Translation Markets for Subtitling
In the “subtitling market”, like the field of translation, there is no uniform market, capable of being synthesised under one label. There are many sub-fields, which include different specialisations within subtitling (which in turn is a specialisation within the field of audiovisual translation).
So there is no simple answer to those simple questions I am often asked:
“How does the subtitling market work?” or
“Are there many subtitling jobs?” or
“Do I need to attend a subtitling workshop?”
Subtitling in the old days
As with translation, the various niches of work with subtitling have been developed from necessity. The existence of companies specialising in the translation of audiovisual materials is recent – until very recently, it was the film producers and distributors who were in charge of the translation, as the demand arose. The task was not always performed by properly trained professionals.
Cinema is the oldest medium for movie viewing. As the need for film translation around the world increased, a standardisation was developed, with relatively uniform methods worldwide. It is worth remembering that cinema took decades to spread, establishing its own language, conquering space. The translation of films had time to establish standards of work and quality.
Explosion of Audiovisual Translation
Companies began to focus on translation 20 or 30 years ago
The global explosion of audiovisual translation came with the advent of VHS, when it became necessary to relaunch – and retranslate – all the production already launched in 35 mm. In addition, the costs of production and especially of film distribution were much lower, which increased the production of new materials. It was then, 20 or 30 years ago, that companies began to appear more focused on the tasks of translation. VHS involved other physical materials, other devices for editing, and other medium for its display – the TV screen rather than the movie screen. This forced the translators to adopt methods and techniques, as they were not able to use the translations made to the cinema and not even its methodology. Different producers, in different places, were adapting the working methods. There were a lot more VHS than film producers, the demand for translation increased, and translators for the film industry started to emerge.
Markets in Subtitling
There were already two big markets, each with its producers, their methods and their translators. The cinema continued to grow, but the VHS increased the commercialisation of films and the demand for translation exponentially.
Translation for the DVD Market
Then came the DVD revolution as part of the new digital media movement. Again, the old catalogues needed to be re-released. Many new programs started to be produced directly using digital media. The audience reached became even greater than all of the previous ones. And, this time, each DVD movie could include several translations, in different modalities (subtitling and dubbing, for example) and more than one language. Again, there was a radical change in media, technique, technology, and therefore translation methodology. The universe of producers would shrink because the digital world would require a smaller infrastructure than that of VHS and much smaller than that of cinema – nowadays a producer may consist of a man with a powerful computer.
Audiovisual translation becomes erratic
The enormous demand for translation associated with the fragmentation of the film industry and distributor made the entire translation process – from selecting a translator to quality control, and working methodology – more inconsistent: a serious producer could invest more in the quality of the translations while video editors would be looking for an inexpensive service, regardless of quality.
In addition, sometimes the original distributor of the film would be in charge of the translation. Occasionally, a producer under contract would carry out editing or distribution tasks in the target culture. Sometimes, a company specialised in translation would do so.
More Independent Producers, More Dissociated Translation
And then there was cable TV
And let’s not forget the fact that digital resources had increased the production of non-commercial films, which were invisible to the cinema and TV audience: those made by companies and organisations for institutional, educational and technical purposes, I mean. The market would become “independent”, with a rapid growth and usually offered a very good remuneration for translators.
And then there was cable TV, which again led to the development of specialised producers, which often contracted translators, in addition to outsourced ones. There would come different materials, other audiences and goals for translation. As of today, it is a market that continues to grow.
Distribution of a movie in 5 different markets would lead to it being translated 4 or 5 times
So as you can see, we already have 4 or 5 subtitling markets. If the same movie were to go through all of them, it would probably be translated 4 or 5 times, by different companies and translators. Each of them does not constitute a specialisation itself, nor are they totally independent or detached from each other, but it is common for translators to become more involved with one, sometimes having little contact with others. It all depends on which of these niches opens the first door and how everything unfolds from there. If a translator starts providing services to a Blu-Ray company and works, it is more likely that he will continue in that niche, getting to know and interact with other companies in the industry. In a similar way, a technical translator who already has contact with companies of a certain sector and has mastered subtitling techniques is more likely to be successful translating technical films for companies of that sector, films on netflix, a film about war or film for kids, for example.
In recent years, the Blu-Ray and cable TV markets, which are the most unstable in terms of translation quality, have been investing more and more in selecting the right translators, in training and quality control, particularly in response to complaints from consumers and subscribers.
Pricing in subtitling
Prices depend on the supply-demand relationship
Just as there was no unified market, there is also no standardised pricing in subtitling translation. As with the entire translation market, prices depend on the supply-demand relationship, the degree of expertise and experience of the translator, and how many intermediaries exist between the translator and the end customer.
Bill Gates do not hire translators to translate the next Windows, nor does Dan Brown look for translators around the world for his next bestseller. Nor is Spielberg coming to France to choose a translator for his films. There are a lot of companies and people between them and us – and as translators, we are almost at the end of the production and distribution stages of any material, including the audio-visual ones.
Of course, the less gap between the translator and the people who order the translation service – for example, the distributor of a certain film in France or the company preparing a specific technical video – the more one is able to charge appropriately.
There are many variables when pricing subtitling
When dealing with a large producer who has been contracted by the final customer to take care of editing, distribution and translation, the producer will absorb most of the client’s budget and will offer the translator something between half and a quarter of the price suggested by the industry. Yet, there is a lot of variation, since each producer has its own grid, which can take into account either the duration of the films or the number of characters of the subtitling, or the degree of difficulty of the material, the languages involved and even the level of experience of the translator.
There are many variables. It is impossible to know how much a translator earns. For the same feature film, one can earn from $400 to $1500, depending on the conditions. The job can vary from 3 to 10 days. Of course, the higher the productivity, the more earnings the translator gets, so a more specialised and experienced translator usually earns more – his client base is larger and his work more efficient.
Current Situation of the Subtitling Business
The film industry remains active, but the number of titles released does not increase (at least significantly) every year. Therefore, it is a more stabilised market, which does not actively search for new translators very often.
The opposite occurs with newer markets, Blu-Ray, cable TV, and institutional and technical films. They keep growing and searching for more skilled translators. The concern with quality has led to the proliferation of instrumental courses for translators. Today, there is a great offer of subtitling courses, with different objectives. The industry, for its part, has given preference to translators with some experience or at least who have taken some courses in the field.
New subtitling software come up every year
Technology is developing at an increasingly crazy pace. Ten years ago, almost all translators specialised in the field used * a * subtitling software, available in the “free but horrendous” or “professional and expensive” version. Now new programs come up every year, also with different offers. A video producer may employ expensive software for editing, while their translators work with inexpensive or even free (but modern and excellent) applications that generate formatted files that are compatible with customers’ requirements. Therefore, one of the essential tasks of service providers is to keep abreast of new technologies and resources available.
It is worth noting that it is not essential to use specific software for subtitling. Many writers prepare text files so that their translators work using only a text editor, such as Word. The film business also does not work with a particular subtitling software, and translations are also done in Word. However, the translator who is proficient with certain applications has access to a wider range of clients, especially those dealing with newer technologies. Nowadays, a translator who wants to enter the subtitling market, let’s say if they want to do subtitling for netflix, for example, will have much fewer opportunities if he does not master subtitling software.
Subtitling translators can now translate from a distance
Digital technologies have also freed customers and translators of space constraints. There is no longer a need to be around to pick up and carry stacks of VHS tapes and paper scripts. Currently, the most common method of working is from a distance: the producer generates a low-resolution digital copy of the film and transfers it to the translator via the internet. This system also sends the translation when it’s ready (in text format) over the internet to the client. Therefore, the physical location of the translator and the client is no longer relevant, and even the selection process can be carried out at a distance.
Early Career in Subtitling
The major producers of Blu-Ray and cable TV – several of them fully dedicated to audiovisual translation – have for years had an increasing demand for subtitling and are always looking for good translators. Pricing tends to fall, but there is a great deal of demand, so this is a good entry point for professionals who do not have other contacts in some higher paying niche. Subtitling is a good place to learn and gain autonomy.
Personally, from my experience, I gain more or less the same by dedicating myself exclusively to providing services to video producers than to publishers or translation agencies (three types of clients notorious for the great service offering and for “weak” remuneration). Whenever the opportunity arises to provide direct services to final clients – or to smaller and more specialised intermediaries – the pay is better.
Make yourself known in the subtitling market
Does “subtitling pay well?” Can you make good money doing subtitling for netflix? It is not possible to say because as mentioned previously, there is no standardisation. In my opinion, the subtitling market is a true example of what the universe of translation is all about: there are better and worse customers, and better and worse translators. It is up to us to make our way in the market, making contacts, making ourselves known, seeking to improve, and thus finding the best projects and clients. Much comes with time and dedication.
We are always knocking on doors, and not always those that open are the ones we imagined. It takes a good dose of “elbow grease”. The more tools we have at hand and the more techniques we master, the better we are prepared to grab an opportunity when it comes.
Is it possible to live well with subtitling?
Although what could be considered as “living well” is a personal and non-transferable issue. In addition, most translators are “multitasking” and not restricted to one translation market – it’s my case.
Do you have to be in France or in Paris to work with subtitling?
Everything goes through the web. Translators interact with one another and with clients through various resources. Not knowing or making good use of these resources means losing most job opportunities.
Do you need any type of certificate or formal study to work in the market?
Customers want performance and quality. When reviewing your service proposal, they want to know if you have any experience (in translating films on netflix or films for kids, for example) . Of course, having studied, attending a subtitling workshop and prepare yourself helps a lot. Taking a subtitling course means you already have some hands-on experience, and that’s usually enough for any potential customer. What really counts, in practice, is your first experience working with that customer. If it is satisfactory, it does not matter if you have four PhDs. So be prepared to meet the demands of the market with quality – which, in the case of subtitling, are mostly practical.