public.
Inter-Semiotic Translation: Audiovisual translators are not only translating text from one language to another. They are converting spoken words into written form. As such, they must consider congruence with all the other visual signs, including gestures, expressions, and images hitting the audience at the same time. That’s why the ability to render full meaning with concise text, while respecting its context, is so important. Information must be prioritized to convey the right message and avoid dissonance.
Shot Changes: The subtitles should follow the audio but also respect what’s happening visually. For example, when there’s a shot change and the camera shifts away from the speaker, you risk your subtitles being left hanging. Any such glitch will affect the viewer and break their immersion in the visual experience.
Tech-Savvy: With this type of translation, there’s a constant need to deal with technical aspects. It’s common to have audio or video format problems, and audiovisual translators need to know how to convert files and adhere to technical specifications presented by the client or that are inherent in the product you need to deliver. Does the client want you to provide the subtitles in .srt, .sub, .ttml, .xml . . . ? Do they want you to embed the subtitles to the video? Is the subtitle time-coded to the correct frame rate? Many such questions can arise.
Finally, it’s imperative to keep in mind that in this type of translation, the public will be exposed to the source language throughout the viewing experience. The greater their knowledge of the source language, the more likely they are to compare the original words spoken with your translation. You have to be prepared to educate your client on the constraints described above and how you will need to adapt your translation to navigate them.
Trying a Subtitling Tool: SubtitleNext
Currently, we have access to countless tools with subtitling functionality. I decided to try out SubtitleNext, a full-featured professional subtitling application. Other translation tools have recently bolted on audiovisual capabilities as an afterthought. SubtitleNext, on the other hand, has a 25-year legacy focused on addressing media challenges.
Although I’ve been in the audiovisual field for some time, I only recently discovered SubtitleNext at the 2018 “Languages and the Media” conference in Berlin, Germany. After testing it, I decided to share my observations because many colleagues are now just getting started in the audiovisual world. This tool is dedicated to the multimedia industry and facilitates the localization of videos for users ranging from creators to distributors, including translators, editors, audiovisual artists, and project managers.
I started by downloading a free demo at https://shop.profuzdigital.com. (Note: you’ll need to provide your first name, last name, and an e-mail to download).
At first glance, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the elements of the user interface. Orient yourself by thinking of the controls as three main areas: the control toolbar on the top, the control state panel on the bottom, and the main subtitle area in between. Later, you can rearrange the view according to your preferences and customize the shortcuts as you wish. I describe the main elements of the toolbar below. (The number beside each item corresponds to its location shown in Figure 1.)
1. Main Menu: This menu contains a comprehensive list of commands. Here you’ll find everything related to managing the subtitle file (open, close, edit, save, perform spell check, etc.). From here you can customize the view of the tool, access the audio and the video commands, the timecodes—everything. In my view, it’s used in addition to toolbars because menu commands only display when you click the mouse. I keep the toolbars for convenience to access the most frequently used commands directly.
2. Time Display: Displays the current timecode (hour:minute:second:frame).
3. Font Attributes toolbar.
4. Subtitle Control toolbar (used to split, merge, insert, or delete subtitles).
Control State Panel
5. Contains the media manipulation command buttons (play, pause, jump back, jump forward, open video).
6. The Media position slider bar.
7. Presets of color for quick access font change.
Main Subtitle Area
8. Columns Header: Provides information about the meaning of each column—e.g., the number of the title, the actual title, and the timecodes (in and out).
9. The title currently being worked on.
10. Collapses video preview and timecode (TC) details.
11. Number of the current title.
12. Safe Area: A visual notification of the maximum working area.
13. Vertical Position: You can drag to adjust the vertical position of the title.
14. Characters per second (cps): This is the subtitling speed, or reading speed. This number will give you a hint as to whether or not the viewer will be able to read the subtitle. (To have a practical parameter, Netflix establishes in their English template Timed Text Style Guide a maximum of 17 cps for children’s program and 20 cps for adult programs.)5
15. Horizontal position: You can drag to adjust the horizontal position of the title.
16. Audio Timeline: This shows audio spectrums, waveform, shot changes, subtitle number, and duration. You can use this timeline to adjust timing perfectly while you listen to the sound by dragging the subtitle rectangle.
17. The text you see in Figure 1 represents a current subtitle. You can also see how it looks on the video preview.
How to Create a Subtitle File
When starting SubtitleNext, a Properties window will pop up. (See Figure 2.) You will need to choose the source and target languages in the dropdown menus. You will also need to complete the name of the file, and there are some specs about frame rate and screen aspect. For films, the frame rate is usually 24, but check the frame rate of your video asset because it has to match the frame rate of the subtitle file to avoid sync problems. The default setting is 25. Click Next to accept all other default settings until you can click OK. Now you’re ready to start.
On the main menu (see #1 in Figure 1), under Video, or under the down arrow icon in the Toolbar (#5), you can load the video to be subtitled. It can be a video file or a URL.
Then, you can drag the slider to find the audio position on the waveform (#10). Tap ALT+F9 to set the “time in” and ALT+F10 to set “time out.” If you don’t like these shortcuts, you can go to Options in the Toolbar and select Customize Keyboard. (See Figure 3.)
You should also customize the number of characters you want to have per line, the number of lines, and so on. To do so, go back to Options in the Toolbar, select Preferences and then Titles in the dropdown menu. (See Figure 4.)
You can now write the text of the subtitle on the video preview, and you’ll be able to see it on the right, in the mini titles area (#17). You can position the subtitle vertically or horizontally by using the arrows (#13) and (#15). Now press CTRL + ENTER or hit ENTER twice to create the subtitle. Repeat the process as many times as needed. Congratulations, you created your first file!
With this type of work, I save the file upfront and keep saving periodically to avoid wasting time and effort. SubtitleNext lets you set a regular time interval to save your file automatically. You can set the time interval for saving files easily in the Preferences window show in Figure 4, and it can spare you from awful surprises. Unfortunately, the free demo version doesn’t let you save files. From the Explorer version on, though, it allows saving and exporting to all professional formats. After creating the file, you could be asked to embed the subtitles to video, which is also possible to do with this tool.
How I Found the Tool Helpful to Meet the Challenges Presented
1. The tool helps you visually spot if you exceeded the limit of characters per line (usually from 37 to 42). This measurement alone is not enough to ensure your subtitles can be read. SubtitleNext tracks characters in relation to time on-screen by gauging the characters per second, or “cps” ratio (#14). If this number is too high (meaning over 20 + 25% tolerance), the viewer will have trouble fully understanding the message.
2. The video preview reveals the context your subtitles will land in. Remember that it’s not about translating only text, since all the visual aspects render meaning. Tools that can read .srt files but don’t let you preview the video are like flying blind.
3. For a better user experience, you can spot the shot changes (SC) on the audio timeline (#16). This will allow you to make informed decisions while working on the synchronization.
As you can see, the learning curve in audiovisual translation can’t be underestimated. The same holds true in learning how to use a complex tool. The good thing is that SubtitleNext provides online video tutorials on the SubtitleNext YouTube channel. Beyond promotional videos, you can find more instructional content focused on performing specific tasks. In my opinion, the best resource is the user’s manual, which I had to access after downloading the demo version. (You can find it at https://help.subtitlenext.com.) The company has also invested in a “Club” and on an “Academy” for aspiring subtitlers and academic institutions. As a member of either group, you qualify for a discount of up to 30% if you decide to purchase a license.
It took a while to get used to the interface. A drawback of the free demo version is that it doesn’t allow saving files. Under Preferences > Spelling, I learned that you are able to add local and online dictionaries, but I haven’t tried it yet. Also, I couldn’t determine whether the tool can incorporate a terminology database and would need to investigate this further. The same goes for the integration of machine translation. Historically, subtitlers have resisted using the latter, but this is a topic for another day!
There are different bundles with different prices, and although not cheap, they are less expensive than comparable subtitling tools. The Novice bundle supports .srt but not .xml, and Explorer handles all professional formats. There’s a jump in price from Novice to Explorer, so this would be a big investment for the translator who only receives subtitling jobs sporadically.
ATA Audiovisual Division (AVD)
ATA’s Audiovisual Division was established in August 2018 with the mission to support and mentor audiovisual linguists. After our first annual meeting during ATA’s 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans, we found that most of our members were new to the field. This article was written with this audience in mind. I invite readers to meet the AVD team and join us in taking on the opportunities and challenges of this booming area of specialization. Learn more at www.ata-divisions.org/AVD.
Additional References on Audiovisual Translation
Alfaro, Carolina. “Multimedia and Audiovisual Translation,” The Translator’s Tool Box: A Computer Primer for Translators (November 2015).
Austin, Christine. “19 Intriguing Video Marketing Stats,” (July 12, 2017), http://xl8.link/1q9.
Díaz Cintas, Jorge, and Aline Remael. Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling (Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2007), http://bit.ly/Cintas-Remael.
Frasco, Stephanie. “Instagram Video and What It Means for Your Business,” http://xl8.link/1qc.
O’Neill Dennison, Liz. “11 Video Stats that Will Blow Your Content Marketing Mind,” (September 11,2014), http://xl8.link/1qb. SubtitleNext User’s Manual, https://help.subtitlenext.com.
Szarkowska, Agnieszka. “Report on the Results of the SURE Project Study on Subtitle Speeds and Segmentation” (2018), http://bit.ly/Agnieszka-SURE.
Remember, if you have any ideas and/or suggestions regarding helpful resources or tools you would like to see featured, please email Jost Zetzsche at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “37 Mind-Blowing YouTube Facts, Figures, and Statistics—2019,” MerchDope (January 2019), http://xl8.link/1q6.
- “The Nielsen Total Audience Report: Q2 2018,” http://xl8.link/1q3.
- McCue, T. J. “Video Marketing in 2018 Continues to Explode as a Way to Reach Customers,” Forbes (June 22, 2018), http://xl8.link/1q7.
- Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Trends, 2017–2022 White Paper (February 2019), http://xl8.link/1q5.
- Netflix English Template Timed Text Style Guide, http://xl8.link/FBG1.
Fernanda Brandao-Galea has worked as a Brazilian Portuguese linguist since 2011 after diverse careers: chemical engineer, law student, and project manager in LATAM IT go-to-market strategies. She completed a translation certificate program, an audiovisual translation post-graduate course, and is currently enrolled in a localization certificate program at the University of Washington. She is the professional development coordinator for ATA’s Audiovisual Division and the event director for the Northern California Translators Association (an ATA chapter). Contact: Fernanda@f2-global.com.