Five Years of Sub QC:
What I’ve Learned
Unlike many others, I love quality control tasks. In fact, I prefer them to subtitling ones — not only because QC works better with my busy schedule, as it takes less time, but also because it provides me with valuable insight into how people tackle various challenges in subtitling and what mistakes they make, which helps me improve professionally and gives me ideas for new articles.
Now, over the years, I’ve made a few interesting observations. Some of them might seem rather obvious, some — not so much, but I thought it’d be nice to share them in my blog. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned in my five years of interlingual sub QC.
1. There isn’t one best way to subtitle
The more you do QC, the more you realize that great subtitles can come in many different shapes and forms. Contrary to what all the rigid guidelines out there might make you believe, there isn’t one correct way to do it, and top-level pros usually have their own signature style, their unique vision of what makes good subtitling, so they opt for different yet equally valid approaches. For instance:
Some folks translate closer to the source text’s syntax to make their subs easier to follow, while others depart from it and translate more creatively to make the language as natural and colloquial as possible;
Some lean toward domestication to render their subs more relatable and understandable, while others favor a degree of foreignization to preserve the distinct cultural flavor of the original;
Some condense the text a bit more to give the audience extra time to see the image and hear the audio, while others like to retain slightly more of the dialogue;
Some go for shorter subtitles that closely follow the film’s rhythm and editing, while others prefer longer two-liners that improve viewing comfort due to fewer gaze jumps to the sub and back.
And so on. When done right, all these strategies can produce excellent results, which is one of the reasons why we should respect the subtitler’s style when doing sub QC.
2. No one’s perfect
Everyone makes mistakes, all the time. Even the best of the best. So much so, in fact, that I’ve yet to come across a single error-free subtitle file for long-form content — and I’ve QCed hundreds of them. It’s just part and parcel of our job; something we all do, rookies and veterans alike.
Now, skill and experience aside, the biggest contributor here seems to be tight deadlines. The less time you have for translation, research and self-proofreading, the more errors will slip through. Another huge source of mistakes is ambiguously worded guidelines, which can be interpreted in different ways and thus cause misunderstandings. Finally, miscommunication too will often lead to problems, as it can give you a wrong idea of what exactly needs to be done in a particular task or project.
What mistakes do people make the most? Well, newbies make all kinds of them — in their translations, timing, formatting, segmentation, and so on. But the arch-enemy of seasoned subtitlers is...
...typos! Haha, yes, imagine that — missed keystrokes, double/trailing spaces, and the like. Slightly less frequent are spelling, grammar and punctuation blunders (spellcheck to the rescue!), misinterpreted dialogue or scene, timing to a false shot change, not retaining references within an episode or between episodes of a show, etc. Among less talked-about issues are highly uneven reading speed, not taking into account the gaze shift time, including too much non-plot-pertinent background chatter, accurate but unclear phrasing, unnoticed subtext, and so on.
All in all, if you’re subtitling something, chances are you’ll make a few mistakes here and there. And that’s okay — no need to beat yourself up over it. I mean, it’s why we have quality control in the first place.
3. People improve
This might sound like a truism, and to an extent it is, but we often forget that everyone’s skill level isn’t static. Subtitlers develop, and with enough training, hard work and perseverance, someone who isn’t very good now might become a full-fledged pro in a matter of several years. I’ve seen this happen multiple times in my career — I get a subtitle file to QC, and it’s quite subpar, with numerous issues. Then sometime later I receive another file from the same translator, but now it’s pretty decent! They’ve improved!
This is why I’m a big fan of giving people another chance rather than striking them down forever for a few mistakes. Companies are often trigger-happy to dismiss freelancers, but I’d much prefer a subtitler who underperforms a bit but tries their hardest and genuinely wants to improve to someone who, despite being quite good, doesn’t care about their work or the end result — and I’ve seen those!
So, how do you level up your subtitling skills? Well, assuming you’ve already got the basics covered, here are some of the things you can do:
Practice as much as you can.
Seek feedback from the client/QCer and analyze it to pin down your weak spots — and then iron them out.
Take whatever training the company you’re working for provides — peruse their documentation, attend their internal webinars, ask them questions via support, and so on.
Keep abreast of the latest research: read academic papers in open-access journals such as JAT and JoSTrans and repositories like ResearchGate.net and Academia.edu, attend various in-person and virtual conferences, e.g. Languages & the Media, Media for All and Intermedia, and also get some subtitling-related books.
Stay up to date regarding new AVT tools and technologies.
And generally, never stop learning. If you want to get to the top, turn that into a habit!
4. People hate QC — unless you do it right
In theory, subtitlers should like quality control. I mean, think about it: you get a fresh pair of eyes to review your file and make sure it’s spotless, you receive a report with a list of all your errors, which can be used for self-improvement, and sometimes you even get to work in tandem with the QCer. What’s there not to like? In practice, however, there’s a lot of negativity toward quality control in our profession.
How come? Well, it turns out QCers make mistakes too — they can misinterpret guidelines, lack expertise, not explain their choices properly, not respect the subtitler’s style, mark subjective edits as objective, etc. Not only that, but some of them follow instructions too strictly, almost robot-like, without a human touch or regard to how their work affects the translator. As a result, people don’t feel like they’re being helped — they feel like they’re being punished, rather unfairly, and fear that they could get kicked out from the pool for someone else’s mistakes or for reasons beyond their control.
So, how can we fix this situation? I think the change needs to come from each side. We QCers should
Make sure we understand all the guidelines correctly, and when in doubt, ask for clarification;
Respect the subtitler’s individual style, unless it’s objectively inadequate;
Write detailed, well-sourced comments for our edits to justify them and make them crystal clear, while using neutral, non-patronizing language;
Proofread our work to ensure that all our fixes are correct and we didn’t introduce new errors;
Always remember that our decisions directly influence the translators’ performance metrics, and, with that in mind, allow a small degree of leniency when the circumstances call for it.
In the same vein, companies should
Provide their QCers with the necessary training (workflows, guidelines, software, etc.);
Convey information clearly to avoid miscommunication;
Not dismiss people too quickly and have the patience to let their talent flourish;
- Only hire those who have enough skill and experience for QC work, plus the attitude to wield their power over subtitlers responsibly;
- Avoid assigning different episodes of a series to different translators and thus creating a clash of styles which can result in countless issues.
And finally, subtitlers themselves should
Not accept projects significantly above their skill level;
Annotate their subs to explain some of their choices (ones that might be hard to understand for the QCer);
Be extra careful when working on pivot-template projects where access to the source language is limited;
Not rely on machine translation output too much, as it can lead to consistency and collocation errors.
When all this is done, subtitlers not only not hate quality control, but they look forward to it. Over the years, I myself have received several compliments regarding my QC work, where people felt like they’d learned something new and that their subs were not butchered but rather improved — and respected.
And that’s what we should aim for.
All right, this is it for now. I hope you’ve found something to take away from this article. As always, if you have any questions, thoughts or remarks, feel free to share them in a comment below.