How I Went from Translator to Subtitler in Just a Few Months: Tips to Start You on Your Way

I’ll resist the urge to start this article by saying how 2020 was a huge mess for us all, because we’ve heard it one too many times, so I’ll get straight to the point. The pandemic took my translation business from surging to flatlining in a matter of days. Before the pandemic, I was a Spanish>English translator specialized in tourism, hospitality, destination weddings, and official documents. I also used to do copywriting for clients in those sectors.

Pre-2020, my stream of work had been steady enough that I never thought about what would happen if people stopped traveling, eating out, and immigrating to other countries all at the same time. (Well, to be fair, nobody would have ever thought that would happen.) But the thing is, it did. The pandemic took away my livelihood in the blink of an eye.

So, I moved quickly. I decided to dive headfirst into a specialization I had been dreaming about for ages, but never had the time to study, research, and actually specialize in: subtitling. I’ve always loved watching TV (with the subtitles on—even in English!). I always thought subtitling would be the coolest gig around but had never made it happen. The pandemic gave me something I desperately needed: a large chunk of time and a good reason to diversify my service offerings. Here’s an outline of the four steps I followed to save my business and quickly transition from translator to subtitler.

Step 1: I signed up for the mentoring program offered by ATA’s Audiovisual Division (AVD). AVD offers a free mentoring program for division members. Long before the pandemic, I applied for the program in hopes that my mentor could help me decide if I should specialize in subtitling. I was lucky enough to be accepted and paired up with Mara Campbell, AVD’s assistant administrator and website coordinator. As a seasoned expert in the field, and as someone who loves her work, Mara explained the ins and outs of the subtitling market, what it was like to be a subtitler (e.g., “Watching TV will never be the same again!”), and what I could expect from a career in the industry. Mara is so passionate about what she does, and her enthusiasm made me realize that this type of work would be a great fit. So, after just a few sessions with her, I decided I would eventually take the leap and specialize in subtitling.

Among many other things, Mara helped me choose a specialized course (discussed below) to study the necessary skill set. After the course, she helped me prepare my résumé and create a list of potential clients. She’s been a continued source of support as I continue to grow in my career.

Step 2: I took the specialized course. In our mentoring sessions, Mara helped me understand that there’s currently a huge demand for translators trained in the art of subtitling. (Fun fact: In 2021, Netflix subtitled seven million minutes of content and dubbed five million minutes of content.1 That’s more than 13 years of subtitled content and almost 10 years of dubbed content! And that’s just one of the world’s many streaming platforms.)

At the end of February 2020, with two months of government-imposed apartment lockdown ahead of me in Spain, I decided to take the online subtitling course Mara recommended. This self-paced course by GoSub is designed to take beginners from “zero” to “subtitler” in just a few weeks. And it did just that. I learned the ins and outs of subtitle translation, including industry lingo, timing technicalities, reading-speed, and character-per-line rules. By the end of the course, I felt fully prepared and confident to present myself as a subtitler to the world.

Step 3: I set up a rigorous marketing plan. The second I completed the subtitling course I added a subtitling page to my website and started marketing like crazy. At the time, I didn’t have much professional experience in subtitling, so I started by highlighting my language pair at the top of the page. Below that, I included a list of genres I had experience subtitling and a list of subtitling tools I knew how to use. (A link to my page is included in the sidebar.) Next, I created a list of dream agencies and companies I wanted to work with and aimed high from the beginning (why not?). I started by reaching out to all Netflix Preferred Fulfillment Partners within the first week after finishing the course. After that, I contacted handfuls of subtitling agencies and post-production studios. My marketing plan included a rigorous follow-up schedule that consisted of sending four follow-up emails to each potential client, once a week, for one month. My final email had “This is my last follow-up attempt!” in the subject line, and that’s when I got the most responses.

Step 4: I started working almost full-time as a subtitler. Thanks to my new skill set and clear marketing plan, within just one month of finishing the online subtitling course, I had almost full-time work as a subtitler. By the time September rolled around, I was invited to test to subtitle for the world’s largest streaming service, Netflix, and passed. My first subtitled film was released on that platform at the end of February 2021. And I’ve been happily subtitling ever since.

What My Business Looks Like Now

I’m currently subtitling about 80% of the time, translating 10% of the time, and consulting new subtitlers 10% of the time. The pandemic taught me a tough lesson. While specialization is key, it’s important to have your eggs in more than one basket. I realize almost all my eggs are currently in my subtitling basket (which isn’t ideal either), but I plan to continue to incorporate translation back into my business as the tourism and travel industry picks up again.

I’m passionate about all the services I provide, found a niche I love working in, and also feel more sturdy and confident in my business than ever before. And I guess I have the pandemic to thank for that.

Useful Links

ATA Audiovisual Division’s Mentoring Program

ATA Audiovisual Division Resource Page

GoSub (offers a range of online subtitling courses)

Netflix Preferred Fulfillment Partners

Netflix style guides (also links to style guides of different languages)

Molly Yurick’s subtitling page

Notes
  1. Lee, Wendy. “Why Dubbing Has Become More Crucial to Netflix’s Business,” Los Angeles Times (February 28, 2022).

Molly Yurick is a Spanish>English translator, subtitler, and consultant to aspiring subtitlers based in northern Spain. Specializing in tourism and hospitality translation, her subtitles can be found on Netflix. In addition to participating in ATA’s School Outreach Program, she serves as deputy chair of ATA’s Public Relations (PR) Committee and is a member of its PR Writers Group. molly@yuricktranslations.com

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