A Look at Subtitling and Closed-Captioning Software

After a brief overview of the technological developments in this field, we’ll review the pros and cons of some of the top programs on the market, including a peek into the future of subtitling and closed-captioning software.

When I started translating audiovisual content, linguists in the industry weren’t called “audiovisual translators,” but “movie translators.” I worked on paper that was formatted with spaces for the title, page number, in time (the time at which the subtitle appears on-screen), out time (the time at which the subtitle disappears), and the translation, which was divided by letter. (See Figure 1 below for an example.)

My colleagues and I would listen to the dialogue on the video played in a three-quarters VCR (the width of the film was three-quarters of an inch), pause it, write the in time and out time, and subtract the in time from the out time to get the duration of the subtitle. We would then have to convert that number of frames into spaces, translate the dialogue mentally, count the characters to see if they fit in the space allowed, and finally write it down with a pencil. There were no spellcheckers available, so the writing had to be perfect at that point. We would then take a large stack of pages to the editing room to be typed by the Chyron1 operator so the subtitles could later be burned into the film reels.

Moviola and Computers: Then I started working the night shift for a bigger company, arriving just in time to see them transitioning from a Moviola to computers and a three-quarters VCR. The Moviola was an editing machine that allowed a film editor to view the film while editing.2 We would load film reels while performing some sleight of hand to get the celluloid to go into the Moviola’s many nooks and crannies so that it could be run. Sometimes the light source would burn the film, and if that happened, we would have to cut the piece that burned and splice it back together. I did only a few movies this way before the company provided me with access to a computer.

However, the computer didn’t have a hard drive. The software was run through a floppy disk drive in DOS. We used SoftNi, the first PC-based subtitling system. It had all you needed, except the background color for the subtitle was black, which bothered everyone. I remember how happy we were to get away from a black screen and into the whiteness of Word documents.

Betamax and VHS: The introduction of the home VCR opened a different world, allowing translators to work from home. We first worked with Betamax and then with VHS, along with our personal computers, still using SoftNi’s software. We would have to go to the office to get the videotapes, but this gave my colleagues and me a chance to connect with each other.

International Couriers: The profession stopped being local once tapes could be delivered to linguists around the world via DHL and FedEx. Translators would work with licensed software paid for by their client and, in rare occasions, with their own software (I state “rare” because prices were unaffordable for freelancers). This is when the number of audiovisual translators increased from a handful to dozens.

Internet and FTP: Audiovisual translation exploded when the file transfer protocol became available and both video and templates could be sent via the internet. This is when the number of audiovisual translators increased from dozens of specialized linguists to hundreds.

Cloud-Based: Cloud-based subtitling software finished opening the doors for audiovisual translators. Larger clients now have their own subtitling software. Medium clients still pay for licenses for their linguists, but more and more translators are buying subtitling software, which allows them to work for several clients. With the cloud, the number of subtitling experts increased from the hundreds to the thousands.

Figure 1: An early subtitling format on paper (note the translation is divided by letter)

Subtitling Software Wish List

Now that you have an idea of how much technology has progressed in this field, let’s explore what features are indispensable in today’s software. During my research for this article, I selected eight basic features I considered a must in subtitling software. This might not seem so important to those who’ve been using subtitling programs for a while, but it’s very important for companies who are just starting to develop their own. The architecture of a new program must consider a solution for all these features at the front end of the project or risk very expensive patches at the back end.

Free or Affordable: This goes without saying. Some programs on the market still make it unaffordable for the average translator.

Spellchecker: Some programs have their own spellchecker and others integrate dictionaries from Word, Open Office, or other open dictionaries.

Find and Replace, Undo and Redo, Merge and Split: We tend to take these features for granted, but when you’re developing new software, these are very hard to integrate into your program.

Audio Waveform: Certain software programs offer a waveform feature. A waveform is a visual representation of the film’s audio track that can be used to help time the subtitle. Some consider this feature a huge convenience, since you can drag and position subtitles on the waveform, along with their in and out times. I personally don’t like this method and don’t use it. It’s probably due to my background, learning how to time subtitles with a pause button and a piece of paper. I can time by eye pretty accurately within three frames of audio just by looking at the timecode on screen. But young audiovisual translators are used to the waveform feature, and new developers should include it in their programs.

Full-Screen Mode: Since context is king in subtitling, the size of the screen matters. This is more important nowadays where, due to security concerns, linguists receive heavily watermarked videos with which to work. Some programs borrow video players (e.g., VLC media player) and some have them fully integrated.

Zero Mouse Interaction: I’m not talking about an absolute zero, but as far away from the mouse as we can get. The less interaction our hand has with the mouse, the faster we can type. The faster we can type, the more money we can make.

Comparing Subtitling Software

After doing an extensive search of over 50 software programs, I decided to focus on a comparison of the features of three free and three commercial brands. These include:

  • Freeware: Subtitle Edit, Subtitle Workshop, and Aegisub
  • Commercial: SubtitleNEXT, EZTitles, and Ooona Tools

The results can be found in the table below.

If you decide to use cloud-based software (e.g., Ooona Tools or the online version of Subtitle Edit), I would recommend reviewing the nondisclosure agreements you’ve signed with your clients, since these programs store information on servers and not just on your desktop. You could be breaking your agreements without knowing it.

Pricing

Ooona Tools

http://bit.ly/Ooona-tools
Only the professional versions of Ooona Tools have the waveform feature and allow you to click and drag on it. Per their website, the price range goes from the Translate package ($12.00 per month) to the Review Pro package ($450 per month).

SubtitleNEXT

http://bit.ly/SubtitleNEXT
Per their website, SubtitleNEXT has a package called Air Live, which allows for subtitle insertion during on-air playback. You can buy SubtitleNEXT Novice for $485. You can rent SubtitleNEXT Explorer for $142 per month or buy it for $1,881. Or you could buy the SubtitleNEXT Expert bundle, which includes all the plug-ins, for $3,807.

EZTitles

http://bit.ly/EZTitles
You can rent or own EZTitles. They have six types of licenses from which to choose. You can rent the TV, DVD, and Enterprise packages for 80 to100 euros per month. The purchase price ranges from 1,620 euros for their Basic package to 2,380 euros for their Enterprise package. Only TV and Enterprise licenses have closed-caption capabilities.

Comparison of Subtitling Programs Features

Subtitle Edit

Subtitle Workshop

Aegisub

SubtitleNEXT

EZTitles

Ooona Tools

Freeware

Y

Y

Y

Commercial

Y

Y

Y

Video Player

VLC Media Player

Integrated

VLC Media Player

Integrated

Integrated

Integrated

Full-Screen Mode

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Waveform

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Merge/Split

Windows 10

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Error Analysis

Y

Customizable

Y

Customizable Customizable Customizable

Find/Replace

Y Y Y Y Y Y

Spellchecker

Open Office Word Open Office Open Dictionaries Y Y

Multilanguage

Y Y Y Y Y Y

Exports

Dozens Over 60 and Customized Over 10 Over 45 Over 50 Third-Party Conversion Software

Font and Color

Y Y Y Y Y Y

Undo/Redo

Y Y Y Y Y Y

Zero Mouse Interaction

Shortcuts Shortcuts Customizable Keyboard Shortcuts Hotkeys

Cloud-Based

Y Y

Desktop-Based

Y Y Y Y Y

 

Two Things You Can Do to Improve Your Productivity

All things being equal, what can directly affect your subtitling income is speed. I’m not talking about brain processing speed or the amount of time spent on research or reviewing your work, but about typing speed. There are two things you can do to impact your typing speed and, consequently, your income, and they’re free and simple.

Get Off Your Mouse: Don’t be so quick to dismiss this one. If you memorize every keyboard shortcut in your subtitling program—and not just the shortcuts you use the most—you’ll at least double your typing speed! Subtitling software isn’t cheap, and you should be utilizing every feature available to you, not only a handful, like most audiovisual translators. If your software doesn’t allow you to drop the mouse, drop the program and get a new one!

Increase Your Typing Speed: First, test your speed. For this, I like the FastFingers website (http://bit.ly/FastFingers-speed) because it’s free and you can be tested in your target language. Check if you’re a normal typist (40 words per minute), a superfast typist (75 words per minute), or fall under the “rolling in dough” category (working fewer hours than your colleagues for the same money, which means typing about 120 words per minute). The “Intel processor” in your brain can certainly translate more than 120 words per minute. If you’re open and willing to accept advice from me, let it be this: take the test and do some exercises to increase your typing speed.

Future of Subtitling Software

Machine Translation and Post-Editing: They are upon us. Localization companies and departments will start integrating them into their subtitling software. Of course, how fast this will happen will depend on how many translators accept post-editing work. Imagine if no translators accept post-edits? Or, a more moderate idea: what if translators charge the same for post-editing as for translating? I think this would slow down the snowball coming our way.

Translation Memories: SDL Trados Studio broke ground last year with their subtitling plug-in. I think, more than anything else, that this is the future of subtitling. Companies will start integrating translation memory into their proprietary software (I’ll leave the legal and ethical considerations of this one for another time), and audiovisual translators will finally be able to reap the rewards of all their body of work by bringing it together in a memory.

There are many subtitling programs (and at least one plug-in I know about) on the market today. My recommendation is to watch YouTube tutorials or use the free trials most companies offer to see what user interface you prefer. And don’t just look at one, invest your time and look at three at the very least to compare and make an informed decision.

Notes
  1. A Chyron is a machine that creates text-based graphics to be superimposed on a television screen or film frame, such as subtitles or the banners you see on a newscast (e.g., “Breaking news: The Storm is Coming.”).
  2. To watch how a Moviola works, see “Editing on a Moviola,” http://bit.ly/Moviola-editing.

Deborah Wexler is an ATA-certified English>Spanish translator and editor with over 20 years of experience specializing in audiovisual translation and Spanish orthography. She is the cofounder and administrator of ATA’s Audiovisual Division. She has translated over 6,000 program hours for television, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, streaming media, and the big screen. She is the operations manager of the Americas at Pixelogic Media. She is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, and has mentored and trained many translators who want to get into the subtitling field.

1 Responses to "A Look at Subtitling and Closed-Captioning Software"

  1. Celia Szew says:

    Deborah’s article is very illustrative. As a retired movie translator I must admit my ignorance about so many new types of software.
    Things have changed a lot and fast in the last few years.

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