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Some quality issues on subtitling
Thread poster: José Henrique Lamensdorf

José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 17:35
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Aug 26, 2008

To set the scope here, it is worth mentioning that in subtitling I often work all the way, i.e. an extreme case could be the client sending me a multi-chapter VHS tape in English, and receiving from me a complete, subtitled, menu-driven DVD in Portuguese. Please bear in mind that I'm talking about corporate video, not TV, commercial DVD, nor feature movies.

When I take the process from head to tail, it's okay, I have control over it. But there are many projects when I just go part of the way. For instance, there is a video producer who asks me just for the translated subs, not even spotting; they have their internal staff to take it from there. It amazes me that the people who do the spotting have such an extremely basic knowledge of the source language, if any at all. But it works. However my first question to any such client is How many chars per line maximum do you want?... and I strictly follow that.

As I translate EN-PT both ways, but only speak IT-FR-ES for my personal use, I am able to do spotting in these three languages as well. So if someone else translates into them, I'll be able to take it from there. Obviously I can also take it from there in my own pair, if they have already used an either more specialized or cheaper translator.

Some subtitle translators are really good. When they are not, this is where spotting trouble begins.

If it deals with my language pair, I must ask the client if I'm allowed/expected to correct mistakes. Sometimes the perpetrator has no clue about subtitle translation and, quite honestly, I'd rather redo it from scratch. But is it worth doing at spotting rates? (mine is 1/3 of the translation rate)
In one case I was told not to change one iota in a really bad translation (e.g. 30 million got translated as 60 thousand, long stretches were bluntly omitted, and so on) because the CEO's mistress had done it, and she had been very generously compensated for her hard work.

When it's in my non-translating languages, I don't trust my knowledge of them to fix anything beyond minor one-shot typos. For instance, in ES, if I have a bunch of mientras and I see one mienras, I'll fix it if I feel sure it's the same meaning.

But the above is just the tip of the iceberg. When the translation is bad, it doesn't stop there.

If I tell them my limit is 32 chars/line, and it can reach 35 if there are less than 2 M's or W's in a line, they often play dumb. Whenever they want, they reach 39 chars... and do it on both lines of the same subtitle.

Were that not enough, they attack from the line-break-within-subtitle angle. Okay, some subtitling software breaks lines automatically, though I don't use this feature. But they give me a two-liner composed of 50+3 chars, and I have to not only insert my line break, but remove theirs. Multiply this by the usual quantity of subtitles, and there is a lot of work to be done.

They often tend to be as verbose as the script itself. If some character says She became deeply and visibly appalled upon acknowledging that..." they'll translate that verbatim, instead of converting into something equivalent to "She was shocked at...". I feel an urge to tell these people Hey, guys, they wanna watch the action too! If not, e-mail or fax'em the script!

Finally, there is punctuation. I'm old-school in this. Every subtitle must have a punctuation mark at the end. If the phrase doesn't end there... the spectator should get a clue that it's not time to close that thought yet. But sometimes they fail to include final periods when it's the case. It may be a comma, period, colon, semicolon, and if none of these is justified, an ellipsis for sure. However I see several phrases starting with lowercase, and ending without any punctuation. They may be complete thoughts, or parts of a longer sentence. I can find out, but the spectator wouldn't know.

Sometimes I get the impression that these people never watched the video itself; possibly just used a (slipshod?) transcript. When I ask about it, the client assures me it was not the case, as if they could know.


So I wonder if my colleagues here have such situations often. Faced with a growing demand, I am thinking of adopting 4x my normal spotting rate (I already said that translation is 5x) for subtitle translations by third parties, pending appraisal (as they might be good), including the languages I speak but don't translate into. Considering the time and effort involved, it's fair. Considering what the client probably paid for such amateur work, it looks insane.


Opinions are most welcome.


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Fiona Grace Peterson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 22:35
Member
Italian to English
Increase your rates Aug 27, 2008

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:

Sometimes I get the impression that these people never watched the video itself; possibly just used a (slipshod?) transcript.



I read an interview in a magazine once with an experienced (movie) subtitler; the man made exactly this point, and gave the example that once he had seen the French term "Merci!" translated as "Tanks!"....


I have done subtitling on occasion (I do strictly IT>EN texts, DE>EN if the text is straightforward, but never for subtitles) and have been asked to provide subtitles for a Russian film; the subtitles had obviously been translated from RU>IT, meaning that some of the humour had already been lost in this first passage (my only explanation being that the agency had no-one who could translate RU>EN. Or perhaps the way they did it was cheaper for them?)

But perhaps I digress.

José Henrique Lamensdorf wrote:

Faced with a growing demand, I am thinking of adopting 4x my normal spotting rate (I already said that translation is 5x) for subtitle translations by third parties, pending appraisal (as they might be good), including the languages I speak but don't translate into. Considering the time and effort involved, it's fair.



I think the bottom line is that as a professional translator you should be paid fairly for the work that you do. It certainly sounds as if this is not currently the case, and were I in your shoes I would certainly consider upping my rates. I understand you may not want to risk losing a client, but if we all worked for the glory things would look very bleak indeed...

HTH


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 17:35
English to Portuguese
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Clarification Aug 27, 2008

Ciao, Fiona,

Fiona Peterson wrote:
... gave the example that once he had seen the French term "Merci!" translated as "Tanks!"....


This would have been a typo. The other way around, EN-to-FR would be the never-saw-it syndrome. A terrified soldier sees that his camp is about to be invaded by enemy tanks, repeatedly tries to warn his troops, and in the French subtitles, he'll be saying: "Merci beaucoup". Yup, repeated "t(h)anks" justify the beaucoup for conciseness.

The classic example in Brazil (I'll do it in Italian for you here) is in some ball game when a player is about to score the decisive point. Someone in the audience yells "Miss! Miss!" in the hope the player won't make it. The subtitle reads: "Signorina! Signorina!"

Fiona Peterson wrote:
I think the bottom line is that as a professional translator you should be paid fairly for the work that you do. It certainly sounds as if this is not currently the case, and were I in your shoes I would certainly consider upping my rates. I understand you may not want to risk losing a client, but if we all worked for the glory things would look very bleak indeed...


My rates for translating video are perfectly fair for the high quality I deliver. It is not my overrated self-esteem, but if clients didn't value it so much, they'd get someone cheaper instead of insisting that I do it. My rates keep me from translating commercial fims/TV series, which are extremely cost-sensitive: the translator is the only party in the process they can squeeze dry.

The problem is in the post-translation stages, when someone's inadequate translation makes it almost impossible for me to do a decent spotting job. In spotting, I have to follow market rates, because there are just too many people around offering it. It's a simple job, requiring just skill and patience. According to a video producer my translations for subtitling are a piece of cake to spot. Sometimes I get translations from colleagues that are just as good, but there are only a few of these. All too often the Signorina misses, even if it's a man.


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Fiona Grace Peterson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 22:35
Member
Italian to English
Not sure I understand your problem Aug 27, 2008

Hi José,

thanks for your clarification. But while I understand you want to gather others' opinions on the subject, I'm not really sure I understand the point of your post.

When one is working in a line, and is the last link in the chain, the risk of quality control issues is always higher. Your examples regard the field of subtitling, but I think they can be applied to any translation field, or indeed any field of the world of work in general. Your gripe here is the price your are being paid for the work you do, which you consider too low for the jobs that come into your hands despite charging market rates. I get the impression you think I am criticising you for underselling yourself; if this is the impression I gave then I apologise - it was not my intention at all.

What I was trying to say is that at the end of the day, as freelancers, we are free to set the rates we choose. In some circumstances this is easier (client needs job done urgently, faithful client, unusual language pair, highly specialised text etc.), in others it is harder (client doesn't care about quality, huge numbers of translators working in that particular language combination etc.). If you are able to raise your rates then raise them, as it seems you are not happy working at your current rate. If you are unable to, ask yourself if you are willing to continue working at that rate. I suppose in certain market sectors, as you say yourself, it is harder to raise your rates.

That's just my opinion - in any case you seem to have a strong idea about what action to take..

All the best.

[Edited at 2008-08-27 14:23]

[Edited at 2008-08-27 15:32]


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 17:35
English to Portuguese
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Further clarification Aug 27, 2008

I guess this situation is less common than I thought, so I'll be very specific.

CASE A
I translate subs EN-PT and I spot them. Rate is low because of market pressures, but it's worth it, because the work is easy. A few - but only a few - translators provide subs about as easy to spot. I make some extra from burning (the computer does most of the work) the subs, and from DVD authoring, if requested.

CASE B
Client provides subs most often slovenly translated in EN-PT (my pair) to spot. Quite often it is a nightmare, there is too much to fix to get it a bit better, I'd redo it from scratch, but all I'm getting paid is for spotting.

CASE C
Client provides subs translated into languages (IT-FR-ES) that I speak - but don't translate - so I can spot. I can't judge the translation quality, but the sub breaks and line breaks are often impracticable. And I can't 'fix' them, e.g. I can't replace encumbering long words with shorter synonyms, change phrasal structure, etc.; all I can do is cchange breakpoints. I get the standard spotting rate.

My question is...

If anyone does this kind of work, do they adopt higher rates for B and C in comparison to A? If so, how much?


Data on my rates, using a per-minute-of-total-playing time basis:
video translation in my pair = 3 x spotting (for case A)


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kmtext
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:35
English
+ ...
It depends Sep 6, 2008

I have some clients who provide translated scripts of varying qualities. With a new client, I tend to quote my highest rate and then reduce it accordingly based on the quality of the translations they send. If it's a regular client, I tend to quote the same as I did for the previous job, but let them know that it's only a quote and may change based on the script when I receive it.

If it's a very good translation with few corrections to make, I just make the changes and keep quiet about it. I don't bother about incorrect line breaks. If they're in the wrong place, I just change them as a matter of course. It only takes a couple of key strokes.

If the translations are wildly inaccurate or too literal and long-winded where I know I'm going to have to put in a lot of extra work, then I'll contact the client and renegotiate.

I've worked with most of the London subtitling houses and have a good range of contacts among freelance translators who I know produce good quality work and I recommend them to clients. Because they're also usually experienced subtitlers that tends to make the job easier and cheaper all round because less time is wasted re-editing poor translations or long-winded captions. They also tend to work with the video and text, which helps to avoid scenarios such you quoted with "Miss!" and one I saw years ago, as a cowboy walking into a saloon, saying "Howdy," and the subtitle reading "Enchanté."

The ideal situation would be if you could build a relationship between yourself, the clients and other translators who you trust and know to do good work. If you can recommend a translator who knows what you expect and will follow guidelines accurately, it's a win-win situation all round.


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jbjb  Identity Verified
Estonia
Local time: 23:35
Estonian to English
+ ...
style Sep 8, 2008

My work style:
1. With bad translations or improperly placed subtitles I correct the first few minutes, send it back and say that the translator should take note of the corrections and correct the rest of the translation accordingly and then send it back to me.

2. If that cannot be done, send back the corrected translation as text, highlight the changes if possible, and request the company who sent the translation to forward the version to the translator, so that he/she could learn from the mistakes. The company also sees how much has been changed.

3. If that cannot be done, as the company who sent the work simply doesn't care - do you need this kind of work from them so badly that you're ready to spend ages correcting someone else's work?

If I get the translations directly from translators, I keep the e-mail open during spotting and write out major mistakes and changes into the e-mail on the fly. So when I finish spotting, I also press "send e-mail", the expectation being that the translator would not make this kind of mistakes again.


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