Anatomy of Subtitles


Let’s face it.  When you first start watching international dramas, you likely have a love hate relationship with subtitles. Seriously, its a pain to have to read television.  Then, one day, you realize that you totally depend on them.  I first had that realization when I was watching a drama where the actors were speaking English.  Yes, I read the subtitles!  I looked at my daughter and guess what… she was too!

With all of the streaming services available for shows these days, you likely haven’t given a second thought to how subtitles arrive on your screen.  I honestly really hadn’t either.  I would complain when they were poorly worded or when punctuation or capitals were missing or when the words didn’t match the scene but that’s about it.

In the peak of an addict type moment, I went service shopping.  I discovered one site had dramas earlier than another but that the subtitles were not quite complete when the drama first showed up to watch.  In other words, you could watch it without subtitles at that point if you wished.  The percent subtitled went up and up over the hours until finally… it was ready!  Upon digging further, I realized that the site was supported almost entirely by volunteers.  Yup!  That’s how works. Joe-average every day people who love watching dramas so much are were willing to put the subtitles in themselves for other people to watch!  How awesome is that?!

So, what is a girl like me to do in order to help out?  I don’t speak a foreign language well enough to translate, so what other options were there? (Sorry Mom and Dad.  My French is seriously rusty!) That’s when I found out how it all works.

When a drama is licensed by, the drama will come a certain way. For Chinese dramas for example, the drama comes with built in Chinese subtitles.  If you watch dramas on Hulu or Netflix, you will often notice Viki subtitles!  Well, at Viki, volunteers put those subtitles there!  So here is how they magically get there…

When a drama is uploaded to the site by Viki, the first thing that has to happen is segmenting.  The little volunteer elves go in and literally place stop and go marks for every bit of dialogue throughout the drama.  This may also include lyrics to beginning and ending title sequences.  (In Chinese dramas, I have seen that chunk be as long as two minutes!)  They make sure the segments don’t overlap or else you get that weird floating subtitle thing and make sure they don’t bleed too far into another frame or else you get words that don’t match the scene.  These segmenters are like ninjas!

Once they are done, the translators/subtitlers come in.  Typically, dramas are translated from the native language to English first.  Some dramas have everyday sorts of phrases and language but others add in interesting dialect, historical references, medical phrases and sometimes even other languages.  Translating would be wicked easy if they all just said,


“How are you?”

“Five green pens are on the table.” (yup, I can say and write these in French! 🙂 )

Not so for all dramas.

Once the translation/subtitles reach a certain point (typically around 90-95% translated- which means that 90 to 95% of the segments have something in them) then the editor hops in.  Some dramas have translation editors as well as general editors.  This is where I discovered my function!  I can’t translate but boy do I sure know when something is not quite right in English! Editing a drama typically takes 1 1/2 to 2x as long as the show is long.  So, for a drama that is 45 minutes, it can take up to 90 minutes to edit. (As an aside, my personal correspondence is a mess, so please, don’t take this talk type of writing too much to heart when considering my editing skills!)

Once the editors give the episode the green light and the drama is completely subtitled at 100%, then the episode is released for other language translation.  The subtitle process happens all over again for all of the other awesome languages.

From start to unedited, the fastest I have seen is about eight hours from upload and that is with a full and active team.  I would say average is more likely around 10-12 hours minimum and for some a full day or three if the team is a bit smaller or the content is a bit denser.  Daily dramas are really, really hard to keep up with!!!  That would be a minimum of 8 hours of time every day for volunteers!  This is why it is seriously so important for you NOT to take the work of these volunteers for your own gain on a youtube site or otherwise.  Please respect the work they do!

Now, please realize that I do not get paid by Viki for writing this.  Because I volunteer my time, I do get access to shows that are not otherwise available to me… BONUS!  Viki members seem to like to preserve more cultural nuance in their subtitles than some other sites.  As I told one subtitle friend, I try to not make subtitles totally “white bread” otherwise I might as well watch American television!

And there you have it!

So next time you want to give a drama a poor review based on subtitles, consider all the effort that goes in before it even reaches your viewing pleasure.  How about a kind word of encouragement instead!

Thanks for stopping by and reading!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s