NCTA, Subtitling

Building Our Subtitling Skills

by Alison Trujillo

Did you know our human brain works twice as hard when watching a television show or movie and reading subtitles at the same time? Even though we probably feel relaxed while enjoying a favorite program, our cognitive energy is hard at work! This is one of the many reasons why good subtitles are so important. Translators have the opportunity to help make the viewing experience more enjoyable and easeful.

Whether at a local movie theater or at home, we can now watch countless films and programs from a variety of countries and in different languages. Subtitles bring movies and shows to life, and many translators are adding subtitling to their skill set. During her two-part online workshop in June, “Subtitle Like a Pro,” Bay Area-based translator Ana Lis Salotti taught us about the foundations and best practices of audiovisual translation (also sometimes called “media localization”). Ana also introduced us to a free and popular subtitling software tool called Subtitle Edit. This language-neutral workshop was specifically designed for translators who wanted to learn how to subtitle and for novice subtitlers wishing to hone their skills.

Ana Lis Salotti Subtitling Like a Pro

Ana Lis Salotti is an English into Spanish translator and educator originally from Argentina. She has over 16 years of experience in the industry and holds a Master’s degree in translation and interpreting from the University of New South Wales, Australia. Ana has subtitled hundreds of show episodes and movies and has worked for Netflix and Plint AB for years, among other subtitling studios and media distribution companies. She has also taught various translation courses at New York University, City College of New York’s Hunter College, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The subtitling workshop was held over Zoom, so we had participants from California and from out of state.

Ana started with an overview of where audiovisual translation stands within the language industry. “Audiovisual translation” is an umbrella term. This field is driven by innovation and technology and is changing dramatically every year. As innovation in subtitling speeds ahead, research and academic teams are studying how our eyes and brain capture subtitles and what best practices can and should look like.

The primary modalities within audiovisual translation are subtitles, dubbing (both lip-syncing and voiceover), footage adaptation, subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) and closed captions. Ana showed us video clips that illustrated each of these modalities.
We dove into the subtitling process with the free software Subtitle Edit. After learning how to set up a project and effectively use some of the shortcuts offered by Subtitle Edit, we learned about how to create a comfortable viewing experience. Netflix guidelines and other subtitling conventions require character limits and a two-line limit. (There are also guidelines for character-based languages like Chinese and Arabic to adjust the character count, allowing for ease of reading and understanding.) It’s also important to make sure that segmentation (how the subtitle is split between two lines, if needed) is comfortable and easy to read. For example, which subtitle set looks better to you?

So I’ll drop by and
play cards. Poker?

So I’ll drop by
and play cards. Poker?

The second example is actually easier for our eyes and brain to process.

Ana also discussed the importance of “creative intent.” Subtitles should be in sync with images and audio. No poorly timed punchlines or spoilers, please! This also goes for the ever-increasing scenes that feature text messaging. I for one notice a lot of television series and movies with text messaging. Texting becomes a key plot driver. The subtitles for these messages must be well timed and feel natural.

Lastly, Ana talked about cultural references and their importance to audiovisual translation. This is one of the reasons why the field is often called “media localization.” Media gives us a glimpse into a particular cultural world, so it’s up to the translator to ensure that subtitles convey appropriate meaning for a target audience. Big-picture decisions, such as a speaking style or dialect to be used, are made by a whole team and not only the translator. However, details like brand names, local foods, and geographic references may require localization strategies. For example, how might you describe a Snickers candy bar without relying on the brand name?

Ana’s subtitling expertise and natural abilities as an educator made this an enjoyable workshop packed full of information. I am a complete newbie to subtitling, so I learned a lot. Participants will be able to continue to practice skills with Subtitle Edit on their own and were also encouraged to further read and understand the Netflix guidelines, as these are currently the global standard for subtitling projects. If you didn’t have the chance to join us and would like to purchase the two-part webinar (a total of five hours), please visit:

Alison Trujillo holds a B.A. in Spanish and Latin American/Iberian Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an M.Ed. in International Multicultural Education from the University of San Francisco. She taught both Spanish and English for 15 years in K-12 schools and began her translation business in 2017. As a freelance Spanish into English translator, she is an active member of ATA and currently serves as NCTA’s Continuing Education Director.
Alison Trujillo