Is Transcription Your Royal Road to Hollywood?

See also: Entrepreneurial Skills

Transcription is the practice of transforming audio into text. It can be used to create transcripts of interviews or narrations in the same language, as well as subtitles or closed captions that appear on the screen accompanying videos and films. While there are companies which specialize in subtitles, there is also a healthy need for bilingual freelance translators.

We'll show you how to get started in transcribing, which software can help you in your work, and how to get paying gigs as a transcriber, whether you know a second language or not.

What is audio translation?

Audio translation encompasses a wide variety of content types. The category includes transcription services, which adapts a voice recording in one language to text in another.

Audio translation can also cover going from text in one language to audio in another, as in a voice-over narration. The category includes translations of audio books, but these days it also involves conversions of the audio portion of a video recording. This is the focus of our interest here.

The two skills on which we will focus are subtitling and closed captioning. Let’s distinguish the two so that you can decide where your aptitude lies.

What’s the difference between subtitling and closed-captioning?

You are no doubt familiar with subtitles from watching foreign language movies or TV shows. While in some countries, the technique of “dubbing” is used, replacing the voice in the original language with a translated voice, most countries employ subtitling. They leave in the original voice and add the text of the translation at the bottom of the screen.

Closed-captions may look similar, but they are used for audio in the same language. They help the hearing-impaired and the deaf to understand the dialogue or narration. However, they are also useful in airplanes or other contexts where audio may not easily be heard.

Is subtitling or closed-captioning right for your skill set?

If you don’t know two languages fluently, subtitling will be tough. Being bilingual is pretty much a prerequisite, but that shouldn’t stop you from gaining skills in closed-captioning. The key aptitudes required for that are good hearing, fast and accurate typing, and perfect spelling and grammar skills.  Sure, you can keep playing back a recording until you get things right, but time is money: the longer it takes to transcribe the audio, the less you can get done.

Closed-captioning, however, does involve some additional skills. There is literal or word-to-word transcription in which every uh, ah, stutter and mumble is captured and transcribed. This is required for legal transcription, but it is rarely used outside of that context. In other professional uses, the closed-captioner must use judgment to “clean up” the transcription so that the essential sense of the recording is transcribed and not the stammers and stutters of the speaker. This also has the benefit of taking up less screen space and requiring less reading from the viewer.

Similar considerations apply to subtitling, with the additional requirement that you need to know the subtleties of two languages, not one. In subtitling, there is a need to naturally grasp the conversational conventions of both the original and target language and do your best to convey the “gist” of the intended meaning. As Shakespeare wrote, brevity is the soul of wit. Available screen size is limited, so keep it brief!

There is also the time factor to keep in mind. Subtitles are meant to stay on screen for just a few seconds, especially in fast-flowing conversations. So follow the KISS principle: Keep It Short and Sweet.  Subtitling, unlike closed-captioning, involves translation, which takes more time than transcription. So, the chances are you will need to listening to each spoken phrase a few times.

How do you deal with ambiguity in speech? Many contexts call for unambiguous speech. People say what they mean, aiming for clarity. They want to communicate “just the facts.” However, other speech contexts are more subtle. In poetic or cinematic uses, there are often several levels of meaning. There is what the speaker says, and what the speaker “means”. There is also what the speaker may communicate unconsciously, such as “Freudian Slips.” For the subtitler, the creative challenge is to find words that retain the ambiguity. This is the elegant art of subtitling.

Many freelancers who want to develop their skills in audio translation will need to acquire special software as consumer DVDs and smartphones aren’t built for going back and forward in the recording. There are many apps on the market for simplifying the technical matter of moving back and forth in a recording for subtitling and closed-captioning. There are also editing programs for PCs and smart phones that let you add subtitles or captions easily. These are easy to find with a google search so we won’t focus on them here.

Freelance Marketplaces are the Way to Get Started

If you think you have what it takes to perform services as an audio translator, there’s nothing to stop you from getting started. You don’t need a certification or a diploma. You just need to know what you are doing and doing it well. After you have a bit of experience, you can go to freelance marketplaces like or Upwork and create a profile which lists subtitling and close-captioning among your skills, including languages in which you are fluent.

How much should you charge? It depends where you are in your career and skills development. While Indeed claims that the average hourly rate is between $13 and $20 per hour, that’s probably low for Western countries. Netflix advertised its readiness to pay rates up to $12 per video minute and was flooded with applications. That would mean that subtitling or closed-captioning a 100 minute movie could net you a cool $1200. Not bad for a day’s work. Popcorn not included.

For premium gigs you will need to work with time code and get experience entering titles yourself. But if you are serious about subtitling as a career, most learning resources are available online. There’s no time like the present to get started.

About the Author

William Mamane is Head of Marketing at Tomedes, a global translation and localization agency supporting more than 100 languages and 1,000 language pairs, serving more than 50,000 business clients throughout the world. The company manages a network of thousands of skilled linguists so that it can provide on-demand, fast-turnaround services worldwide.