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A Push To Undermine The Emergence Of Low-Cost/Low-Quality English Subtitling Practices

Shadow and Act By Paul Berlinger | Shadow and Act April 8, 2014 at 1:36PM

A Push To Undermine The Emergence Of Low-Cost/Low-Quality English Subtitling Practices
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Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl"
Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl"

I've worked as a subtitler for over a decade. All the professional subtitlers I know have their own subtitling software (Swift, EZTitles, WINCAPS), which can cost well over 1,000 euros. 


For those who don't know, the subtitling process generally goes like this: the production company or agency sends you the film, which you import into your software. Then you create a subtitle template, setting the in and out-times of the subtitles, taking into account the cuts in the film etc. (positioning the subtitles between the cuts or going over a maximum of one cut). After you've done all of this, you start the translation, which generally involves condensing the dialogue (because of the time and space constraints), while making sure you keep the style and register.

In my experience, it's very rarely easy translation. Films vary hugely, of course: some have simple dialogue, others are full of songs and poems that have to rhyme, which is a very time-consuming business. Then you often have cultural references that you have to transfer from one language into another. It's actually a very complex process.

You also have to train to be a professional subtitler. There are courses at universities, but many people I know trained in-house at agencies. It's a skill and not something you can just decide to do from one day to the next if you happen to speak another language. If you're interested, here's some more information on subtitling: http://bit.ly/1jr2UXO

There's no union rate in Germany, so the agencies are free to pay us as they please, while keeping a fat cut for themselves. Some big agencies here offer as little as 600 euros for timing and translating a 90-minute film destined for general release, which of course is an insult, but unfortunately extremely common.

So I'm glad that Roman Polanski, Laurent Cantet, Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, and more than 150 French directors and scriptwriters have all put their support behind the English-language translators at ASIF (Anglo Subtitlers In France), a group that has taken up defending our profession to combat a tidal wave of low-cost practices from primarily subtitling laboratories, looking to reduce costs and increase their profits. 

ASIF's union rate of 4.10 euros per subtitle, but, it's not a price that the industry sticks to, due to subtitling laboratories offering as little as 0.69 euros per subtitle, which is considerably less than union standard as you can see and which hurts individual subtitlers like myself.

The ASIF's petition, which has the support of all those French directors comes with an open letter to French producers, the filmmakers and scriptwriters, which states: "Good subtitles directly help a film to generate profit… After spending hundreds of thousands, or even millions of euros to produce a film, it seems counterproductive to try and make minor savings on the subtitling, at the risk of undermining the film's chances of success on the international marketplace.... The progression of cinema towards digital technology has meant that the subtitling market is thriving. The distributors, producers and laboratories have therefore been looking for solutions in order to lower the costs associated with taking part in international festivals and promoting films abroad ... More and more often, distributors and international sales agents tend to offload the subtitling costs onto the producers or search for any means possible to drive prices down to ridiculous levels, even if this means entrusting the work to under-qualified people. Some laboratories offer ‘all-inclusive’ flat rates that include the amount for translation... This practice has already done considerable damage to the video and television sector, and if the film industry follows the same model, in the end, the quality of the translation will clearly suffer... Respecting the translator’s working conditions means respecting the work itself.”

Subtitlers like myself are taking the fight to the upcoming Cannes film festival next month, a key showcase for French films to international audiences, where we hope to find a platform to express our concerns.

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