26/04/2013, by CLAS

On subtitles and subtitling software

As the notion of accessibility has become one of the dominant shibboleths of a growing tribe of media specialists, film subtitles – whose single primary function is to provide access to what would otherwise be inaccessible – are still often facing criticism coming from all corners. And it’s true, subtitles really are a funny old beast. It seems that, particularly when they are written in a foreign language – a language other than the language of the material being subtitled – they are the subject of many a scorn and misunderstanding. Scholars sometimes argue over whether subtitles are, in fact, a form of translation. You see, whereas translation usually consists of replacing material in one language with material in another language, subtitles are ancillary – they are added onto an already finished product, and are occasionally perceived by a fringe of the public like some kind of a pervasive tumour taking over an otherwise perfectly healthy organism.

This dubious medical simile falls apart instantly though: despite attracting a lot of attention and (often negative) criticism – perhaps simply because of the vulnerability related to their level of exposure – subtitles are quite simply needed, and are written in such constrained conditions that the art of subtitling is, in my opinion, more akin to tightrope walking, to use yet another, more positive, comparison. In most cases, subtitles have to be written over just two lines, using a number of characters (letters or punctuation) strictly proportional to the amount of time of time they stay on screen, meaning that subtitlers often have to select or rephrase information very carefully and economically.

The Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham has just acquired (with financial support from the Teaching and Learning Board) a fantastic new piece of software called WinCAPS. WinCAPS is a piece of software manufactured by ScreenSystems which allows us to perform various tasks, including writing subtitles for a vast number of video formats. WinCAPS is used by several of the leading companies in the industry, and supports a lot of different languages, so the subtitles can be intralingual (for the deaf and hard of hearing for instance) or interlingual (in a language different from that of the original). Amongst other things, WinCAPS allows you to perform the spotting of subtitles – that’s the inputting of the time a subtitle comes on and off the screen – at the press of a button. When using the software, there are two windows open, one for the video file, and one for the actual subtitles. Inputting text for the subtitles, either in English or in another language is also very easy, and one can actually watch the subtitles and the video together in the video window, which gives a clear idea of what the final product might look like. WinCAPS doesn’t do the translation for you though – it is not a translation software in the same way than, say, TRADOS, is – but it provides an environment in which one can view and edit subtitles whilst watching the video and subtitles together.

There are also a lot of customisable options: one can choose the font size and colour, the position of the subtitles on the screen, the maximum number of characters to be used per line, the maximum reading speed… Well designed and easy to use, WinCAPS turns out to be dangerously addictive (for anyone who likes this sort of thing, of course!), and I have already started using it in class in order to instill my passion for subtitling both to undergraduate and postgraduate students. This wonderful little piece of equipment is yet another welcome addition to our already impressive range of resources at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, with its state-of-the-art interpreting facilities, and its translation suite.

Dr. Pierre-Alexis Mével, French and Francophone Studies

Posted in French and Francophone Studies