Over the years of work, I have noticed an alarming trend — many otherwise capable subtitlers will often follow their client’s guidelines too strictly, almost dogmatically, without a real understanding of why those guidelines are the way they are and not knowing when to deviate from them to ensure the audience’s viewing comfort. This leads to countless subtitling errors, because no matter how robust and well-thought-out a style guide is, there will always be gaps in it, and so there’ll be moments when you need to make a judgement call based on your expertise rather than a written prescription.
In this new article series, I’d like to stress the importance of a thoughtful, intelligent approach to subtitling and to highlight some of those gaps, starting with arguably the biggest one.
At the same time, when given creative freedom, the most skilled and experienced subtitlers don't obsess over that number as much everyone else seems to believe, because they know just how unreliable it can be, for multiple reasons.
First of all, as I wrote in one of my previous articles, CPS and WPM consider only the volume of subtitle text but not its other properties, such as complexity or format. Unfamiliar words, tricky syntax, puzzling dialogue, italics and some other things will slow down your reading, and these two metrics simply do not reflect that.
Max Deryagin’s Subtitling Studio
Celebrity Interview: Henrik Walter-Johnsen
Vice president of FIT Europe and NAViO, executive committee member in AVTE, former local leader of the Norwegian Green Party and a veteran subtitler, Henrik Walter-Johnsen is a prominent figure in the world of audiovisual translation. An activist and a champion of AVT practitioners’ rights, he ardently works toward making our profession more visible, respected and well-paying.
Today this distinguished gentleman joins me to discuss such pressing topics as emerging technology, subtitling guidelines and AVT activism.
Below you will find our interview.
Technology: A Practitioner’s View
Max Deryagin (MD): To begin, please tell me about your subtitling career, from the time you started off and up to the present day.
Henrik Walter-Johnsen (HWJ): Sure. In 2005 I got recruited by BTI Studios, which was known back then as “Broadcast Text”. Shortly after they gave me my first job — Voyage to Kure for National Geographic. Then, some time later, they asked me to subtitle the Graham Norton Show for TVNorge, one of Norway’s most popular commercial channels. That show became my flagship — I did whole 19 seasons of it and I loved it because translating comedy is my favorite, even though it can be really challenging sometimes. It’s the job I’m proud of the most, since the audience knew that it was me who did the subtitling and associated the program with me.
Then in 2011 I was hired by TV 2, the largest television network in Norway. I’ve been working mainly for them ever since, doing large volumes of stuff like reality TV, talk shows, daytime dramas and the like. So that’s where I am right now.
People often ask me, “Wouldn’t you rather subtitle films or documentaries?” And I say, “If I could make the same amount of money doing that, of course I would!” But after being in this industry for 15 years, I know that it’s actually better for me to go where the money is — and the money is in stuff that you can do quickly.
MD: So you’ve only had two clients in your career — BTI and TV 2?
HWJ: Oh no, I’ve had many others as well, but those two are by far the biggest ones — they add up to about 95% of all my work. But over the years I’ve also done jobs for direct clients, e.g. smaller production companies for which I’ve subtitled some movies and series, and I’ve worked for the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, for the company called Biovisjon and even for MTV at one point.
Henrik W. J. hard at work
MD: So you’ve been in this business for 15 years. That’s a lot — enough to have witnessed some major changes in our profession and big leaps in AVT technology. And speaking of it, what subtitling software have you used?
HWJ: Originally I used Swift and stuck to it for the longest time, but as you know it’s been discontinued, with no updates in over six years and no technical support of any kind, so I had to move on to something else. I couldn’t work in it anymore — it felt outdated, didn’t understand some of the video formats and looked like it was released for Windows 98. So yes, I had to switch gears, and nowadays I use EZTitles and some web platforms.
MD: Yeah, Swift has been abandoned by its developers, but technology doesn’t stand still, so there are many newer and better programs to choose from. Actually, some people argue that you don’t even need to own expensive professional software nowadays, because a) often you can rent it and b) many LSPs have a proprietary cloud tool that you get to use for their jobs — such as Sfera, Netflix Originator, Plint Subtitler, etc. So what’s your opinion on working in the cloud?
HWJ: Well, you don’t have to pay for it — that’s one clear advantage. Professional software can cost thousands of euros, and for someone just starting out in the industry that’s just way too much. Even renting can be quite costly, so being able to use the company’s cloud platform for free helps a lot.
Beyond that, it works great from the LSP’s point of view. One benefit here is security — the cloud helps them avoid film leaks. Big end clients like HBO are scared that we’ll share their content, that if they give us a video file, we might upload it to a torrent site or something like that. But with the cloud we can only play the video but not download it, and as soon as we submit our work, we lose access to the file, so the client is reassured.
But the cloud also brings problems. For instance, we have to learn all these different online platforms — their functions and shortcuts — and it can be too much if you work for multiple companies. One thing that makes me such a fast subtitler is that with my software my fingers can play the keyboard like a piano. I don’t even have to think about it — I know all my shortcuts by heart. But then when I go to these platforms, the keys play different notes and I get a bit confused and start working much slower. You could say that shortcut customization solves that, but not all these tools have it, and even when they do, it’s usually very limited.
MD: Yeah, definitely. These platforms are not as powerful or automated as something like EZTitles or SubtitleNEXT and they often have bugs and slight input lag, but they’re mostly okay — the better ones, at least.
Now, I’d also like to ask you about artificial intelligence. It’s been regarded as the “new big thing” in subtitling and widely discussed at AVT conferences like Languages & The Media, trade shows like IBC, annual meetings of EU institutions, and many other events and places. Companies seem to love the idea of “smart” machine translation as well as automatic speech recognition, segmentation and spotting, but many practitioners, especially seasoned ones, are skeptical. What’s your take on AI in subtitling?
HWJ: As a practitioner, I’m obviously against AI encroaching on our territory, because it feels like it’ll end up taking part of our job away, along with some of our income. It’s kind of a déjà vu, because that’s exactly what happened when they introduced templates some 10 years ago. Suddenly we were not supposed to do the spotting anymore, and so we were told that, “Half the job has been done for you, so we’ll pay you half the rate!” And that was pretty unfair, because spotting doesn’t take half our time and we have to edit the cues anyway. So, I’m afraid AI with its automation might do the same to us in the future.
And also, with machine translation becoming more and more popular among LSPs, AI can suck up all the joy from subtitling by making us post-editors. I’m a translator, not a post-editor — I don’t want to spend my days reading and correcting something that a machine wrote. As a renowned subtitler Jing Han said in Stockholm at the Media For All conference, “If you’re going to take the fun out of subtitling, I’ll just find something else to do”. And many of us think the same.
Dr. Jing Han presenting at M4A8
MD: Yes, but one could argue that technology replacing and changing jobs is just part of a natural process which is happening in other industries as we speak — with self-driving trucks, delivery drones, AI-powered factories, self-checkout systems, etc. And this has been a thing for centuries, since at least the 1800s. For instance, back in the day there was this profession called knocker up in which a person would walk around the town early in the morning and knock into people’s windows with a long stick to wake them up, so that they’re not late for work. And then the alarm clock was invented and the job quickly disappeared. And could you blame the inventor for that?
I think this issue isn’t really about the technology itself but about how we use it. LSPs can choose to use AI ethically, by offering it to subtitlers as an optional feature in their web tool to help them speed up their work and make it easier, or they can choose to use it unethically, by forcefully turning our creative profession into menial “machine translation post-editing” with lower rates and shorter deadlines.
HWJ: Yeah, I see your point, so let’s hope they do the former. But on the positive side, such big shifts usually take time, and sometimes they don’t go the direction that we think they would. So maybe things will change for the better. I’m a hobbyist musician and performer as well as a subtitler, and I really do appreciate AI-driven digital instruments. They can do things that 10 years ago were thought impossible, and it’s because technology has advanced. They make my hobby more fun and give me more room to be creative. So perhaps AI could do the same for subtitling in the future — remove the repetitive technical stuff out of it and let us focus on the creative aspect.
Last year at IBC I saw how machines do SDH, and it’s relatively good most of the time. Though, when they do make mistakes, they make outrageous ones. For example, quite famously there was this case on TV where someone in the British House of Commons was warning against a certain person becoming Prime Minister, and the automated subtitle read something like, “This country will never allow Batman to become our Prime Minister!” He actually said “that man”, but the computer heard “Batman”, which was pretty funny.
But still, we tend to focus on these big errors, even though the fact of the matter is that the other 95% of automated SDH is decent. Machine translation, on the other hand, is still far from any acceptable level.
MD: Well, perhaps AI can produce decent results when it comes to straightforward things like corporate or educational content, but when it comes to films — especially more complex ones, with lots of symbolism and creative cinematography — I don’t think AI will be able to translate those well anytime soon.
HWJ: Certainly. Artsy films need humans to do the job for you, because if there is a hidden meaning or a double meaning, or something like that, human translators will still be far superior. But much of what’s shown on TV these days isn’t artsy; there’s a lot of reality TV and stuff like that which AI could possibly do just well enough to be producing subtitle files of passable quality.
And this is the ultimate heartbreaker for someone like me who deeply cares about audiovisual translation, it is the fact that nobody else cares about quality. “Passable” is enough for the industry these days. The agencies don’t seem to care — they care about their profit margins, making as much money out of this as possible. And the end clients don’t care either, because AVT doesn’t seem to be part of their plan or budget at all. It’s something that they only remember at the end like, “Let’s see if we can do it quickly and cheaply, so that we can launch the film on time”. Obviously film directors care about what happens to their production abroad just as we do, but there are many people in between who don’t. We saw that recently with a huge translation company’s ad placed on LinkedIn — they wanted to hire part-time workers or students for “subtitling Hollywood movies in their spare time”. That’s what the ad read. So they’re selling professional services but they want amateurs to do the actual work. This is a glaring example of agencies not caring about quality.
MD: That’s terrible. You’re basically shooting yourself in the foot by hiring those companies or using AI for your film. We really need to convince end clients that quality subtitles are not an expense but rather an investment — if you pay up to hire excellent subtitlers, you get great subs, and then you get better scores and critic reviews for your film, so you make more money internationally. And maybe also get some film awards, like in the case with Parasite which just recently won a whole bunch of them in part thanks to its great English-language subtitles.
Parasite director at the Golden Globe Awards
HWJ: Absolutely. And I have another example: there was this Russian movie called Leviathan. They spent something like three thousand dollars on English subtitles and in return made around a million dollars overseas, because the film was a great success. So, a little investment can make you a lot of money if you’re willing to pay for quality. Parasite is the ultimate example of this, and it also goes to show that Hollywood isn’t the only place where they can make great movies.
MD: Indeed. Now, you briefly mentioned templates and their impact on the industry, so I’d like to pick your brain on them, too. They’ve been around for quite a while now, since at least the DVD era, but they still remain somewhat controversial. What do you think of them?
HWJ: Not a big fan. Besides leading to lower rates, they also disrupted our way of doing subtitling. When templates were first introduced, they were being made according to the British or American standards which disregarded all our local traditions in Norway. We tried to oppose that, but money talks and those people have lots of it, so they got to make all those decisions.
Here’s what it was like for me: when I worked on the Graham Norton Show, I averaged around 450 subtitles per one 45-minute episode, because in our Scandinavian tradition we usually end up with roughly 10 subtitles per minute. Then templates became a thing, and that number suddenly jumped to more than 800 — they made subtitles for each and every sentence, which goes against our tradition of putting several sentences inside a two-liner as long as they fit. What’s worse, the durations went down — we Nords like to leave our subtitles on screen for up to eight seconds, and in those templates even five-second subtitles were rare. And also the reading speeds went up to 17 cps against our standard 12 cps. It was really bad.
MD: But do you think if templates were made according to your tradition, they could work well?
HWJ: Yeah, possibly. It depends on who makes them. To be able to create templates that work well for a particular market, you need a good understanding of that market and what its viewers are used to. But that’s actually doable and that’s in fact how I subtitle: to start my workday, I take the first hour to spot the first 20 minutes of the video. So when I begin translating, I’ve already created a template for myself — and if I can make one, so can others. So yeah, I think templates could work well.
MD: I agree, but I’d say only if they’re not locked — that is, if you’re allowed to change their timing. Locked templates for multilingual projects use the same timing for all the languages, disregarding the differences between them and between their subtitling traditions. And that’s just not good.
HWJ: Oh yes.
MD: Now, as far as subtitling traditions, from what I know Norway was the first country to codify them in the form of a set of national guidelines. Why was that needed and how did the whole thing come about?
HWJ: We had to do it as a response to the increasing pressures from abroad, with companies like BBC and later Netflix and HBO imposing their standards on us and dictating how we should do our subtitling. In the ‘90s and before, the way it worked was that Norwegian broadcasters would sort out the subtitling for their foreign programming themselves — they’d commission the job to some Norwegian translation company which would apply our local tradition. But sometime along the line companies from abroad began broadcasting in Scandinavia without having a Scandinavian partner and doing subtitling into Norwegian on their own, according to their standards, usually American or British, which are so different from ours.
Now, Netflix isn’t to blame for this shift, because it happened way before them, but the problem became much more obvious and pronounced when they came around. We felt like their subtitling was quite bad as it wasn’t what we were used to. Our viewers even started calling it “Netflix subtitling”, which became synonymous with “terrible subtitling”. It’s improved a lot in recent years, though, and while they still want to do their own thing, at least they’re willing to listen to the people who know how to do it around here. So that’s good.
AVTE Task Force meeting the Netflix Globalization Team in Stockholm
All that said, the whole thing probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place if only we had our traditions written down and formalized. Then those companies would have had a point of reference and wouldn’t have needed to reinvent the wheel. So, to prevent this from happening in the future, we decided to all get together — the Norwegian broadcasters, agencies, practitioners and even the Language Council of Norway — and define what those existing rules are, agree on them, and then produce a set of national guidelines to be used by everyone.
MD: And since then several other countries followed suit, right?
HWJ: Yes, exactly. When it was done we started traveling and spreading the gospel. First we went to Denmark and got the Danes to start their project, then we went to Sweden and Finland, then to Australia in 2017, and I’ve also been to China, Russia and the Netherlands to talk about this. So now we have the Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch, German and Croatian national subtitling guidelines in place, and several more are on the way.
Henrik W. J. presenting the Norwegian standards in Oslo
MD: Now, one could argue that traditions are good and all, but what worked well several decades ago might be not optimal today, because on average films have gotten faster-paced, viewers have become more educated and more used to reading subtitles which themselves are now easier to read thanks to better displays and resolutions, and so on and so forth. So my question is, do you think national guidelines should be revisited and updated from time to time, based on new research and viewer feedback?
HWJ: Well, we created them not long ago, so it’s a bit too early for that. But yes, perhaps we could do that in the future. Regarding research, maybe the guidelines could change based on new studies, but as Amalie Foss said in her recent interview, for that they need to be more robust and closer to real life. So instead of short video clips it should be long-form content, instead of students it should be participants of different ages and backgrounds, the eye tracking technology and understanding of it need to improve, and so on. And please let’s not use English language anything. And please let’s not do thirty participants but instead half a thousand. I’d love to see a study with a lot of participants aged from 13 to 85, watching a three-hour long Chinese movie subtitled to the reading speed of 20 CPS. And then let’s see how much of the story they grasped at the end of it.
MD: Well, there are financial limitations…
HWJ: And that’s exactly the problem with much of today’s research, that it’s tied in with money so much. You need funding to produce it, but people are much more willing to pay for groundbreaking research that knocks down the old walls. So if your goal is to establish that the existing traditions are actually pretty good, no one will be interested and you won’t get your funding. And because of that we see many “disruptive” studies of questionable quality which can’t be used for updating our standards.
MD: Yeah, that’s certainly an issue. Going back to national guidelines, what would be your advice for people who are thinking about creating them in their country but don’t quite know where to begin?
HWJ: I would say just get in touch with me or AVTE. We’ve seen how it was done in several countries, so we can help you get started. Maybe you can copy their approach or come up with your own — there’s no one right way of doing it. The way we created our guidelines in Norway was quite involved — we all got together and sat down in the same room and discussed word for word what we could agree on. But in Denmark they first wrote down the document and only then went around knocking on everyone’s door and asking them to approve. I thought, “Oh no, that’s not going to work!”, but in the end they somehow managed to get everyone behind it. So there’s a million different ways, and if you’re interested in establishing national standards for your country and you have an idea, perhaps your idea is exactly right. And if not, we can give you a good one.
MD: You’ve mentioned AVTE. For those unaware, could you explain in more detail what it is and what it does?
HWJ: AVTE stands for “AudioVisual Translators Europe”. It is an umbrella federation with AVT organizations as members, currently 17 of them. Some of those are associations, some are unions, but for us it doesn’t really matter — as long as you’re in Europe and you cover the field of audiovisual translation in some way or have an AVT branch, you can be our member. So you can be purely audiovisual like the French ATAA who have only AV translators or you can be like the Finnish SKTL who have all sorts of translators, including AV ones.
As to what we do, we are the voice of practitioners. We don’t represent agencies or broadcasters or filmmakers or clients, and we don’t represent universities or academics. We are the actual workers. So every time something happens where audiovisual translators are treated unfairly and need to speak up, for instance when it comes to poor working conditions or payment issues, AVTE can step in and negotiate on your behalf.
We also work to increase the profile and visibility of our profession, we collaborate with academics to steer their focus onto matters that are more useful and beneficial for practitioners, we educate end clients on the importance of high quality translation, and so on. So yeah, we’re quite busy!
AVTE delegation at the CITA 4 conference in Barcelona
MD: Cool stuff! And how many translators do all the AVTE organizations have in total?
HWJ: I think around 2,000.
MD: Wow, that’s a huge number! But the more, the merrier. So why would you say people should join their national associations? What’s in it for them?
HWJ: I was at a Russian conference last year, hoping to inspire those people to create an AVT association in their country, and I got that question a lot. “What’s in it for us?” What we need to understand is that on an individual level you might not really get that much out of it, but we can achieve great things at the communal level. We all want someone to come in and make things better, but sometimes you have to be that person. All of us who are now active in AVTE decided to be that person, and one of us decided to be that person for all of Europe — our AVTE president Amalie Foss. She is tremendously strong to have carried this federation for so many years.
That said, joining an association does give you certain benefits: some of our associations offer basic guidance to help you start out in the industry, some have tutoring programs, some give information on what you’re entitled to as a practitioner and author in your country, some can consult you on legal matters like taxes and social security, and so on. We also share info about various companies, so that you know who to work for and who to avoid, and we sometimes manage to get discounts for subtitling software and AVT conference fees. But most importantly, you get to network and meet your fellow translators — either online or in person at social events — which I think we all should, because we freelancers can sometimes feel a bit isolated.
MD: Awesome! Now let’s go a little bit back in time. Could you tell me how and why you became involved in AVT activism?
HWJ: Oh boy, where do I begin? My activism actually started way before all the AVT stuff, in politics. I never really had any such aspirations and ended up there only by accident — I became a local leader of Norway’s Green Party and the chair of the LGBT Council at the City Hall of Oslo. That involved a lot of volunteer work, so in my first years that’s what I mostly did, with my translation business being just a side job. After a while I started to realize that I’m not the right type for politics, but since I learned so many tricks from that, I wanted to put them to good use — and the Norwegian AVT association NAViO turned out to be just the right place.
At a rally with former Green Party leader Rasmus Hansson
Actually, the first seven years of my subtitling career I refused to be a member of any association. I didn’t want to join — I thought they were stupid. And then my mind was changed one fateful day in 2012 when BTI Studios, the company I worked for at the time, announced that, “Sorry, the market is so bad that we have no choice but to lower your rate!” And that happened on Christmas Eve of all days! I got so upset that I went ahead and joined NAViO just to try and push back.
My political skills quickly proved useful there: I helped them arrange and chair meetings — which can be quite chaotic if done wrong — how to be more organized, what to prioritize, how to do campaigning and lobbying, what pitfalls there are, and so on. I started out small and then quickly realized that, “Hey, I can do a lot here!” And so I did. A couple of years in I was invited to be on the board, and after a while I was elected vice president of the association.
Then came AVTE. When our previous NAViO president got close to the end of his term, he was a bit tired of all the traveling, so he asked me whether I wanted to go to an event in Poland in his stead to represent our association, to which I agreed. That event turned out to be the 2015 annual AVTE meeting where I got to see all those other representatives, one of which was president of AVTE who I had already met before on several occasions and found fascinating on a personal level. One thing that characterizes me is that I really like international environments, so I loved the meeting and found it very rewarding. I didn’t do very much, though — I was just sitting there and absorbing everything and making friends, socializing, bonding and establishing relationships across the national borders. The next year NAViO sent me there again and I was really happy to go, but by that time the Norwegian guidelines were already in the works, so suddenly I had something to talk about, something interesting to contribute. And that’s how the ball started rolling for me.
MD: And since the time you joined AVTE some years ago, what are the things that have improved and what are the things that have gotten worse in the industry?
HWJ: What’s gotten worse is the outlook. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and many are quite pessimistic about our profession’s future — they don’t see themselves doing AVT in 10 years. I think that’s disturbing. Also, the rates have gone down, with no signs of improvement.
What’s gotten better? Certainly our communication and networking — AVTE is now a force to be reckoned with within the industry and people now look to us as the authority on audiovisual translation. We were nowhere near that a decade ago. Plus, we now have many more academics that are genuinely interested in doing studies on what we do and how we do it.
MD: I see. So what are the biggest challenges AVTE is facing today?
HWJ: I think the biggest one is the lack of respect. We’re often treated almost like unskilled labor, even though AVT is a highly skilled and creative trade where you have to know so much to be a pro. We deserve more than what the companies want us to believe.
MD: Definitely. You need to be proficient in two languages and cultures, have deep knowledge of the theory and practice of AVT, be able to work in specialized software, know all the relevant guidelines and also have many years of experience. Surely a person like that should be making more than an average salary?
MD: Are there any other big challenges?
HWJ: Oh, there are many — poor working conditions, crazy deadlines, author’s rights issues, and so on — but they all tie in with respect. If the industry respected us, all these wouldn’t exist. And even though we still love doing what we do, let’s face it — we need money. Without it, we couldn’t be doing this, certainly not for 15 years. I have bills to pay and stomachs to feed. And in all countries with maybe the exception of France the rates have been driven so far down that you can’t really sustain your livelihood unless you produce so much translation each day that you’ll end up injuring yourself either mentally or physically. So the conditions are bad, but as I said it’s all due to the lack of respect.
MD: Okay, my final question to you: if you found a lamp with an AVT genie who could change our industry in three ways in this new decade, what would you wish for?
HWJ: (laughs) Well, let’s see. The first one would be that all the people working in AVT would get proper training and pay, so that all the produced translation would be of consistently high quality.
My second wish would be that all the markets — because some countries aren’t big enough to be considered a market — would have written down their subtitling standards which would be respected by all the foreign businesses. So, for instance, if HBO came to Finland, they’d have a look at the Finnish national standards and go, “Okay, fine, this is how we’ll do it”.
And the third wish… I think it’d be that in 10 years from now I’d be able to turn on any streaming service and watch any movie from anywhere in the world in any language — and it would be subtitled, dubbed and audio described to the highest standard. Even if it’s a big Chinese blockbuster or an obscure Croatian stand-up special.
So yeah, something like that. Oh, and a little bit more respect.
MD: Those are great wishes! All right, this concludes the interview. Thank you for your time!
HWJ: You’re welcome! :)