O Me of Little Faith

You meet some interesting people on Twitter. One of them I’ve met recently is Nadine Bells, who lives in Canada and is a media subtitler — she’s one of the people who transcribes dialogue (and other stuff) on television shows for those who watch them on DVD with the subtitles on.

Yes, she watches TV for a living, but it’s not all popcorn and Snuggies. I thought her writing-based job sounded interesting, and Nadine graciously submitted to an interview about it. Enjoy.

JB: Tell me about your job. What does a normal day look like for you?

Nadine: I’m an English subtitle editor. Subtitling is similar to closed-captioning, except that my target audience is a hearing one, so my files typically don’t include sound effects. Nor is my work intended for live broadcasts. I’m strictly in the DVD business. So when you watch your box set of [insert awesome TV show here]’s fourth season with the subtitles on, know that you’re enjoying the fruits of my labor. On any given day, I could be asked to do any one of the following:

• Transcribe a media file when no script is available.

• Break up a studio-delivered script into subtitles, cue it accordingly, match the language and style to our studio preferences, and research all names and project-specific terms. I also make sure that the titles are readable, truncating dialogue if characters speak at speeds that are unreadable when transcribed verbatim.

• Proofread a file. “Polishing the apple,” if you will.

• Adapt a file for hard-of-hearing viewers. This is where my job almost becomes closed-captioning. I identify off-screen characters and to add in all the fun sound effects. So for a cheesy ’80s action show, I’d spend my entire day adding “bandit grunts.” Have you ever tried to describe the sound of a knife entering flesh off-camera? We debated over “squelching” for some time.

How in the world did you get a job in subtitling?

I found a job post in a local entertainment magazine’s classifieds. I was just out of college and wanted to do something writerly and entertainment-related. This fit the bill. I then wowed ’em with my knowledge of the English language.
Did it require certain training or experience?

After getting a BA in Drama, I pursued a post-grad in TV Writing and Producing. This probably helped a little, but the real foot-in-the-door skill was having grammatical superpowers. The ability to adapt style-wise and learn new software quickly is also pretty critical here, although my first week was pretty embarrassing. I’m far less clumsy around a computer now.

Who’s your boss? Are you freelance or do you work for a production studio, network, etc?

I work for an international media company; most of the major studios are clients.

What’s the hardest part about subtitling?

Staying sharp. I have to be constantly on the lookout for rogue apostrophes and titling inconsistencies. Working on a great show, maybe the fourth episode of a season, and then getting assigned episode 12 and having no idea how I got there. Or working on a movie, but only being assigned the ending.It destroys your ability to read like a normal person. At church, I end up editing the words to songs in my head, wondering why on earth someone would project lyrics with such inconsistent line breaks. It’s a bit of a problem.

What’s the best part?

• Problem-solving. There’s something very rewarding about identifying an obscure piece of music using YouTube clips and mp3 samples. Or finally deciphering what’s being said by a heavily accented bad “actor” shouting in a noisy battlefield.

• Watching TV for a living. Reading actors’ IMDb bios without time-wasting guilt. Wikipedia plot summaries. And then beating everyone you know at Trivial Pursuit.

• Pride in doing something that people appreciate. A teacher told me she encourages her young students to watch everything with subtitles to improve their English skills. This holds me accountable to quality work.

What’s the most surprising thing about it?

It’s very research-heavy. A lot of people are surprised at the massive daily Googling. But if [quasi-famous old man] mentions the name of the tailor he went to when shooting [super-famous franchise] on location in the ’70s, I will find the proper spelling of said tailor’s name.

It’s also pretty time-consuming. Some projects take up to eight hours to get through one hour of media. So it’s not quite the same as watching TV. Unless you’re a slow-motion viewer.

What shows do you enjoy watching (or working on) the most?

1. We fight over certain retro prime-time soaps. For most of us, it’s because we missed them the first time. Picking a favorite would be like picking a favorite child. And I don’t have kids.

2. Childhood cartoons. And knowing that they’re about to show up at Blockbuster.

3. There was an episode of a show that starred a coworker. To see him murder a high-school student on-screen was simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.

4. If an episode or movie can make me cry while I’m fiddling around with punctuation and encyclopedias, it automatically becomes a favorite. Because watching things as slow and disjointed as I do makes for very little emotional connection with the story. (P.S. Don’t tell anyone I’ve cried at work.)

Tell me five more things about yourself.

1. I was raised without cable. I’m making up for that now.

2. I’m Canadian. Like Wolverine. But without the sideburns.

3. I write. Often about strangers’ weddings and celebrity news.

4. I blog. Most recently, about umbrellas, plaid and Lost.

5. I tweet. This “following” business indulges my inner cyber-stalker.


Thanks, Nadine. You can follow her on Twitter @onhertoes and keep up with everything else at Nadine’s blog.

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