Are subtitles the secret to editing foreign language videos?

01st March 2021

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Are subtitles the secret to editing foreign language videos?

By Dom Bourne, founder and president of Take 1

When the world remembers 2020, it’s unlikely that the Academy Awards will spring to mind.  They’d barely finished rolling up the (soggy) red carpet when Covid-19 commanded our attention, and we thought of little else for the rest of the year.  But in some ways the awards were a harbinger of what was to come: Netflix earned more nominations than any of the traditional movie studios (that have since suffered from worldwide theatre shutdowns) and PARASITE became the first non-English language film in Oscar history to win the award for Best Picture (in a year where TV and streaming audiences turned to foreign language programming to fill the content gap created by lockdowns.)

Now, as production starts up again and travel restrictions ease, the increased appetite for global stories and demand for factual content means that more production teams are facing the challenge of creating video content in foreign languages.  And, while shooting interviews with people that don’t speak your language can be as easy as getting someone on location to act as an interpreter, post producing this content isn’t as simple – partly because editing requires very precise video translation and partly because it’s such a time-consuming process.  So, how have post-production teams tackled this problem in the past and what is the best way to edit foreign language videos?  We’ve explored the pros and cons of different approaches so that you can choose the best solution for your production.   

interpreters can translate live interviews on location, but post producing foreign language content isn't as simple
 Option 1: Hire a multilingual post-production team.

Arguably the holy grail of editing foreign language content is to find an editor or post-production assistant that speaks both your language, and the language spoken by your interviewee, fluently.  This should mean that you won’t need to make any changes to your workflow and can get maximum efficiency from your team and resources.  But this approach can severely limit the talent pool available for your production.  What are the chances of finding an editor that meets all your creative and logistic requirements and also speaks the languages your interviewees speak?  This is particularly unlikely if you’re working with languages that aren’t widely spoken or if you’re working with different dialects.  There’s also a big difference between speaking a language, being fluent in it and being bilingual.  As the producers of the documentary “Beside the Golden Door” discovered, when you’re editing sensitive or complex content, you can’t risk working with people that aren’t professional translation service providers.   \

hiring a translator to sit alongside your editor is a luxury few productions can afford
  • Option 2: Bring a video translator into the edit suite.

Hiring a professional translator to sit alongside your editor will undoubtably provide language accuracy, but at what cost?  Having a language expert on hand for the entire edit means that your post-production team can cut with confidence – splicing sentences together and extracting segments without compromising the integrity of the language or the storyline.   But besides being a luxury that few productions can afford, this approach also doesn’t provide a language solution for logging or any other edit prep.  Your post-production is going to take longer and become even more expensive if you’re only able to start reviewing your rushes and working on the storyline when you get into the edit suite.  Finally, as cloud editing is increasingly adopted, there’s the question of how video translators would “sit in” on remote edits. 

Another limitation for both this and option 1 is that they’re only viable if you’re editing content in one language.  If you’re editing footage that includes a variety of different languages, then you’ll either have to find multilingual talent or split the work across teams with different language skills.

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  • Option 3: Use a foreign language transcription to build a paper edit.

A popular way for production teams to plan storylines and cut down on edit time is to create a paper edit using transcriptions of your interview footage.  A slight variation of this approach can be used for foreign language edits, as suggested in this Creative Cow forum.  Start by having time-coded transcripts made from your original-language video interviews.  Next, get these transcriptions translated into English.  Then create a spreadsheet with the time code, foreign-language transcription and the English translation laid out side-by-side.  Now you can use the English text to put a paper edit together and, when you get to the edit suite, use the time code and original language transcription to identify the relevant clips and build your sequence accordingly. 

This is a cost-effective way to edit video content in another language and it will get the job done, but it does result in some creative compromises.  As any edit producer will tell you, while paper edits are a great way to start planning your cut, the final sequence rarely matches the paper version and unfortunately, this workflow isn’t really conducive to refining your paper edit.   You’ll have to work with blocks of dialogue (based on the time code segments in the original transcription) and – because your edit is almost entirely planned on paper and the translations are separate to the video content – your editor will have limited input into shaping the storyline. 

The language accuracy in this workflow is dependent on the quality of your original transcription and the subsequent translation of the transcript, so it’s really important to use professional transcription and translation services.   The good news is that you’ll be able to re-use both the transcription and translations when you create your subtitles and prepare your broadcast deliverables. 

ASR captioning

    

  • Option 4: Add subtitles to video rushes before the edit

This method takes option 3 a step further by using your video translations to create subtitles for all of your interview rushes.   This way, you’re still able to prepare a paper edit and benefit from all the other positive aspects of option 3, but you’re not as creatively compromised in post-production.  With each line of dialogue supported by a corresponding subtitle track, you’ll be able to work with your editor of choice to refine your storyline and can share your work in progress with other contributors and stakeholders at any point. 

A drawback to this approach is that it can become expensive to translate, transcribe and subtitle all of your raw footage, especially if your production has a very high shoot to edit ratio.  One way to cut down these costs is to use ASR transcription software, free translation tools and subtitle generators.  But, in addition to the issues around language accuracy raised previously, this multi-step process can be very time-consuming (as this documentary editor tells Post Perspective.)  The output from non-media specialist services also often needs to be reformatted – as this Reddit contributor explains, even language professionals won’t necessarily know the character limits and other technical specifications for subtitles unless they’re media specialists.  These technical specifications are particularly significant if you’re editing on an Avid Media Composer, as this article in Premium Beat details, the formatting of an AVID DS Caption File is very important and AVID’s SubCap effect will not import an improperly formatted file.  The technical formatting required differs depending on whether you want to add subtitles to Final Cut Pro, subtitle Davinci Resolve sequences or create Premiere Pro subtitles.  

Another way to reduce costs is to simplify the workflow and cut down on your team’s edit time spent correcting content, repurposing material and reformatting files.  Using a media specialist language provider like Take 1 to transcribe, translate and prepare subtitles for your raw footage means that your team benefits from the highest quality transcription and translations, and will receive subtitles that are broadcast compliant and compatible with your NLE of choice.  So, you can get on with your edit.    

We know that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to editing foreign language videos, and this isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the options available (for one, we haven’t explored the overdubbing option suggested in the Los Angeles Creative Pro User Group.)  But hopefully the above information does give production teams facing this challenge for the first time an insight into some of the available options.  And if you need help with your transcriptions, translations or subtitles, give us a call.