Using subtitles to paint the perfect picture

by Josephine Beney

As editors and translators, it’s our job to make sure your message gets across. When we’re not writing new material ourselves, we’re busy helping our customers to improve the content and accessibility of their own corporate communications. Because successful communication is about more than just getting your message heard – it also has to be understood. One of the most effective ways to engage with people these days is with audiovisual media, and companies are increasingly turning to films, presentations, video blogs, and animations as lively, direct methods of reaching out to customers and employees.

Jo Beney

Communication is about connection

But what if the person watching or listening doesn’t understand the language being spoken in the film, or is hard of hearing? What if the speaker being interviewed in your fantastic video blog has a strong foreign accent, or speaks so quickly that they swallow half their words? Perhaps your presentation is bursting with facts and figures – how can you make sure your audience understands and retains the salient points you wish to emphasise? What about people wanting to watch that neat little animation of yours with the sound off?

Successful communication means making a better connection

One solution is to spell it out – literally. Adding subtitles can improve the impact of your material by expanding the potential target audience and enhancing the way content is presented. What does this entail, and when might it make all the difference? Let’s take a look at a few case studies to find out.

A large multinational is rolling out a new health and safety programme for staff at various locations around the globe. After months of preparation, the information video is ready to go live – but the film, which is narrated in German, also features interviews given by international safety managers in their native tongues. The fastest and most cost-effective way to make the video accessible to a wider audience is to add subtitles throughout in the language understood by the majority of employees: in this case, English. This not only makes the content comprehensible whilst allowing each speaker’s voice to be heard, it also makes the film more homogenous, and provides a baseline text that can easily be translated into other languages.

Following extensive research, a local company concludes that advertising on public transport will grant them excellent access to their target audience. Video information screens are the perfect channel, but require the message to be conveyed without audio, as traffic noise is too loud for passengers to hear what’s being said. What’s more, despite being a “captive” audience, travellers’ attention spans are limited by their journey times and level of concentration, so subtitles have to be succinct, attention grabbing and on message. Cute video shorts with easily legible, punchy text not only serve to entertain and engage the passenger; they also help to ensure that the next journey they make is straight to your door.

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As in previous years, Bosch Packaging Technology showcased its presence at the ACHEMA 2015 trade show by publishing a series of daily video blogs from the event. Once again, the company’s communicators turned to BVIW to help them produce their blog as quickly as possible, allowing them to share their experience of the world’s leading trade show for the processing industry with an international audience in near-real time. With a dedicated native-speaker translator on standby at BVIW, turnaround times were kept to an absolute minimum – enabling the customer to publish Monday’s blog by Tuesday morning. Their appreciative email speaks for itself:

“Many thanks [for Monday’s transcription work]. Without your help, we wouldn’t have been able to meet our deadline. We finished the video at half past one in the morning, and were able to publish it first thing on Tuesday, as planned.”
Gitta Baumann
Manager Internal Communications, Bosch Packaging Technology

Video: BVIW’s subtitling helped to promote Bosch Packaging Technology at Achema 2015.

In addition to subtitling requests, the BVIW team are also regularly commissioned to produce voiceover material in various languages. Sometimes the original-language script is provided by the customer, sometimes we have to transcribe it ourselves by extracting the text from the audiovisual source.

Making a good connection great

As you can see, our brief varies according to the job, ranging from subtitles and voiceovers to translations and transcripts. Some customers want a verbatim account; others have strict specifications regarding length or content. So what, if any, are some of the general rules of thumb that apply in each case? Well, timing is everything. Subtitles (and voiceovers) are useless if they don’t match the visual. Sentence composition and word speed has to take into account not only what the viewer is seeing, but also how quickly they can read. Added to which, size matters – subtitles usually take up no more than two lines at the bottom of the screen, which adds a whole new dimension to the challenge of phrasing content as concisely and clearly as possible.

With any subtitling, it is of paramount importance to adopt the right style, tone and register. For instance, subtitles or voiceovers for an interview should aim to capture the natural rhythm of the speaker’s voice, including any acoustic indicators of nationality, age etc. that would normally come across. Another aspect to bear in mind when working with visual media is that the viewer’s gaze will fall on more than just the main subject of the shot, so it may be necessary to include additional information in the subtitles (such as other voices in the background, or the translation of a sign). By leaving out anything that is not considered relevant, however, subtitles and voiceovers can also be useful editing tools that help focus the viewer’s attention on what the customer wants them to notice. The written word has a powerful impact, but in combination with audiovisual media its influence is even greater.

These are just some of the ways in which subtitles and voiceovers can affect and enhance the way we communicate information. Spelling it out improves the content and accessibility of even the most illustrative corporate communications – sometimes it’s words that help people get the picture.

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