Toward Intelligent Subtitling
Part 2: The Missing Skill
Our profession is a demanding one. Indeed, to earn a good living, we subtitlers must wear many different hats, having to be a translator, proofreader, spotter, adaptor and software operator, all in one. If you work freelance, you also assume the roles of business owner, project manager, marketing specialist and accountant. Moreover, if you want to make a personal website to advertise your services, you must know copywriting and web design; to create scripts and macros to speed up your work — programming; to burn-in subtitles — encoding, and so on. It’s a lot really — a whole company in just one person!
However, when it comes to film translation, there’s yet another essential skill that we subtitlers need to have but, frustratingly, no one seems to be talking about. It’s never mentioned in job descriptions, few AVT courses teach it, and subtitling agencies don’t require it either. And yet, it is precisely the lack of this skill that leads to countless errors by otherwise great subtitlers.
So, what is it? What crucial piece of the puzzle is everyone missing? Well, it’s the ability to understand the film that you’re translating — not just the dialogue and the story but the whole thing, in all its complexity, which is not as straightforward as most people think.
In this article, I want to expound upon this missing skill and describe the three additional hats one must wear to be a master of our trade.
1. Film Buff
As a subtitler, you need to be a bit of a cinephile — i.e. someone who’s watched a great deal of films and shows, who treats them as an art form rather than pure entertainment, and who also has a good grasp of film theory. This helps tremendously and in a number of ways. First of all, you gain an insight into the history of cinema:
The various eras — from the Lumière brothers to silent films, to talkies, to technicolor, and onward.
The classic film periods, such as American film noir, Spaghetti Western and World War II propaganda.
The different movements and schools of thought in filmmaking: German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, Soviet Montage, French New Wave, etc.
This knowledge gives you the context and historical perspective to better understand not only older productions, as you might be tasked with translating an archive or collection of them, but also some of the modern films trying to reproduce the look and feel of a specific retro style in an attempt to highlight, parody or re-examine it.
Take David Fincher’s Mank, for example. Shot in black and white and given ’30s music and costumes, this 2020 film about Herman Mankiewicz and his writing of the Citizen Kane screenplay offers a sharp criticism of Old Hollywood. Without a good understanding of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the studio system, without having read about William Randolph Hearst’s personal vendetta against Herman, without having watched Citizen Kane, you won’t get many of the puns and references Mank is peppered with, and hence you won’t be able to translate them correctly.
It’s quite easy to misinterpret the word “International” here, as it can mean many different things. It actually stands for Selznick International Pictures, the studio that produced Gone With the Wind.
Another thing you get to know as a cinephile is the various movie tropes. Whether it be deus ex machina, Mexican standoff, McGuffin or breaking the fourth wall, you gain the ability to not only spot a film’s tropes and identify their narrative function but to also see when they get subverted and for what purpose.
A good example of where this would help is Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher film Scream which openly satirizes many of the overused tropes of American horror movies. To translate it well, you need to be aware of them.
One more benefit of being a cinephile is that it helps you with spotting film references — particularly quotes from other films as well as puns based on them (e.g. “May the Fourth be with you!”). This is quite important, because if you miss a reference, you won’t use its established translation into your language, and as a result the viewers will likely miss it too — you know, things like “You shall not pass!”, “Get to da choppa!”, and so on.
Here’s an example from Stranger Things:
Furthermore, as you consider cinema an art form, you get into the habit of watching movies intently, focused, sometimes more than once. This enables you to better see how different parts of the film relate to each other and to notice small but important details, which might (and often should) affect your translation choices.
Let me give you an example of where this matters. In Pulp Fiction, in an early scene, one of the characters talks about her piercing fetish. A while later, she witnesses a woman get a shot of adrenaline to the heart — pretty much the ultimate piercing — and, visibly excited, she says this:
Here, the word “trippy” actually means “awesome”, but without drawing the link between the two scenes, it’s easy to mistranslate it as “weird” or “crazy” and thus make it harder for the viewers to connect the dots.
As far as noticing small details, in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey there’s a scene in which an old man reminisces about his daughter and the gift he once gave her — “inventor’s goggles with a purple ribbon”. The goggles themselves are shown much earlier and only for a brief moment:
Take a look at the ribbon. Does it look purple to you? Well, it might not, because color naming conventions differ between countries and cultures; in some of them such a color would be considered pink or magenta rather than purple. This nuance should be reflected in the translation, but if you miss the tiny visual detail, you might make a mistake here.
Now, the final perk of being a cinephile is good knowledge of the film industry and its biggest names: the renowned filmmakers with their signature styles, cinematographers with their favorite practices, editors with their go-to techniques, and so on. Such info can be quite useful at times, as it gives you an idea of what to expect from your upcoming projects, so you can be prepared:
If you’re going to work on a Quentin Tarantino movie, you should be extra careful to not miss the cultural references and film homages, which abound in all his works.
If it’s a Christopher Nolan film, you should leave enough time for multiple watch-throughs, as his films tend to have a complex, layered structure which can be really hard to figure out in just one go.
If it’s Roger Deakins, you should pay close attention to the lighting design, because he often uses it as a narrative device. The same can be said about Walter Murch and movie editing, Bong Joon-ho and camerawork, Wes Anderson and color palettes, etc.
Actually, let me give you a more specific example from my own experience. Back in 2019, I was tasked with doing sub QC for David Lynch’s short film What Did Jack Do? — a rather bizarre, dream-like story about a detective interrogating a monkey (named Jack) who might’ve committed murder.
At first glance, the film doesn’t seem to make much sense — a monkey with a human mouth? A chicken as the femme fatale? Eyebrow-raising dialogue lines? Oh, boy. Many movie reviewers simply dismissed it, calling the film “random”, “absurd” and “meaningless” among other things. But something felt off to me. Having watched Lynch’s filmography, having seen his interviews, having read the ten clues to unlocking Mulholland Drive, I knew there had to be more to this oddity than meets the eye. So I began to rewatch it over and over, looking for hints, details and references.
And then it suddenly clicked: this is one big puzzle with its pieces hiding in the image, sound and dialogue; your job is to find and assemble them to answer the original question — well, what did Jack actually do? And it’s only after you realize this fact that things start to add up:
Jack is a “plastic bag specialist” — he’s good at disposing of dead bodies.
Shelby’s arm “weighs 75 pounds” — he’s a strong-arm man, just like the detective.
Jack saw a “red rabbit in a dream” — this means a woman he knew was afraid of something.
“Keep the change” — a reference to the popular quote from Home Alone.
Golden hue, dilated pupils, DeWitt family, Bristol, etc. — all these things have a meaning, but to figure it out you need to dig deep.
And this is something you, the subtitler, have to do — find all these pieces and get the full picture; otherwise, you’ll translate the film literally and make the puzzle unsolvable for the foreign viewer. A herculean task, no doubt, to try and wrap your head around a Lynch movie, but it goes to show just how challenging our job can be at times and how much knowledge and effort it requires.
2. Film Analyst
Here’s another extra role we subtitlers must take — that of someone who analyses films via reading them. What does this mean? Well, you see, films have a language of their own, which transcends the spoken word; they talk to us not just through dialogue and narration but also through visual and audio cues that contain symbols and metaphors, evoke feelings and associations, set the tone and mood, etc. To read a film, then, is to detect and understand these cues — what they mean on their own and as part of a wider context.
Below I’ll discuss the various types of such cues and the meanings they communicate.
This term refers to all the things that appear within the frame of the camera — sets, props, actors, costumes, make-up, lighting, and so on — plus their specific arrangement. It is one of the central concepts in filmmaking, and you need to pay close attention to each of those elements, as quite often they’re chosen, placed and used a certain way to tell a story of their own.
Let’s start with props. Most are there to drive the plot forward or establish the setting (location, time period, etc.) Some props, however, serve a greater purpose — to symbolize something. Think of the viewing stone in Parasite, for instance. What does it represent?
If you’ve watched the film, you probably know the answer: it represents Ki-woo’s dreams and aspirations to escape poverty — by any means necessary. The stone and its significance are rather salient in the film, but sometimes props can be a bit hidden — like clocks in Joker, all of which show the same time.
Apparently, it’s a reference to an ominous bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11, which gives this already grim movie an even darker undertone.
Other times, an object can be shown prominently in a shot, but unlocking its symbolism may prove tricky and require a deeper understanding of the film’s themes and motifs. Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Butch chooses a katana over the other three weapons?
Why a Japanese sword? What’s so special about it? In a literal sense, nothing really, but as a metaphor, this choice signifies Butch’s decision to reject his selfish, nihilistic lifestyle and to step on a moral path — the way of the samurai, so to speak — by going back to save his enemy Marsellus Wallace.
There’s also the feather in Forrest Gump as a symbol of chance and opportunity, roses in American Beauty as a sign of passion (or a lack thereof), paintings in Skyfall which reflect Bond’s standing within MI6, etc.
Color design is another thing to keep an eye on. An essential part of the mise-en-scène, it can convey a general atmosphere, like pale green does in Fight Club to show the mundanity of office work:
It can also reflect a feeling or inner state, like red and peach do in Her to indicate love:
Or emphasize a specific part of the image, like in Sin City:
Or signal some sort of change — like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Clementine’s hair color jumps between four hues depending on the state of her relationship with Joel: green for when it just began, red for when it’s in full bloom, orange for when it goes south, and blue for when she’s erased her memories.
Next, lighting — also a crucial mise-en-scène element. It can create a particular vibe or ambience:
Influence how we interpret a character’s emotion:
Or serve as a metaphor, like in Double Indemnity, where the shadows from window blinds fall on the suit to resemble a prison uniform — a deliberate choice by the movie’s director to display moral descent:
Costumes, hairstyles and make-up play a huge role as well — they tell you a lot about a character’s habits, beliefs, occupation, status, psyche and a few other traits, plus how these change throughout the film.
And, of course, they can elicit associations, like this twirly hairdo in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo:
What does it make you think of? Perhaps a spiral... or a whirlpool... or... vertigo!
Then there’s so-called shot composition — i.e. the arrangement of visual elements within the camera frame, which often has a meaning of its own. For instance, making someone seem small against their surroundings can show that they’re lonely, lost or isolated:
Placing them behind something reminiscent of jail bars can imply hopelessness or feeling trapped:
Encircling them by a noose can hint at grave danger or certain death:
Turning them into a shape or pattern can create symbolism, like in Gravity (can you guess what it is?):
And so on. Now, there are many more mise-en-scène elements out there — actors, backdrops, blocking, etc. — but let me stop here and move on to...
In visual storytelling, meaning emerges from not only what is shown on-screen but also from how it is shown. The camera’s movement, placement and setup just by themselves can speak volumes about the characters and the world that they inhabit. Consider this clip from The Last Temptation of Christ (click/tap to play):
The rotation here gives us a glimpse into Jesus’s tormented mind. For him, the whole world has just turned, as he’s found himself betrayed by his followers and by God.
The Wakandans in Black Panther were shocked too when Killmonger, the villain, took their country’s throne. This dramatic upset in the balance of power is captured by a rather disorienting camera roll:
A dolly zoom, which makes the background come closer and closer in the following scene from Goodfellas, illustrates Henry’s anxiety and paranoia, as he thinks his associate Jimmy is going to kill him:
Camera angles matter as well — show a character from above, and they’ll appear small and vulnerable:
Show them from below, and they’ll seem large and menacing:
Tilt the camera, and everything will go askew to suggest some sort of instability — physical, mental or other:
Then we have camera focus, which can, among other things, reveal a fair bit of information. For example, in the Lynch movie that I discussed earlier, one of the shots briefly goes out of focus. The meaning of this becomes clear later on, when Jack asks if his pupils are dilated: he’s been drugged, so his vision is blurry.
A shot’s depth of field can be meaningful too. In Game Night, a special lens makes the city environment look like a miniature model, similar to the board game the characters play throughout the film.
Even the aspect ratio and the film stock will sometimes have significance — like, for instance, in Da 5 Bloods, where 4:3 and Kodak Ektachrome are used for Vietnam War flashbacks...
...while wider ratios and regular stock are used for present-day scenes:
There’s also the choice of camera type, frame rate, shot size, exposure and other things in cinematography, but let’s for now skip them and switch to...
The process of cutting raw footage into shots, scenes and sequences and then assembling them into a film is a very deliberate one. Its purpose is to not just remove the redundant parts and produce a coherent story but to also direct the attention, emotion and thought of the audience in a particular way. This is achieved, first of all, by choosing the order in which everything appears, as what comes before and after each image will have an effect on how you interpret it. Here’s an example from Hitchcock:
Another tactic movie editors employ to convey ideas and evoke associations is creative juxtaposition of shots. You can see it in use, for example, in Modern Times, a film about the terrible conditions of the working class:
Shown in succession, these shots create a new meaning — that Depression-era workers going to the factory are akin to sheep going to the pen: obedient and controlled by those in power.
There are various ways to connect images together (so-called shot transitions) to achieve such an effect — e.g. a smash cut in The Big Lebowski illustrates getting the daylights knocked out of you:
A match dissolve in Highlander compares Connor MacLeod’s immortality to the Mona Lisa’s timelessness:
A quick cutaway in Se7en punctuates David’s motivation to shoot the killer:
Jump cut, contrast cut, cross-cut, wipe, washout, etc. — they all can say a lot without a single word uttered.
Finally, the third key ingredient to film editing is shot duration, which dictates each scene’s pacing and mood, immerses you in the action, or — when a shot lingers uncomfortably long — invites you to take a deeper look and reflect on what you’re seeing. An extreme example of this is the opera scene from Birth. Earlier in the film, a boy tells Anna (Nicole Kidman) that he’s her reincarnated husband, Sean, who tragically died ten years ago and who she misses dearly. At first, she doesn’t believe this boy, but then she starts having second thoughts:
The shot’s immense length makes us realize that what we’re witnessing here isn’t Anna’s reaction to the opera; rather, it’s her internal conflict, her silent waves of anguish and disbelief: “Could it really be him? My dear Sean?” A picture worth a thousand words indeed.
Conversely, In the Mood for Love, an otherwise slow-paced film, offers us a series of very quick cuts to portray Mrs. Chan’s nervousness and hesitation to meet Chow, her romantic interest, in a hotel:
Now, again, there’s more to film editing than the order, juxtaposition and length of shots, but let’s keep going.
When watching a movie, what you hear is often as important as what you see. Indeed, the audio, like the image, can give lots of info and is carefully crafted to manipulate your thoughts and feelings — via music, sound effects and vocal performance. Now, in most cases, the meaning of sound in any given scene won’t be difficult to grasp, whether it is to deepen the drama, express a mood, highlight an action, announce a shift in the story, and so on. But there are also times when getting that meaning may be non-trivial and require conscious effort.
Let’s start with sound effects. Consider this example from The Godfather:
The subway train screech was deliberately added here to accentuate Michael Corleone’s internal struggle — to kill or not to kill. It is a narrative device used to build up and release tension as well as to give us a peek into this character’s troubled mind.
American Psycho’s business card scene also tells us a lot with sound. Listen to how the card holder opens:
Sounds like unsheathing a sword, doesn’t it? This is intentional: for Patrick, the card comparison is a battle, a competition of status he must win no matter what. So, he performs the first “swing” — and the audio cue betrays his aggressive attitude, his vanity and egomania.
In 12 Monkeys, we also get a good view of a character’s mental state via sound effects, as the hops and bops from the cartoon mirror Jeffrey’s craziness:
Music too can be more than a mere accompaniment. You’ve already seen an example of this in the opera clip, where the ebbs and flows of the orchestra performance follow those of Anna’s turbulent thinking.
Beyond that, a film’s music score can serve as a metaphor and contribute to a recurrent motif. For instance, the main theme of Vertigo is unsettling, swaying and cyclical — just like vertigo itself:
Soundtrack lyrics matter as well — even if heard in the background — as they often reflect what’s happening in the scene or the movie as a whole. You know, stuff like ♪ This is the end, beautiful friend ♪ in Apocalypse Now when we see huge explosions and ♪ Girl, you’ll be a woman soon ♪ in Pulp Fiction when there’s sexual tension in the air. But let me show you a more subtle example from Lost in Translation. Pay attention to the song:
♪ The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone, I can see it in your eyes ♪
Just a silky jazz song about withering love, right? Well, yes and no — the music here not only creates a mood but also describes — via lyrics — Bob’s personal life, which has lost its luster in both his marriage and career.
The vocal qualities of character speech — its tone, volume, pace, rhythm, etc. — can also be very informative. It’s what helps us untangle subtext, catch a note of sarcasm, make sense of those “wink-wink” dialogue lines where a character says one thing but means another, and so on. A simple “I’m fine” will mean different things depending on how you say it.
Finally, the absence of sound — silence — can be a narrative tool in its own right. Pregnant pauses, sudden quiet, wordless scenes — they all often function as messengers. This is particularly relevant in Moonlight, where silence takes center stage to underscore, among other things, Chiron’s isolation, repression and trauma:
A lot more could be said about sound in movies — many books have been written on it — but I will stop here.
At this point you might be wondering how all this knowledge helps in subtitling. Well, it does so in four ways:
You get a better grasp of what the film is really about at a deeper level, what ideas it’s trying to convey, so you can preserve those ideas in your translation and make sure the viewers will have access to them.
You learn which visual and audio cues have particular significance in each shot, so your subtitles can be
segmented, formatted and positioned so as to not obscure those important elements;
condensed enough that people can manage to both read the text and notice the cues;
timed in such a manner that they don’t divert attention at the wrong moment.
You figure out what matters more and what matters less in each scene, so you can better determine which text parts to keep and which to leave out when trying to reduce your subs’ reading speed.
You find it easier to disambiguate unclear dialogue, because you gather its meaning from not only what’s said but also from what’s shown and what’s heard. This helps especially when dealing with hidden subtext, complex language and pivot-template projects.
Let me give you a personal example. Last year I did sub QC for Homemade, a series of seventeen short films produced in lockdown by various filmmakers from all around the world. In one of the films, a woman sings about the COVID pandemic and its effects, using rather poetic lyrics. At one point, we hear this:
Now, I’ll be honest with you — figuring out what this means was pretty difficult even for me, and the context wasn’t exactly helpful. But then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, why is she in a fridge? Not a good place to be in usually!” And then it dawned on me: this is a visual metaphor for how people feel in self-isolation — confined, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. Thus, “domestic judo headlocks” refers to the contortionist tricks we have to resort to during lockdown to co-live with our family members in the cramped space of our home. So, in this case, reading the mise-en-scène was my key to unlocking the meaning. Film analysis to the rescue!
3. Filmmaking Geek
The third and final extra hat I’m going to discuss in this article is that of someone with in-depth knowledge of how movies are made: the different stages of film production, the people involved, the equipment used, the techniques employed, the rules and conventions followed, and so on. How is this relevant to our work? Actually, there are several benefits.
First of all, it makes you realize just how expensive and laborious film creation often is. As opposed to writing, where things appear at a stroke of the pen, making stuff appear in movies costs quite a bit of money and effort. For example, if a prop is in the scene, someone had to procure or create it, transport it to the shooting location, place/install/maintain it, etc. Or if a camera moves a certain way, someone had to plan, organize and perform this action: find the right camera type, operate it, maybe construct and maneuver a rig, and do much more.
This is why things tend to be deliberate in cinema — usually they’re there for a reason because otherwise it’d be a massive waste of resources. Let me demonstrate. Take a look at this clip from Eternal Sunshine:
What’s up with the TV? Why show it at all? Seems pretty random, but remember: someone had to go through a lot of trouble to get it there and make sure it plays this exact movie at this exact moment. So, the TV has to have some significance. And after pondering over it for a little while, you realize that in a film about erasing your memory to get a fresh start, going through a book’s pages symbolizes turning over a new leaf in life.
Now, the second advantage of knowing the ins and outs of movie production is that it helps you to deal with one of the toughest parts of film analysis — trying to not overthink it. Yes, if you look hard and long enough, you can find meaning in anything, but sometimes “the curtains are just blue” with no symbolism attached. By learning the nitty-gritty of set lighting, color design, shot editing, sound mixing and all the other aspects of filmmaking, you become better at spotting when things are done a certain way out of sheer convenience, because “it looks kinda cool”, or simply to fix a production error — rather than to convey some philosophy.
For instance, if you know a great deal about lighting in cinematography, you can often tell when it’s motivated by practical considerations — to make the environment appear authentic, to achieve mesmerizing aesthetics, to obscure an unwanted part of the image, or to even create adequate visual contrast between the characters and their background so that we can actually see them.
This red light in Hangover doesn’t symbolize anything — it just provides contrast and ambience.
Another bonus of being well-versed in filmmaking is good knowledge of the existing cinematic conventions, the basic rules of shot composition, storytelling and editing that people follow to produce engaging movies. What you gain here is the ability to recognize when these rules are deliberately broken and for what reason. Here’s a short clip from Skyfall, for example, in which James Bond and his examiner do word associations as a psychological test. Pay close attention to the woman’s gaze direction:
At first she looks left, but then it’s the opposite — the camera jumps over an imaginary line between Bond and the woman, thus breaking the so-called 180-degree rule, to underscore a pivotal moment in the scene and to show us that the word “skyfall” indeed has significance, as it struck a chord with Agent 007.
And finally, as a filmmaking geek, you become aware of how movie creators manipulate the audience’s gaze, make people look at specific parts of each shot through various cinematic techniques, such as color design...
...as well as motion, composition, faces, and several other things. And when you understand how exactly the viewer’s eye is supposed to travel within each individual image, you can time, position and segment your subtitles in a way that minimizes their intrusion and that helps people to not miss anything.
Let me give you an example from Fight Club:
This won’t work for everyone, but most people will miss the flashing Tyler Durden on the right-hand side, because the first subtitle’s appearance will draw your gaze away from that part of the screen. To avoid this, you should move the subtitle’s in-time to several frames after the flash — but coming to this simple solution will require a good understanding of eye movement patterns and filmmaking in general.
Phew, this was a long read, wasn’t it? I hope I’ve managed to show that cinema is a rich and exciting medium with its own history, language and creation process — and to do it justice, to subtitle films to a high standard, one has to know this medium inside and out.
Because ultimately, to translate movies well, you must first...
Okay, this is it for now. I hope you’ll find 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, and if you don’t want to miss my new articles, follow me on LinkedIn to get notified.
Oh, and to learn more, check out the bonus section below!
Bonus: Useful Links
StudioBinder’s Shot List Series (must-see)