Audiovisual media have become indispensable parts of corporate communications – either to share information within an organization or to address external groups. The interplay between images and sound has a completely different impact on viewers than a simple text does. It packs information together in a way that addresses multiple senses at once.
But what should you do if an audio version is not possible, or not even desired at all? What if accessibility is a must? Or what if the target group speaks a different language and you want to have your videos translated?
The solution of choice in such cases is intra- and interlingual subtitles. But, just like other forms of communication, the success of a subtitled video depends significantly on how efficiently the message is delivered.
In this blog post, we will introduce you to the keys to good subtitles, the challenges that you could face and the way that the right language service provider (LSP) can help you overcome all barriers.
First, we have to clarify one very fundamental question:
What is a subtitle?
A subtitle is the transmission of oral information that is spoken in visual media into a different language. It consists of one to two lines of text, is displayed on a screen or monitor and appears simultaneously with the original statement.
The definition composed by the Danish translation scholar and subtitling expert Henrik Gottlieb may indeed be a few years old, but it has never been more relevant.
We have only one tweak to add to Gottlieb’s definition: The text does not have to be a translation of the video. Frequently, subtitles use the same language that is being spoken in the video.
To facilitate inclusion, people with hearing difficulties benefit from a video file that includes integrated text. This text can also include descriptions of sounds and music to complement the statements made in the video.
Subtitles are also a boost for social media, where people often consciously forgo the use of sound in contrast to such platforms as YouTube.
Interlingual subtitles create new ways for you to reach an international audience and thus to quickly and easily expand the reach of our videos. The video remains completely authentic because the original soundtrack was never changed.
This makes particularly good sense if well-known individuals and/or several different people speak during the video, if the video is intended function without sound or if the time and budget framework is tight.
The devil is in the details
No matter whether the language stays the same or is translated – the job of turning the spoken word into the written word can’t be that complicated, can it? You better believe it can be. The job of creating subtitles is a minefield because listening and reading are entirely different ball games.
The big picture
A video is always part of something bigger. It can be part of a marketing campaign, an internal initiative or a particular communication strategy. To ensure that your message hits home in the way you want it to, everyone involved should have the clearest-possible idea about the context in which the video will appear.
This is particularly the case if you are working with a language service provider. The more information you provide, the more precise the textualization or the translation of the video’s content into the desired language.
Transcript vs. subtitle
Step 1 in the subtitle process is the transcription of the video file. With the help of speech recognition technology, the video content will be transformed verbatum into a running text. This means that the transcript will be a complete version of the spoken words, including onomatopoeic fillers and conscious or unconscious slips of the tongue.
But you should not trust the software completely. Even though machine support is becoming better and better and produces incredible results, you should have the text checked by a trained human ear and eye. If you don’t, you run the risk of having the mission area of a military helicopter turned into some sort of animal undertaking as a result of a misunderstood model identification: “The ape is a great choice for such operations.” Or the wonderful “Davos in winter” suddenly becomes the “devil’s inventor” – don’t laugh; it has all happened before.
Once the transcript has been checked from A to Z, you will have the foundation you need to rework the content as needed. The key word here is “rework.” Naturally, the unedited version of the transcript cannot be used as the text under the video. You still have a couple of things to do before your subtitles are worthy of the name “subtitles.”
Placing text in the video
The next step in the process is something called spotting, that is, the specific job of preparing subtitles. This work does not require any stylistic changes. The real purpose of it is to edit out all filler words, repetitions and slips of the tongue in the transcription.
The reason for this work is obvious: Choppy, incomplete sentences, unnecessary repetitions and meaningless words will only make the text harder to understand. Just read the following example to see why.
Once you have approved the edited transcript, the text will be read by a subtitle software. Such tools are equipped with settings necessary to process files.
First, the transcript will be segmented in a process based on universally defined subtitle rules. Timecodes will be placed on it, and the text will be shortened if necessary – provided you have the go-ahead to make adjustments to the text’s length.
Segmentation is based on the principle of units of meaning. Words that form a clear unit in a sentence should not appear on separate lines – not to mention on two separate pages.
An example for English:
The dependent clause starts with “how.” But this clause only shares the direct article “the” with us. Viewers and readers involuntarily become a little impatient when they encounter such breaks.
The noun that belongs to “the” does not turn up until the next image. Here, too, the text makes readers antsy
because they do not see the final word until the third image is shown. A better approach would be: […] better understanding / how the principles / are put into action.
Incorrect units of meaning are just as frustrating in German:
Here, too, articles and antecedents are separated.
The same thing happens in the next image, too …
… The message finally ends with one solitary word that has lost every bit of its context. A better approach would be: […] besseres Verständnis / für die praktische Umsetzung / der Prinzipien.
Once the segmentation and timecodes are in place, software tools for the detail work enter the picture: Such details include the type, size and color of the font to be used in the subtitle file. Depending on the video’s background, decisions can also be made regarding whether letters should be framed or the subtitles should be highlighted in color to increase readability.
The position where the subtitles appear is also something that is not left up to chance. Every detail must be carefully thought through.
And then the subtitle is ready to roll. But wait, didn’t we say something about shortening the text earlier? Why go to the trouble?
Short matters most
The human brain can take in only a certain amount of characters per second. Two things impact the subtitle experience in particular: the way that the characters are aligned and their context.
Over time, a set of general rules regarding the number of characters per line, the display time of a subtitle and the segmentation of a text that even includes a shift between subtitles has arisen with the help of linguistic findings.
The amount of space and display time are limited. Obviously, this means that limitations have to be placed on text length. After all, who can read as fast as they can hear?
Timing is everything
This means one thing from a time perspective: Every statement in a video is assigned a timecode that determines the point in time and the length of time that a particular subtitle will appear in a video.
Ideally, the subtitle should communicate the exact information being communicated orally in order to keep the discrepancy between the text that is being heard and read as small as possible. The job of translating a video faces a couple of extra challenges as well.
Translating videos. Or: the special features of cultures and languages
If you plan to translate German video content into such languages as English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, French or some other foreign language for your target group, you should work with a translation service that has the necessary experience.
By making this decision, you will not have to occupy yourself with platforms like YouTube, options for storing and sharing files like Dropbox or a particular video editor. Your LSP will handle all of the technical details – and the desired language to boot.
Just like any other translation, the subtleties, the different cultures and languages involved in the job play a key role. Some translators really break out in a sweat when faced with syntactic quirks.
When the job involves translating from one Romantic language into a member of the same language family, let’s say from Spanish to French, the hurdles are relatively low because the sentence structure is similar. But Germanic languages like German and English have more clearly defined syntactic differences. Translations involving different language families require a particularly fine linguistic feel.
The same principle that applies to intralingual subtitles applies here as well: creating the highest-possible congruence between what is heard and read.
One of the many reasons for this is the possibility that an audience will know both languages. If the text being displayed does not correspond to the words being spoken at that moment, doubts about the accuracy and precision of the translation can arise or people may become so irritated that they will be unable to focus any longer on the video at all.
Here is one way to address the sentence structure problem:
The verbs “prepare for” and “adapt to” are pretty harmless in English. But their German cousins are not. The verbs in both languages are indeed followed by the direct object (that is something at least!). But the German verbs “vorbereiten auf” and “anpassen an” have prefixes that have to be placed at the end of the sentence.
It is written like this: wir bereiten uns VOR and wir passen uns AN. And not like this: Wir vorbereiten uns and wir anpassen uns. If we also throw in the ever-changing circumstances that occur, the units of meaning discussed earlier will spin completely out of control – not to mention the character limit. Did you know that German translations are generally 10 percent to 35 percent longer than the English originals?
In such cases, the best approach is to take the original text down from its pedestal and to soberly examine it. What is the key message? Does everything have to be literally translated or can the translator take some liberties with it?
If syntactic barriers like those in our example complicate the job of preparing the most literal-translation possible, then linguistic creativity is required – with reversed sentence structure and the fusing of the meaning of several words:
Because things constantly change, / we continue to grow.
The perfect subtitle
Let’s sum up: The best results in terms of readability and understanding are achieved with the authentic and precise reproduction of the spoken words and the observance of specific subtitle rules.
A smooth subtitle experience can be delivered only if a harmonious overall picture is created. Ideally, viewers will be astonished by the effortless and natural way that they received the information.
The Leinhäuser Media Studio
As a key player in all aspects of language, Leinhäuser Language Services has a wide-ranging portfolio of services, including its Media Studio. This studio consists of a highly experienced lingual and technical team that specializes in such work as audio-video localization and ensures that your videos have a big impact on your international audiences.