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 (


  1. Great interview, thank you. I never realised subtitlers could work in Word - I always imagined them using complex software. Subtitling is definitely an art and I often find it interesting to read the subtitles even if I understand what is being said!

  2. Thanks Rachel! I believe there is also specialist subtitling software (this wasn't covered on my MA course so my knowledge is very vague) - I will try and look into it for another post.

  3. Visual Sub Synch and Subtitle Workshop are two free windows programs that are used for subtitling. Appart from that, it's one thing writing the lines, another thing timing them, and another doing (like me) doing both. The procedure is slow and "painfull" and not worth what its paid when done profeccionaly for the TV. Not in Greece anyway :)