What Does It Take to Be a Subtitler?
When did you first become aware of live subtitling?
For me, it was scrolling curiously through Ceefax at the age of about ten or eleven and following the on-screen prompt to hit ‘888’, just to see what would happen.
I remember subsequently being baffled by how it was possible for people’s words to appear as text almost as soon as they said them, and wondering just who were the people that intervened to make it all happen.
It’s not doing subtitling a disservice, then, to say it’s a pretty niche job. So, what kind of personality traits make a good subtitler?
Well, I’m pleased to report that we’re (generally) not as odd and out-there as our job descriptions. Many of the qualities required for live subtitling are ones you’d need in other roles. The difference is we tend to need them in abundance! They include:
- Language skills. It’s fair to say that we tend to be united by a love of language – some might even call it pedantry. Whether they’re covering the news, sport or the Diamond Jubilee, you can be sure that nothing will make a live subtitler’s heart sing more than rendering a correctly-punctuated [comma] readable sentence containing no errors [full stop]. And water cooler chat has been known to cover discussion of the Oxford comma as much as last night’s TV. That’ll be the pedantry, then.
- Punctuality. It’s no use sauntering back from that water cooler at five past three if you’re due on air at 3.01 – and our schedules are indeed planned that precisely. Channel 4 and the BBC’s commitment to provide subtitles for 100% of its output means we have to be prepared to subtitle the very second a live broadcast begins, or to take over from a colleague who’s already on air at exactly the right moment.
- Resilience. As explained in an earlier blog, subtitling live speech can result in words being misrecognised. It’s understandably disappointing for the audience to see mistakes because it impairs their viewing experience. For that reason – not to mention the linguistic pride we take in our work, as mentioned above – those mistakes are frustrating for us, too. Staying calm and maintaining that other useful skill, a sense of humour, is often the best way for a subtitler to remain sane!
And finally, let’s not forget the ability to get up at 5am. Although judging by the look on many colleagues’ faces at the start of early shifts, that’s not something many of us ever master…
Can you think of any other qualities that might be useful in subtitling? Let me know in the comments below
Martin Cornwell, Subtitler
This post is part of our on-going blog series on access services