Friday, 24 January 2014

Behind The Scenes: Subtitling

This week, I've decided to do something slightly different. For someone who watches quite a lot of foreign films, I know very little about the process of making them available in other countries. So, in what (I hope) will become an occasional series, I will be speaking to the people involved in world cinema. To kick things off, I asked a few basic questions about subtitling to Valentina Ambrogio of Rockstar Translations.

What does your main subtitling work involve? 

My subtitling work mainly revolves around movies and short movies for Italian film festivals commissioned by translation agencies specialised in subtitling.

When you start working on a subtitling project, what resources are you given? Just the recording, or are you given the script/transcription?

A subtitler must always receive the movie. It is essential to understand and adapt your translation, since your subtitles must be consistent with the images on the screen. As for the source text, it depends. You can either receive the script containing all dialogue, which the translator has to adapt into subtitles, or the English subtitled version, which the translator has – of course – to translate. In both cases, the final target text has to follow the fundamental guidelines for subtitling.

What software do you use? Can you briefly describe how it works? 

I usually do not use any specific subtitling tool. I just work on simple Word documents.

What restrictions do you have to work with when subtitling? Is there a limit to the number of words/characters and the length of time they can appear on screen?

First of all, character length: usually each line cannot exceed (more or less) 40 characters. Each subtitle can be formed by two lines maximum. As for time, the reader must have the time to read all subtitles appearing on screen – 2 seconds minimum for very short subtitles (one line, 1 or 2 words) to 6 seconds max. for longer subtitles. But in my experience, the only aspect I had to worry about was character length, just because all time codes had already been spotted by someone else. I only have to deliver my translation and adapt it following the proper guidelines.

Do you ever find you have to leave out information because of time/space constraints?

It can happen, very often actually when the actors speak very fast. In this case, the translator has to keep the important pieces and leave out all the information that is not essential to the story.

Does a subtitling project work like any other translation project? Is the text checked and revised by a second person?

Yes, every translation is revised by someone else. 

On average, how many times will you have watched a recording by the time you’ve finished the subtitles?

The ideal number would be three, in my opinion. One: before starting the translation, so that you can see what the movie is about. Two: during the translation process, so that you can see what they are doing as they speak (e.g. if they are pointing at something/someone, and so on). Sometimes dialogue does not make any sense if you do not know the context of the scene. Three: during the proofreading stage, in order to check whether everything is OK and the spoken words match the action in the movie. But, to be honest, it’s almost never like this! The reality is that a subtitler barely has all this time to watch the movie so many times. Tight deadlines, or other projects you are working on, make it almost impossible. But this does not necessarily mean that the quality of the translation delivered will be affected by it.  

Has working in subtitling changed the way that you watch foreign films?

Yes, a lot. I am huge fan of British productions in general, 100% anglophile. But translating movies from other countries gave me the opportunity to get in touch with different cultures and different cultural identities. Movies for film festivals usually deal with political, social and emotional issues (not all, but many). They are socially engaged, and very insightful and intense. Sometimes I feel a real connection and I get really sad when I realise my job is done – yes, it sounds weird, but it is true! Movies are open windows to different cultures. All you have to do is watch and be absorbed by them. For me, movies are not just pictures in a row. They are ‘feelings’. You can feel the movie and the story they tell, and in that spirit, I feel like I am a worker who builds the bridge that allows the viewer to reach that feeling, that experience.

Valentina Ambrogio is an English to Italian Translator specialising in audiovisual translation, localisation and specialised press. She is currently based in Rome, where she works in-house for a translation agency. In October 2013, she founded Rockstar Translations in order to promote her freelance business. She is an Anglophile, a Potterhead and a Whovian, and an aspiring traveller. Her next objective is to establish herself as a freelancer and gain experience as a video game localiser. You can find her on Twitter (, LinkedIn ( and Facebook (

Friday, 17 January 2014

Film #18: Oh Boy (TBC)

Released: 2012 (Germany), 2014 (UK) 
Directed by: Jan Ole Gerster  

Apparently a German film is being released in the UK today. Who knew? I certainly didn’t until I saw that Mark Kermode will be reviewing it on his radio show this afternoon. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be playing anywhere outside London. Luckily, I picked up the DVD when I was in Germany at the end of last year. So while I can’t tell you what the subtitles are like, I can at least tell you about the film.

Oh Boy is one of those films in which nothing and everything seems to happen, showing a day in the life of a nondescript individual whilst reflecting on the human condition. Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) starts his day with the restrained demise of his relationship, and takes in encounters with psychologists and ticket inspectors (in beautifully realised depictions of bureaucracy), new neighbours and a random old woman. His father cuts off his supply of money. He watches ‘challenging’ performance art. He has an (almost) romantic interlude in the toilet of a club. And through it all the one thing he wants and can’t get is a cup of coffee.

We never really get to know Niko, and my sympathy for him vacillated throughout the film. After taking a punch when his friend Julika is threatened by drunken thugs, he suggests that it is her fault for answering back to them, when she should have taken their insults in silence for an easy life. At the same time, I don’t think I would have been quite so restrained in the scene in which his father berates him for not holding a golf club properly. In the closing minutes of the scene, his lack of focus and motivation – and perhaps a feeling that the world owes him a living – are thrown into perspective by an encounter with a drunken old man. 

I’m surprised this film hasn’t had a slightly wider release; after all, it did win quite a few awards in Germany, and was touted as the country’s entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Still, that’s the beauty of the film rental market! If you want a film that's easy to watch but has something to say, I’d recommend it.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Film #17: Vincent Will Meer

Released: 2010
Directed by: Ralf Huettner 

Before Christmas I looked at a comedy that isn’t available with subtitles and probably wouldn’t work all that well if it were. For my next film, I decided to revisit a comedy drama that I saw in the cinema in Stuttgart back in 2010 and that I consider to be far superior.

Following his mother’s death, Vincent – who has Tourette’s syndrome – is sent by his father to live in a centre with other young adults dealing with a variety of psychological and physical disorders. He is soon befriended by Marie, who is anorexic, and together they decide to hijack their therapist’s car and travel to Italy so that Vincent can scatter his mother’s ashes in her favourite place. Before they can get away, they are ambushed by Vincent’s roommate Alexander, who (not altogether willingly) joins their quest. 

Obviously, things don’t go according to plan. The relationships between the three are strained both by personality clashes and the additional challenges posed by their different conditions. Before long, they find themselves pursued by Vincent's father and Dr Rose, who face an entirely different set of problems that give them both time to reflect on the wrong turns they may or may not have taken thus far in their lives.

Comedies featuring people with physical disabilities and psychological conditions can often stray into difficult territory, either trying so hard to be nice that it comes across as patronising or veering towards downright nastiness. As someone whose close family has been touched by disability, I did approach the film with a little trepidation. And although an hour and a half is nowhere near enough to explore what it is to have Tourette’s syndrome, or anorexia, or an obsessive-compulsive disorder, I felt it was nicely played. It doesn't ignore the daily reality of being mocked and taunted by complete strangers purely because you are not what they consider 'normal', and Vincent often lashes out when this becomes too much. And not everyone gets a happy ending – just like real life.

I have to admit to being under the impression that this film was not available with English subtitles, but it can be found with a 15 rating under the title ‘Vincent Wants to Sea’ (although it does seem to be quite expensive online). The English title retains the play on the German words ‘Meer’ (sea) and ‘mehr’ (more) in the original title, reflecting the fact that the protagonist is not only on a quest to reach the water, but also to find a way of living that is neither defined nor limited by his disability. If you can find a way of watching this bittersweet film that won't set you back 20 quid, then I highly recommend you do.