Subtitlers: the unsung heroes of translation

May 18, 2021 by Alison Tunley

Get a Free Quote

Our Accreditations

  • ATA Logo
  • ATC Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • DIN EN 15038 Logo

Recent Updates

Buckets and spoons: an etymological tour of death metaphors

The need to translate English into English is more common than you might imagine, where phrases of English are deployed in a foreign language and have taken on an alternative meaning that isn’t appropriate in actual English text. Read More

I recently noticed journalist Oliver Burkeman questioning the subtitling of the Netflix Series “Call my Agent”, (original French title Dix pour cent; “ten percent”). Burkeman asked “Is it a much-commented-on thing already that Call My Agent seems to switch subtitlers halfway through season three? That’s where we are, and suddenly everyone’s saying ‘totes’ and ‘y’all’ and all sorts of other nonsense.” So, I set off to write this blog post hoping my investigations would shed more light on his intriguing subtitling speculation.

Subtitlers: the unsung heroes of translation

Sadly, despite some serious internet digging and pestering friends who are “Call my Agent fans”, I have got nowhere in identifying any potential mid-series subtitler swap. Burkeman’s original tweet seems to only have one reply, and with 50k followers you would imagine at least some of them are tuned in to this series. The obvious next move would have been to watch the series myself, but with 6 episodes per series, each lasting around an hour, there is a limit to what I will do to uncover material for this blog! At any rate, Burkeman has suggested further investigation by his colleague at the New Yorker, Lauren Collins, who is based in France. So, watch this space!

My failed attempts to unearth a global exclusive subtitling controversy did, however, bring me to an article by Stephen Armstrong in The Times, singing the praises of the linguists bringing various TV series to an international audience (see sources). Armstrong describes subtitlers as “the unsung heroes of some really good telly”. And I have to agree. I’ve always been aware that subtitling requires chopping out much of the spoken dialogue, but I hadn’t considered quite how much reworking of the script is required. Federico Spoletti, chief executive of subtitling agency Sub-Ti, explains that “reading speed is 60 to 70 per cent of speaking speed, so you have to cut 30 per cent of dialogue.” Next time you complete a translation, think about having to rewrite the whole thing, losing 1 in 3 words while still conveying all the essential content.

Shrinking the dialogue may need be even more drastic for a programme like “Call my Agent”, where they talk at breakneck speed. But that is still just the first challenge for the subtitler, who will also need to fit the trimmed content to coincide with the live action. Timing is crucial in subtitling. There is no way to pause the live action to fit in extra explanatory text. Each subtitle is usually displayed on screen for no longer than 6 or 7 seconds. Space is another constraint because you can’t have lines of text obscuring the live action. The translation must be slotted in to 2 lines, each containing no more than about 42 characters.  Then there are the impossible to translate jokes, the plays on words, and cultural references (informal and formal pronouns are a perennial headache for subtitlers).

The skills involved in good-quality subtitling go far beyond the linguistic domain. And arguably the finest praise for a subtitled film or TV programme is that the viewer doesn’t even notice the subtitling. As one of the comments on The Times article suggests, “Perhaps there should be a special Oscar for subtitlers”. I wholeheartedly agree.



Share This Post


Add Comment

Andreea Mohan

Taylor Wessing LLP

We are very pleased with the services provided by Rosetta Translations. They always send very prompt responses, transparent prices and deliver their work product at the highest standards.

More Testimonials

Jackie Brook, Sr Product Manager

American Express

Thank you very much for your prompt and efficient service.

More Testimonials

Conor McLarnon

Maximus Crushing and Screening

I have translated multiple projects with Rosetta now and I cannot emphasise how great the service they provide is; quality, turnaround time and pricing is the best I have found yet. The qualities of translations we receive are of the highest standard and communication from the start of a project to the end is consistent.

For a company looking into translations, I would highly recommend Rosetta as first pick, as the support and service they provide is first class.

More Testimonials

Get a Free Quote

© 2024 All Rights Reserved
Rosetta Translation, 133 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QA · 0207 248 2905