Subtitling with John Eje Thelin

Moving behind the scenes, I had the chance to chat with John Eje Thelin who has subtitled such indie classics as The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared to working on TV shows like The Simpsons and Tonight With David Letterman

"They're there to be subconscious... A good subtitle is one that you don't even notice."

NSR

Hi, John. How do you get into subtitling?

John Eje Thelin

I don’t know how most people get into subtitling. Honestly, I think they’re there are very few planned paths. There are very few university courses, et cetera. They do exist, but I think they’re rare. I think it’s one of those things that if you have an aptitude for it, sooner or later, you’ll just fall into it, I think.

NSR

And is there a kind of apprenticeship or some kind of schooling or courses?

John Eje Thelin

Generally, not. Not today. Mostly, it’s… I mean, the way it works, it’s different all over the world and in countries that have a lot of subtitling and have a long tradition of subtitling, such as Holland and Sweden. There are usually the companies that will have some short training courses that have gotten shorter over time because they’re trying to make the system quicker and cheaper and faster, and therefore they make worse material and worse subtitles. But when I started out, which was in 2001, we had, I think, a two-week course.

So, 10 days total where they put us in front of an episode of oh, what’s that show? Family Matters? Yeah. And an episode of Cleopatra 2525, the old schlocky science fiction show. And yeah, and then you realize because one of the things you don’t realize before you start trying to subtitle is how long it takes. People are like, Well, how long does it take to subtitle a movie? What a day? Um, no…

If you’re incredibly fast, and I have been at times, you can do a movie in two days, but then you’re not going to be able to proof it very well. Generally, you subtitle about 20 minutes from a full workday save, you know, five or six hours of working. So, that would mean that a feature movie would be 20, 40, 60, 80, 90 hours, about a week, but a week’s worth of work.

So, that’s the first thing that happens when you sit down and they show you how the program works and you start working on it. You sit there and you type and you do everything, and then you realize, Oh, you’ve spent all day and you’ve done three minutes of subtitles. That’s what happens. Like the first couple of days that you do it before you start speeding up.

NSR

So is there a different standard between countries for subtitles?

John Eje Thelin

Very much so. Countries like I said, I think Holland and Sweden. There’s a reason the Dutch and the Swedes are basically the best English speakers, the best non-Native English speakers in the world. And it’s because they’ve had subtitles since the 50s. And that means that they have worked out standards that are consistent and effective in a way that the countries that don’t use a lot of subtitling just don’t have. American subtitles are the worst. They are on screen for almost no time at all and they will usually never compress. They’ll write everything that’s being said. so you don’t have time. And I’ve been recently been watching Drag Race Thailand on the Wow Presents Plus streaming channel and the subtitles there are… basically I will cut my food American. I will cut my food up first because I don’t have time to look down to cut it because if I do, I will miss like two lines of subs since they come up so fast and unnecessarily. A lot of times it’ll be like they could have combined those two, one and a half second ones into a one three-second one. And then you would have time to read it, and they would also have time to look at other things.

NSR

What’s the ideal time or a time frame that a subtitle should be on screen?

John Eje Thelin

Well, the standard is minimum is a second and a half, that’s for “yes” or “no” or “help” or any of those. And then the standard would be about three to four seconds, and you can let it linger for seven to eight seconds if, well, circumstances allow.

NSR

How do you deal with very word-heavy languages like German?

John Eje Thelin

Well, I haven’t really subtitled to or from German. I do English to Swedish and Swedish to English. I’m actually very unusual in that I do both directions. Most people who subtitle do subtitles only into their native tongue. English is not my native tongue, so but because I speak it well enough that I can fool people into thinking it’s my native tongue. I do both directions now. I do mostly into English. I used to mostly translate into Swedish before.

NSR

Are subtitles there to be read or they’re there just to be glanced at?

[00:05:22.420] – John Eje Thelin

They’re there to be subconscious… A good subtitle is one that you don’t even notice that you’ve read a good subtitle leaves you with the impression that you saw something and you understood it, even though you didn’t really know the language. And that’s the big paradox. Or I don’t want to say it’s not a paradox, but it’s one of the frustrations of being a subtitler is that the better you are, the less you’re noticed. So, if you’re a subtitler, even if people notice your subtitles to say, “Wow, that was really good.” Gee, yeah, now… that’s not supposed to happen. They’re just supposed to be like, “Oh, right, I read a subtitle” and it just kind of the information has just been imparted.

NSR

Is it just the gist or the literal interpretation that you’re going for?

John Eje Thelin

That all depends. Like with all translations. You know that how many translators does it take to screw in a light bulb?

NSR

No? Tell me.

John Eje Thelin

That depends entirely on context.

NSR

(laughs)

John Eje Thelin

And that’s true. I mean, context is so much the thing with all translation. Like, people will ask me, “How do you translate this?” Well, it kind of depends. You can never answer it. And you can do it differently on a different day. I’ve had times when. I remember I subtitled a movie I was halfway through, and I realized I subtitled it in a program that I couldn’t use. It was a proprietary program for one of my customers and I was working for another customer. So I had to start over. And then later, I compared the two half hours that I had done at two different times and they weren’t identical.

NSR

Wow.

John Eje Thelin

Yeah. So, you know, it’s a very, very… but the gist is the most important thing. I think. One of the things I have a problem with is when people try to do too much tone unless it’s important, say that there is a plot point that hinges on somebody speaking a certain way. Yes, then you need to get that tone in there. But I think mostly you try to strip it of tone and just get the information across. What is it? What is the information they’re imparting?

And sometimes they can be really tough. I remember there was an episode of Scrubs that I had to subtitle into Swedish. And for Swedish TV, you get two lines of 37 characters. That’s it. And there was one line. It was about four and a half seconds. And I had two lines, so I had two times 37 and 60, that’s 74. I had 74 characters. That’s including spaces, and I don’t remember exactly what it was, but there were like three pieces of information that were all necessary for the point to get across one for one joke. I had to get all those three pieces of information in there. And then, y’know, of course, you can’t break words across lines. And it was one of those. It took probably an hour just to do that one line because I had to compress and move things around and stuff.

NSR

How do you reconcile that when you are sitting in close captioning titles, say for the hard of hearing?

John Eje Thelin

I don’t do close captions. In Sweden, there’s also Swedish subtitles, which are not really closed caption, but it’s called, and I love this, it’s called “language translation”. Yeah, “language texting”, “language subtitling”. Debbi, my wife, who does a bit of subtitling as well, she’s done a lot of like English to English. And in fact, I’ll tell you, this is one of my favourite stories because as I said before the Dutch and the Swedes are very good at English, but at least the Swedes vastly overestimate their ability. Nine times out of 10. Not everyone but a lot of Swedes do. And we did a lot of English to English subtitling for this multinational company. 

They had like 300 short movies that were for internal use, but they were people speaking English but they were from all over the world. So there were Chinese people and Jamaican people and French people. And so because of all of these different accents, they wanted them subtitled into English. And it was OK. Most of them were fairly easy to do because they were not speaking in their native tongues. They would speak slowly and deliberately, except for this week’s video. The Swedes were like, where if a French guy would say “we were having a party because he was retiring”, the Swede would say “we were having a party because he was going in Pancham”, because “going in pension” is the Swedish phrase for retiring, right? And then they assume, “Oh, that’s of course. Of course, that’s how you say it in English”. So, the Swedes were grammatically the worst, except for one guy. There was this one guy that we were like, “he’s pretty good”. And he was in several of these short films, and he was telling about how he was in China. And he was set to negotiate a thing. He was not a negotiator, but he had to negotiate this deal with this company and he says in the story, he says “And there I was, with my bad English”, and his English was the best because he knew it wasn’t perfect. So, that’s and that’s also the problem with subtitling in Sweden is that everybody thinks they can do it. So, it’s super easy to replace subtitles.

NSR

Right.

John Eje Thelin

And when I applied for the job, I think 1500 people also applied. 20 of us were sat down in front of a computer with Family Matters. And out of those 20, I mean, I was in that room for two weeks. I’d say at least half of them weren’t good enough. And that makes me wonder what about the other 1490 people? I mean, I don’t think there is another job where 99 per cent of the applicants are not even remotely qualified for the job.

NSR

Incredible.

John Eje Thelin

So, that’s but those people are getting work now because all the good subtitlers in Sweden, they’ve quit because the pay is so low and just going down.

NSR

When you’re watching a film and you’re looking at the subtitles, what are the worst mistakes, the things that really set your teeth on edge when you’re watching?

John Eje Thelin

Well, other than just plain actual mistakes, which do happen a lot. In fact, I’m writing an entire book on it, in Swedish, though. So, it’s about the classic line “yippee-kayay motherf*cker” from Die Hard which has had several, let’s just say, interesting translations into Swedish. So, that’s the basis of the book. That’s the title of the book [Tjosan, din jävel], for those of you who are Swedes or understand Swedish, you don’t need to be sweet to understand Swedish.

But anyway, what bothers me the most is bad time coding. And it’s about when does the text come in and when does it go out? And especially, like I said, with English subtitles. They tend to like pull them out as soon as people stop talking, whereas in Sweden and Holland if there’s time, you let it linger for two seconds, or two and a half seconds so that people have time to look at the action and then the subtitle.

But if you start pounding out subtitles very fast, then I think maybe subconsciously, at least you get very nervous and, as soon as the subtitle comes on screen, you have to look at it. But if the subtitles come in at a slow, deliberate pace, then you don’t have to snap your eyes to the subtitle. As soon as it comes up, you can look at the action or then look at somebody’s face or look away at your cell phone.

I think a lot of people don’t understand that you usually need to do some compression. And this is one of the reasons I don’t do the Swedish to Swedish subtitling is because you need to do compression there too. And to compress in another language is fairly easy, I find, but to compress in the same language, meaning that what you’re writing and what they’re saying doesn’t quite match, that is a mind f*ck that I can’t handle.

NSR

I think one of the things that bothers me, particularly when I’m watching French films, is their use of multiple colours to try and associate different characters. So, are you like a colour guy or are you a mono guy?

John Eje Thelin

No, no, definitely not. The thing is to me. Colours are for closed captions. Those are for people who are hard of hearing. They need the different colours to know that, “Oh, somebody else is speaking now”. I don’t know about French subtitling standards, but I think they allow three speakers in the same block. And again, I mean, I’m going to defend the Swedish subtitling system or standards as being the best but I think, you know, we got 70 years that we worked on this. I think that we have a clue as to what is most effective and only one speaker per line ever.

NSR

Right.

John Eje Thelin

And no colours, because a subtitle (rather than closed captions) is not for the hard of hearing so we can hear who is speaking usually. I mean, sometimes when you’re subtitling, you don’t have a script and there’s a bit of chaos and it’s like, I don’t know if these three words I just heard were spoken by three different people or all by one? Sometimes that happens. I mean, a lot of times you’re supposed to get scripts, but you usually don’t, which is so weird because there must have been a script at some point, right? But you usually don’t get them. You get a transcript if you’re lucky. And that transcript is usually not that great. And if you’re like, “Well, I didn’t quite hear that. Let me go. Look at the transcript” and then in the transcript, it says “inaudible”.

NSR

Right? Because that’s one of my pet bugbears where I’m watching a film and the subtitles start and it’s subtitling inaudible stuff, that’s just coming up through the levels. and you kind of going “well, is this information actually pertinent to the story”?

John Eje Thelin

Yeah. Or like Catch 22? Have you seen that movie?

NSR

Yes, I have.

John Eje Thelin

That starts out with indistinct dialogue that is later seen from another angle and then heard. In the Swedish VHS release back in the day the opening bits were subtitled. You’re not supposed to hear them. But then again, that’s where we can cheat. One of the favourite things I’ve ever done, I used to do David Letterman, and I probably did 1500 episodes of Letterman into Swedish, but I got to know some of the people involved in various ways.

And there is a comedian called Andy Kindler, and he used to do little reports like once every six weeks, once every eight weeks. And there was one episode where he walks in and he whispers something in David Letterman’s ear and David Letterman laughs and sits down. And so I send Andy an email and said, What did you say? And he told me, and I put it in the subtitle.

NSR

So I think one of the things I get often asked, particularly with regards to the podcast and with the website, is can I not feature more foreign language movies? And I’d dearly love to, but I kind of go through this waiting process where the film does its regional distribution, then it makes its way onto streaming, then it makes its way through to sell-through, Bluray, DVDs and so on. And I discover that there’s still not a subtitle track.

I mean, how expensive can it be? And surely it must really hurt a film’s potential in foreign markets if it doesn’t have a subtitle. So, how expensive is it? How important do producers see subtitles?

John Eje Thelin

They don’t and that’s the interesting thing. In so much of the production process, it seems to be an afterthought every time. There are so many times where I get “our movie’s going to Cannes next week. Can you subtitle it?” And I answer “-Maybe, but you’re going to have to pay extra because I’m going to have to work 12 hour days.”

John Eje Thelin

Yep and because it’s not even a lot. It’s a minuscule percentage of the budget. I mean, a good subtitle for a feature film would cost you… You can probably get it for €1000. You should probably pay €2000.

NSR

That little?

John Eje Thelin

Oh, definitely. Yeah.

NSR

Wow.

John Eje Thelin

The standard in Sweden right now is about €8 per minute of film. That is about where it’s at. It’s been stagnant for 15 years, more or less. I mean, if you’re going to get a good subtitle, you get what you pay for and it’s always like, you said, it must hurt them. There’s a Swedish director called Ulf Malmros, and I subtitled his movie called Slim Susie for the English market, and it did really well.

It did really well in America, and he is smart enough to realize that’s at least partly because of the work I’d done. So, I have subtitled all of his feature films into English since then, but you don’t get that appreciation nine times out of ten as a subtitler. In fact, very rarely do you get any feedback at all. You just write something and you get feedback if you made a mistake.

I was very, very lucky to be working with Jan Troell, who is one of Sweden’s greatest filmmakers, on his latest and probably the last movie because he’s very old. But he called me five, six or seven times to ask about translation things and not in a combative way, but in an interesting way. He called, y’know “Is this really the way?” and I think I made one, maybe two changes after having spoken to him, but a lot of the times when I would tell him, “No, this is, this is the right. I figure is the right translation for this particular line”. He would go, “OK, I bow to your judgment” because he understood that that’s my job. It’s what I do. Whereas like I said, a lot of Swedes would be like… I just had a recent argument with somebody trying to explain that “hamburger”. Just the word hamburger is ground beef. A hamburger though is something very different but y’know, take the phrase “I want to eat hamburger”. And I saying want it to be “I’m going to eat ground beef”? And the Swede was like “Yes”. So, I had to look up the dictionary definition and show him and he’s then “Oh, really? I guess you learn something new every day”. Well, yes! And that’s why I’m a subtitler because I know these things – I am actually fluent in both languages.

NSR

So, if you go back in time and speak to your formative self just as you start your subtitling journey, what would you say?

John Eje Thelin

Well, honestly, it’s going to be a very specific thing because what happened was I had been doing Letterman three or four times a week. Every week, except when they were on vacation and because the deadline was always so tight, I’d get the file in the morning and it had to be done by the afternoon. That’s about 40 minutes of subtitling and like I said, most people subtitle about 20 minutes a day. So, I was making good money and because the deadline was so tight, I could never like, go on “I’ll finish that tomorrow.’ It had to be done. If it wasn’t done by 3:00 p.m., it would not have a subtitle on TV that night. So, I was doing that regularly and it was a good steady regular income. And then one day they just kind of out of the blue, after seven years of doing it, they just emailed me, said, “Oh, by the way, you won’t be getting Letterman next week because we’re going to start doing that in-house” as with the subtitler that they had in the office.

And I did not take that very well. In fact, I took it very, very badly and had all sorts of conspiracy theories. And it was bad. I handled it terribly. And it turns out a couple of weeks later, they realized they couldn’t handle it in-house. It was taking too much time off the subtitler they had in-house, and I was doing it so much faster, et cetera. They would have given it back to me if I hadn’t basically burned that bridge.

So, that’s what I would tell myself. Just settle down, just be calm. But it’s something I have for my dad. My dad was the same way. He was a jazz musician, and he could have been one of the most famous trombone players in the world if he didn’t just blow up at people whenever he felt that he was slighted somehow.

NSR

Ouch. So, what would you say to anybody interested in subtitling and looking to break into the industry?

John Eje Thelin

Don’t do it. I’m sorry.

NSR

That’s brutal.

John Eje Thelin

Yeah, it’s a rough, rough business that’s just getting rougher and rougher. I think wage levels in Sweden have dropped, and I think IN most of Europe have dropped by about 15 to 20 per cent over the last couple of years. And that’s assuming that you get “first translations” because there’s now a system that’s been around for a while called “second translation”. A second translation is usually where you get a translation that’s already or a subtitle that’s already been done in a language that is reasonably close to the one that you’re translating to. Usually not very helpful, but they have started an even worse thing called English master text, whereas somebody in a low wage country like the Philippines or in India puts a subtitle in, but they write everything. They write every single word. They don’t compress. And even if they were to compress, they wouldn’t be compressing to match the language that you’re subtitling into because it’s different in different countries.

I mean, just the fact that the Germans put the verb at the end means that they have to think completely differently about how they put the subtitles in compared to the language to the spoken word. So, unless you’re in Finland, I believe that the Finnish subtitles union actually managed to fight back a little bit. And so I think the Finns are making a decent amount of money for the work that they do. But I think very, very few people elsewhere are doing it because they are now transnational conglomerates doing this. SDI media. They have offices in over 150 countries and they’re price dumping everywhere, and most of the TV channels and most of the DVD video producers, they just they sell to the lowest bidder. And because people don’t really complain. For instance, the Swedish DVD release and Bluray release of The Pacific. It has a subtitle that is… It is atrocious. It’s not that it’s just a little bad. No, for instance, marines are, I think, consistently written as marjine, which is not even a word in Swedish.

I tried to track down who had done that subtitle and HBO just stonewalled me. They wouldn’t even answer the question because obviously, they were embarrassed they’d sold it to a cheap company. There was a subtitling company in Israel for a while where they didn’t have a Swedish QC (a quality control person) and so the subtitles that came out of there were just… I can’t even describe it. It was absolutely terrible. The thing is if you have the skills and the interests that make you a good subtitler or you can probably get another job that pays better.

NSR

Fantastic. Thank you, John. That’s really kind of you.

John Eje Thelin

Thank you for having me.

NSR

My pleasure.