To subtitle or not to subtitle: Sounds of the underground

I’ve only worked at Sky for a few months, but in that short period of time, I’ve been subtitling quite the array of programmes, ranging from the White Lotus to All Hail King Julien, so it’s important to know and consider the audience. When I explain my job to people, there are often a few misconceptions about what it is I actually do, or I get teased for mistakes others have noticed in subtitles before (CRIES IN SPANISH).

Sound descriptions do exactly what they say on the tin: describe sounds. They provide a similar viewing experience for deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences as that of a sighted audience.

For example, in shows such as Rush, the tense atmosphere must be maintained for everyone, because no one likes a spoiler. Sound descriptions aid us, as Subtitlers, to portray the tension or humour, and viewers to experience this atmosphere. Therefore, even though it may seem obvious that (GLASS SHATTERING) is what happens after someone punches a window, it is all building up to something bigger, in the same manner as the programme itself.

Features such as timings and sound descriptions are paired together to create an immersive experience for everyone, in which the subtitles are as frustrating as a programme can be. For example, when you’re watching a film and the subtitle reads (SPEAKS IN FRENCH), and you can’t hep but think, just tell me what they’re saying? That’s because the subtitles are giving all viewers the same experience of the programme. If they haven’t spoken it in English, you don’t get to read the English translation. It’s all part of staying true to the director’s version of the programme, and to the wider picture.

Sound descriptions depend on individual programmes, in which (FARTS) is more suitable for children or a comedy but would seem out of place in a tense drama, where (PASSES WIND) could be better. This is also the case regarding how often they are used around the scripted subtitles. If there’s a fight in a horror film, and a character (SHOUTS) and there is a lot of (GRUNTING), it’s better to use the ‘-ing’ suffix as it implies some form of continuity, and avoids constant, repetitive descriptions on screen which would ruin the ambiance.

We put a lot of thought into what sounds we do and don’t subtitle, all in the aim of giving the best viewing experience for everyone.


By Lucy Griffiths, Subtitler