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Home Careers A Day in the Life of a Subtitler

A Day in the Life of a Subtitler

by Staff Reporter

When we’re watching our favourite South African television show and the characters start to speak in a language we don’t understand, our eyes almost automatically begin to read the subtitles so we can keep up with the drama. We hardly ever think about the person behind the scenes who ensures the accuracy of those words. FundiConnect caught up with Kate Mpshe, a subtitler for one of South Africa’s most popular soapies, Isidingo, to find out how those words end up at the bottom of our screens.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Time of Day Activity Comments
05:00 Wake up, pray and meditate  
06:00 Take a bath  
07:00 Leave for work  
08:00 Arrive at the office, have breakfast Work supplies us with scones.
09:00 The block with episodes arrives and I start working  
12:00 Done with my first episode, go for lunch They also supply us with lunch. Full course meal. How lucky am I?
13:00 Come back from lunch and start with another episode  
16:00 Send off episodes to the language advisor

She makes corrections and sends them back following day

Nothing left for me to do – Home is calling.
17:00 Back at home. Start the pots.

Play with the kids while we wait for supper.

I always don’t know what to cook.
19:00 Supper is served! Wash the dishes right after supper
20:30 Read The Little Red Hen to my 4 year old son about 5 times before he falls asleep Off to sleep for me and the rest of the family.

What’s the difference between subtitling and transcribing?

Transcribing is what you find in court where a person types word for word everything that is said as a record of the proceedings in the courthouse. What I do as a subtitler is simply summarising the gist of what is being said without losing the meaning.  If we transcribed everything the actors said, there would be far too many words on the screen. Also remember that the way we speak isn’t always grammatically correct and that’s what we also correct as we subtitle. For example, the actor will say, “I convinced Sipho to come along.” I would write,  “I persuaded Sipho to come along.” This is because you persuade someone to do something and they are then convinced.  

What happens before subtitles reach our TV screens?

On a Monday I receive the block of episodes I’ll be subtitling. It takes me about two to three hours to subtitle and translate and then I send them off to the language advisor. She will make corrections in terms of the grammar and then she sends it back for me to implement the corrections. On Tuesday I’ll spend the day making my corrections and on the Wednesday we do a preview of the episodes with the channel. By the time it’s seen on TV, many eyes have checked it thoroughly.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love it when the translating gets challenging. Sometimes I have to translate for a character who speaks a more modern Tsotsitaal that I understand very little of. I’ve learned how to read between the lines of what the actor is saying without losing the humour or the purity of the meaning. When they speak just isiZulu or Sesotho I don’t really get to use what I like to call the artistic part of my brain. It also feels great when an actor comes around to see how I’ve translated something they said and they confirm that I’ve nailed it. Other times I have to consult with them to understand the heart of what they were trying to get across.

What do you enjoy least about your job?

I suppose it’s when we have to work back to back and my schedule gets rather hectic. For example, we’ve been on break along with production crew but they’ve now returned to work before us. They’re already shooting episodes and this means that by the time we get back, the workload will have piled up. It’s going to be fast paced and there’s nothing we can do about it. Thankfully it’s not all the time.

Please explain the journey you’ve had to get where you are?

I had left my previous job in HR after having a baby and when I went back into the job market this opportunity came up. I went in for an interview and I was asked a series of questions by a panel of senior production people. I was asked if I had ever been in the industry and coming from a completely different field, I thought that it would count against me but by the time I got home I got a call to say that I had landed the job.  I went to the interview with an unrelated degree not knowing that I would fall in love with languages and now I’m considering taking it further.

Is there a qualification required to perform this job?

There’s no subtitling course that you can take to get in. You just have to have a strong command of the English language and know other languages. With English you need to be able to pick up grammatical errors that the actors make when they speak.

It’s not really a bad thing if you don’t know a lot of languages because you can always consult especially for the type of production I work for but it really makes your job easier to know other languages. I sometimes have to consult when I don’t really understand. Remember that the isiZulu we speak in the township or the Sesotho we speak here (in Gauteng) are not the same as those spoken purely in KwaZulu-Natal or places like QwaQwa so you may need to consult with either the actor or someone else who really understands the language.

The more you expose yourself to the beautiful languages in our country, the more opportunities you can take up.

Did you receive any training once you were hired?

We were trained a little bit on how to use the system but most of what I do I learned on the job. In the first month when we were being trained on how to use the system, I spent a great deal of time developing my own language skills. I read more books and I started translating movies in my own time. I even found an isiZulu textbook that is used in primary school and I started going through it again. Another thing that used to help me was collecting words I’ve never heard before; I would write them down along with the meaning and I made an effort to use them in sentences.

Is there room for growth in this industry?

You could become a language advisor if you are really good in grammar while some people find an interest in other aspects of production and will either go study something related to their interest or find their way into the production.

What do you wish you had known before you went into your career?

If I had known that I would love subtitling this much, I would have focused on languages in university. I see how limited I am and sometimes have to turn down jobs because I don’t know a language like Tshivenda. I also wish I had known that being a freelancer allows you to be in charge of your own time. I’m able to take on extra jobs, which is fantastic. Different production houses use different systems and this has expanded my experience a great deal.

What is a typical starting salary in this career?

As a freelancer you get paid per episode about R500 but it depends on many factors. If it’s mainly translation you would get paid more than if you are simply subtitling a primarily English production. I would say if you want more money you have to learn other languages.

Any insightful advice you have for someone who wants to get into your career.

There’s a drive for people to start speaking their home languages so the industry is opening up for people who speak Tshivenda and Xitsonga to become subtitler’s. I would say learn as many languages as you can and the jobs will come to you. There aren’t enough subtitler’s in the country so this is definitely a career to consider.

FundiConnect 2Cents

Being a subtitler comes with no fame or recognition and requires you to constantly develop yourself and your language skills. Although there is no qualification necessary to get into this career, we recommend studying something that will help you strengthen your language skills and excel in the industry.


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