Emmanuel Denizot works as a translator in Paris, subtitling US and UK films and TV series for release in France. Some of the films he’s worked on include Puccini for Beginners, Project Nim, Keep the Lights On, Queer as Folk and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Global Edition.

Since subtitlers are often the final writers on our movies, I asked Denizot to give an introduction to subtitling for screenwriters.

first personEmmanuel DenizotAs a teenager growing up in France, I fell in love with both cinema and the English language. I used to videotape subtitled versions of British and American classics broadcast very late at night. Everything else on television was dubbed — the dialogue replaced.

At the time, I couldn’t have agreed more with Gena Rowlands when she said, “I like subtitles. Sometimes I wish all movies had subtitles.”

It used to be very difficult to find theatres showing subtitled films in France, but they’ve become much more popular. Today, most Parisian cinemas show subtitled films, and it’s almost a challenge to find dubbed versions of foreign films in the city.

Getting the words right

In this day of technology, when subtitles are all the rage and anyone can have a go at amateur subtitling, it’s easy to overlook how complex it is to subtitle a feature film. It takes rigorous, creative professionals to provide quality subtitles.

The subtitling process goes as follows:

  1. Time-cueing. This involves creating the captions (in English) along with time-codes. This part is fairly straightforward, but you need to respect shot changes and other constraints.

  2. Translation. This is my job.

  3. Simulation. The subtitles are checked in the lab with a proofreader and the client. In the event of a theatrical release, the distributor will pick their own translator, whereas in the video world it is most often the subtitling company which will subcontract a subtitler and handle the job.

Translating a film is just a long series of solutions to be found and traps to be avoided.

As a French speaker, I work from English into my mother tongue. This is a basic rule. A subtitler needs to have great ability in writing dialogue in his own language. He will also have extensive knowledge of the language he’s translating from with all cultural aspects that go with it.

As with any kind of written work, research is paramount and the Internet does wonders, but I also like to have a range of specialists I can contact. This job takes us from politics to sports and through all sorts of fields in no time at all.

Obviously, we are provided with the image, but also with a spotted list which provides explanations of puns, special intents in dialogue, etc. This detailed list is common for Hollywood films, but unfortunately, it is very unusual for indie films, in which case we are just provided with a simple dialogue list.

What you meant to say

In the business, we say a good subtitling is the one you won’t notice.

We don’t want people to feel like they’re reading. They should be enjoying the work of a director and actors based on a screenplay. The subtitling must be such that they can forget that they had to put their glasses on to read the captions.

I like to watch the film a couple of times first to really get into it, and then watch French films in the same spirit so I can sort of work on the language side. What kind of register will I be using for these characters and this particular film? Sometimes the process is completely natural if it’s a modern film which resembles my own sort of speech patterns, and other times it is a totally different world or era.

In subtitling, you’re going from spoken to written language that will still need to read as dialogue. What’s more, the number of characters per line you are able to use is very limited.

Our goal is to express as much as we can in the fewest, shortest words possible. It’s a bit like crosswords: you’ve got a definition but you can only have one word for it. It can be quite frustrating sometimes, but also very satisfying when you find just the right phrase after trying so many different ways to express the same idea.

Subtitling a comedy, for instance, is always tricky as it is so culturally charged. What will provoke laughter in America might not in France or Canada. I remember subtitling a screwball comedy once which had a running gag on the misunderstanding of Kant & the c-word. I first thought it would be impossible to render puns based on pronunciation. And I was so happy and relieved when I came up with funny lines in the end using the name Kant. Very often, you will get your ideas whenever you’re away from your desk so it’s good to always be able to take notes at any time, just like any type of writer.

We often have less than three weeks to subtitle a film and time is paramount to come up with the best solutions. The good news is I work with subtitling software, so captions show up directly on the film. This makes it much easier to write and rewrite so that it’s readable. Rules are strict, but fiddling around is part of the job. The end result needs to be fluid and faithful to the original version, but also feel lively and natural.

For cultural reasons, French Canadian distributors get their own list of subtitles. Two French versions will be recorded: one in Quebec, one in France.

In other words

Dubbing is a completely separate process from subtitling, which may seem strange. After all, you’re still translating into a language.

Dialogue for dubbing needs to fit the mouths, so to speak, of the original version. This is very far away from the constraints that the subtitler has to deal with. There is no way the subtitles could be used for dubbing purposes, and you can’t use the dub for subtitling either: the dialogue would be much too long for the captions. Therefore, a film will have two sets of new dialogue, one for the subtitled version, one for the dubbed.

In the end, many subtitlers are happier talking about their work as adaptation rather than translation. You’re creating a version of the work that hopefully reflects the original intent, but meets the needs of the audience and medium.

You can see more of Denizot’s credits on his website.

For more information about subtitling as a profession, visit the British Subtitlers’ Association or L’Association des Traducteurs / Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel.