[Experiences] Yours Subtly – On being a Subtitler

All those blog words away, at the end of the article on my experiences in search of a career, I had written, “I am now growing my own wings to fly in my own sky…. and soon, I will take you with me.” 

The time has come to show you the world of my work. Friends who have been following me all these months already know that it’s subtitling, I’m talking about. Still, whenever I meet someone new and I tell them I’m a subtitler, they look up curiously and ask what’s that. So, here’s to all those wanting to know more.

Let me tell you first how I found this sky. Having bid a bye to my five-year-old career in software, I was trying out many things. But at the same time, I was doing something without even giving it a thought. I was translating Madhan Karky’s lyrics for his website. Just for him. Sometimes what you are desperately searching for is right under your nose! I realised that this was a love for languages and words, which went a long way back to my childhood, when I couldn’t wait to vanish into the world of yet another book. A window opened and I could see where I wanted to go. Just because my spouse is in the movie industry, I didn’t dive right in and start churning out subtitles any way I wanted. I wanted to learn all about it, first. I found the right person to teach me the art of subtitling. Bartho Kriek, founder of Subtitling Worldwide, is a certified teacher of subtitling and has been working on this field for decades. I spent three months and more than 200 hours of practice, working on Subtitling Worldwide’s course to understand what good subtitling is.

‘Subtitling? Isn’t it about putting some words on the screen? What’s the big deal?’ – These thoughts may have crossed many minds. It may not be rocket science but I can tell why it is fairly challenging. In a given time frame of so many seconds, here are some of the many constraints, a subtitler faces:
1. You have to say what’s being said in a maximum of around 86 characters.
2. Not reveal a comic punch line or suspense pointer.
3. The time window must not be too short or too long to disturb the viewing experience.
4. Ensure that the sentence is grammatically correct.
5. Present the essence of what’s said to be read in the blink of an eye.

First of all, a subtitler must pack up his/her ego. Subtitles/ Translations are not about you. It’s about a creation and you are just a medium through which it reaches a larger audience. You may have the skills to rhyme like a rapper, but that’s useless and rather harmful if you are going to distract the audience from visuals that was created with so much effort. Hundreds of people have left the comfort of their home to stand in the rain and shine, to create something for the viewer to relish. If you, as the subtitler, are going to put complicated words to cater to your ego, you are not being true to the ethics of your work. A subtitler just needs to know where to talk, what to talk and more importantly, where to stay silent.

In the movie Thangameengal, which I had the good fortune of subtitling, towards the end of the movie, there is the scene when the father saves the daughter from the pond and shows the gift he has fought for and brought for her. As the child fondles the puppy with so much love, music from the mesmerising ‘Ananda Yazhai’ plays in the background. At this time, the little girl, calls out to the puppy with some endearing names. I didn’t subtitle the words that the little girl calls out to that puppy right then, because at that moment what I felt was more important was that delightful expression on the child’s face and that heavenly music playing.

There is justice in this world. Your hard work will surely find its reward. Thangameengal is travelling to many, many places today. On a personal note, I was so touched to read these words by Director Ram, saying how the audience in the International Film Festival in Goa, laughed in all the places where they laughed here in Tamilnadu and they clapped in all the places, where they clapped in Tamilnadu. To a subtitler, there is no greater compliment than to have a non-native speaker relish a movie like a native speaker!

Subtitles are for people who speak other languages, for them to savour a story in your language. When people who are Tamil speakers congratulate me on the aptness of my subtitles, I feel good that they have taken the time and effort to acknowledge my work. Still, my true happiness is in touching the heart of a non-native person, who has understood the beauty and meaning of what a creator is conveying. I received many appreciations for my work in ‘Irandam Ulagam’ but most precious of it, is the one accorded by a film school student in the UK, who does not know Tamil but is a fan of Tamil Cinema. He wrote to me saying,

“And thank you SO MUCH for the subs! Clear, concise, readable, and with all the Selva essence in tact! It is due to your work that I enjoyed the crazy dialogues (Anushka’s friend analysing every part of Arya’s body was my personal favourite…hilarious and strange!). I hope you have many more projects in the future and that they all make it to UK screens. This was my subbed first film of yours I’ve seen, and I loved the lack of over-complicated flowery language that the characters obviously didn’t say (I’m too used to that!!) and the very readable formatting. Glad to see all the songs subbed as well!”

It’s their appreciation of a movie, that’s the best possible appreciation I could receive.

Then again, you have the complicated task of subtitling comedy movies. Anyone trying to elicit a laugh from the audience will appreciate how difficult the task is. Now compound that to the fact that it’s in another language. Your jokes are not their jokes. What would tickle you may make them feel icky! So, it’s challenging and interesting too, to do translations of comedies. Subtitling movies like ‘Itharkkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara’ and ‘Sutta Kadhai’ gave me an opportunity to experiment with the comedy genre of movies.

In ‘Itharkkuthane’, anyone who has watched the movie would remember the following exchange between Sumar Moonji Kumar and Rombha Sumar Moonji Kumar:
“Annachiye Thookiralamaa?”
To which Vijay Sethupathy replies
“Annachi enna kulandhaiyaa da thookarathukku?”

A Tamil speaker understands that this is a comic play on the word, ‘thookirathu’, which means both ‘to finish someone’ and ‘to lift something’. A literal translation would fall flat here. So I worked to find a right equivalent, which went like this,
“Shall we take out Brother?”
The reply is in the image below:

Coming to songs, which are the quintessential part of Tamil movies. I see songs as the quaint bridges that connect shifts in the movie. Songs written well, convey much more than many scenes put together. The songs are ploys used by our directors to quickly present the emotions, which are shifting gears in the actors. Movies go to foreign locales, work on intricate choreography or in the case of montages, have a lot of events unfolding on the screen.

To truly enhance these visuals, you need to work as much as possible on the beauty of language, but definitely not at the cost of distracting the viewer from those intricate emotions and painstaking visuals. In all my songs, I try to do that tightrope walk between beauty and meaning. With the nuanced and fine visuals that our directors create, the subtitler just needs to present the words as poetically and as simply, as possible.

What do I want for myself in this career? Do I want to do 100, 200 movies? I have never been a number person. It’s not about how wide I go, just how deep! Each movie I accept, I give it my best. I take it as a challenge and a responsibility of taking what I have relished to many more people on this planet. If for every movie, even one person somewhere in the world has understood something because of my subtitles, I will consider my work well done and life well spent here.

I call upon anyone interested in this field. It’s a fascinating world. If you love movies, have a flair for languages and most importantly, if you can empathise, welcome to the world of subtitling. Equip yourself. Learn the art of subtitling like I did, from people who know what they are talking about. There’s a huge need for quality subtitling in Tamil Cinema. Hone your wings and come fly in this sky of subtitling!

38 thoughts on “[Experiences] Yours Subtly – On being a Subtitler

  1. Great mam:) Your love for language is clearly seen:) “Subtitling is about a creation and you are just a medium through which it reaches a larger audience”. You bet 🙂


  2. Anonymous

    Awesome writing. i have got goose bumps in places like when u got appreciation from a non-native persons. It happens to me in your last blog also were u met a srilankan Tamilians in switzerland… may be It's because of pround feeling to be an Tamilian.. I'm glad that i have read your blog. It is such an inspiration for all of us.. Great going.. All the best for ur future projects too..Having said that, i havnt watched any of your subtitled movies(watched movies, but not with subtitle).. But I would like to do soon.. Thanks for sharing..


  3. Anonymous

    Lovely to see how much thought you put into subtitling some of these tricky ones, especially in the comedy genre…I would think those are the hardest to come across wuth the right meaning to a non native people. Also glad to see you've found your niche..that you are obviously great at & passionate about. –Anitha


  4. Good work Nandini. You are not only supporting Madhan by doing this, but also helping people like me who have difficulty in understanding the Tamil dialect. You seem to be enjoying it too, which is fantastic. P.S: You look divine in your blue sari.
    Take care


  5. Hi Abi. Thanks for taking the time to pen your thoughts. I'm glad my work is helping you to appreciate our movies more. It's also interesting that of the five projects that I've worked so far, only in one, Madhan has been a part of the project. That movie is 'Itharkkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara', where he worked as both a lyricist and dialogue-writer. I help him with the translations of his songs but subtitling is for other movie projects too. Thanks for your compliments and wishes again 🙂 Wishing to meet you soon in person.


  6. To my blog followers, a Facebook friend raised an interesting question about subtitling and I shared my thoughts about it. Presenting the same here:

    Rex Arul :
    /:Subtitles are for people who speak other languages:/


    (1) Do you primarily view subtitling as “translation” to reach out to audiences with different tongues OR should it also be as “closed captioning” for the disabled?

    (2) The reason I ask is that, if it is for the latter, you may need to add more descriptions — especially for the climactic scenes in “Thangameengal” you are talking about. Right?

    I am just curious to learn about your thoughts on this. Thanks and kudos!

    Nandini Karky:
    Thank you so much for your warm appreciation, as always.
    My statement, which you have quoted, is just a reflection of the current framework of movie subtitling in Tamil cinema.

    To answer your questions,
    The uses of subtitling are many such as
    a) Same Language Subtitling, used in literacy campaigns successfully by Planet Read, for instance.
    b) Subtitling for the Hearing Impaired, which focuses on providing a complete experience by talking about the music, background sounds, etc
    c)Subtitling into other languages, which we are quite familiar with.

    Subtitling should definitely be used to reach out to the disabled. The complexity is that it is an involved method of subtitling. It involves presenting a lot of text on screen, which may not be acceptable to normal movie-going audiences. But we must surely explore this option when creating DVDs. I also dream of a future technology wherein the audience can select what kind of subtitling they want to see onscreen –
    a)No Subtitles
    b)Subtitles for Other Language Speakers
    c)Subtitles for Hearing Impaired
    This will be a complete win-win situation wherein all parties involved are happy.

    As you would know, we are all compulsory readers. Whether it's a road sign or any form of text that appears in a language we know, we can't help but read it. Only now, the movie industry is considering using subtitles for other language speakers, overlooking this scientific fact and it would be overshooting to demand that they put subtitles with more involved text. But this option must surely be explored in the future.

    As you predict, in such a case, that Thangameengal scene would have a lot more subtitles, describing what kind of music is playing, that a puppy is barking, a child is laughing, sound of waves, etc.

    Keeping my fingers crossed for the day subtitling technology provides a choice to different audiences.


  7. first of all, you have giving a new field to explore for many aspiring youths. being a student of english literature, i was always taunted for having chosen english. but this blog has given me a new ray of hope.
    thanks a lot for sharing so many information about this field.


  8. Anonymous

    Loved this post. Having watched some very shoddy subtitling in films, am very happy to see someone take subtitling so seriously. For people like my children who don't understand the nuances of Tamil dialects (they speak “home” Tamil alone, since they have grown up in the US) subtitles would be a real aid in getting them to watch some Tamil movies.
    – Maith


  9. Anonymous

    Dear Nandini,
    Subtitling films for Tamil movies and being a subtitler might be strange for people from Tamil Nadu, but for us here in Malaysia, subtitles are a part of our movie and TV watching experience. I think in countries like Malaysia and Singapore, subtitles have been part of movie and TV watching experience for over 50 years. In the cinema, Chinese, Malay, other language movies including Hindi films are all subtitled but not Tamil movies. Hindi films were watched by Malays and Chinese (besides people of Indian origin. Hindi is not widely spoken among iNdians here. The majority of Indians in Malaysia and Singapore are Tamils) and therefore they were subtitled by the distributor to Malaysia and Singapore in English and Malay. The first Tamil movie ever to get the privilege of being subtitled was MGR's Ulagam Sutrum Valiban back in the early 1970s. Later on HIndi film makers began sending their films over with subtitles but Tamil films were largely unsubtitled. The underlying assumption is that no one but Tamil speakers watched Tamil films or to put it bluntly, Tamil films did not appeal to other non Tamil speakers, which is nonsense. As someone who is a second generation Indian Malaysian, I used to wonder why the Tamil film producers never bothered to subtitle their films. In TV in Malaysia, all Tamil films are subtitled and quite a few Malays and Chinese have watched it and have liked it. So there you see — Tamil films do and can appeal to other non Indian races. But Tamil producers themselves are soo narrow minded they cannot think outside the box and imagine their films can cross over to people who do not speak Tamil. They seem to think that only Hindi films can do that.
    It is good to know that you are also subtitling films. Before this I only thought there was only one subtitler for Tamil films — Rekhs who first subtitled for GVM's Vinnai Thandi Varuvaiya. It is good to know that there are more people who are seriously subtitling for films. I took a Malay friend of mine who has never seen a Tamil movie in the cinema to watch Thalaiva and she really loved it. This is proof that well made Tamil films can appeal to other non Tamil speakers as well. In Malaysia, some of the Indian Malaysians of Tamil origin no longer can speak Tamil (like my nieces) and English is their dominant language. My niece who is a huge Vijay fan used to lament that she can't watch his movies in the cinema because they are not subtitled. She would have to wait for it to come on local satellite channels where it is subtitled. But lately his movies shown in Malaysia do come with subtitles and that is great for people like her and for me who likes to take non Indian friends to watch Tamil movies in cinema. — Menaka Baskaran


  10. Anonymous

    With subtitles, even non Tamil speakers can enjoy the language. I think subtitles for Tamil cinema are also a great way of marketing Tamil films to North Indian especially in the multiplexes. If Tamil films can play well there, imagine how much more movie the producers can make from the movie!
    I am so sorry to say I have not yet seen any of the movies that you subtitled. I will keep a look out for them. I think it is a good idea that at the end of the movie that subtitler's name is also mentioned so that the audience also knows who the subtitler is. Another request I have of subtitlers is that they also please subtitle the credits which are in Tamil (especially those in the beginning of the movie). Not many people can read Tamil either especially if they (even if they are Tamils) are born in a foreign country. And these subtitled Tamil films should also be shown in Tamil Nadu as well especially in the multiplexes so that non Tamils can also enjoy the movie. I am glad that people like you and Rekhs are pushing for subtitles to be a part of the Tamil cinema. Forget about Tamil films conquering the world. Let's start with Tamil films making a break into the North Indian market with subtitles! All the best to you and I look forward to your future projects. Please do keep us in the loop as to which films you are going to subtitle so that we can look out for them. — Menaka Baskaran


  11. Menaka, Thanks a lot for this informative response on Tamil Cinema Subtitling. Glad to have an avid supporter in you. I do hope the movie industry appreciates the immense potential of subtitling and take Tamil movies beyond the barriers of language.


  12. Menaka, Indeed you've nailed it. Just like how we like to understand their stories, I'm sure Indians in other parts of the country would love to understand our stories and realise that beneath all those outward differences, inside we share a thread of the same culture. I'm positive that Tamil movies will create an impact with good subtitling. Will surely keep you posted on my future projects through my social-nets. Thanks again for all your motivation and support.


  13. Anonymous

    Thank you Nandini for taking time out to reply to the people who have left their comments here. Very thoughtful of you. Yes, please do keep us all updated of the films that you have subtitled. I hope you and Rekhs will inspire others to join in the subtitling field and one day subtitling films becomes an industry by itself with its own stars just like how dubbing has become an industry of its own…Menaka Baskaran


  14. Its the greatest job to forward the hard-work the creators of the Tamil film (director, lyricist, screenplay writer, etc.) did to the non-native speaking audience, since without them it won't be popular in the other worlds than tamil. (it doesn't apply only to tamil though) I've really enjoyed your subtitles, which are very much meaningful and sit to the characterization perfectly! love your way of writing Nandhini. As a Tamil native, I see wonderful translations to the wonderful lyrics of Tamil cinema songs from you, especially Madhan Karky's lyrics. 🙂


  15. Thank you so much for all your words of appreciation, Anojan. Glad that you enjoy my writing and translations as well. Really hope I get the opportunity to take the hard work of many of our talented creators to the world. Thanks for taking the time to leave this note.


  16. Dear Madam,

    Wishing you the best in your pursuit of excellence in the field of subtitling. We realise how difficult it is to bring the magic of some of the phrases from Thamizh to English and that to do it in a way that the essence is conveyed is truly a skilled endeavor. We are a group of lyrical enthusiasts who have been writing a blog on translating a lot of philosophical songs from tamil with the purpose of rediscovering some of these gems (for ourself first) and to the current generation. We blog at http://tamilthathuvarasigan.wordpress.com/. We would be very happy if you can give us your evaluation of our effort.



  17. Thanks a lot for your wishes. I took a glance at your blog and came away, very impressed. A fantastic effort, on your part. Soon, I will take a closer look and share my comments. Keep up the great work.


  18. Hello ma'am,
    Great article and informative comments too! Subtitle, as you said, is a subtle art in every aspect. It's such a pleasure to see directors in tamil cinema understanding the importance of subtitling, and giving due credits and respect to those who create it. I've been writing subs for short films and your article would encourage people like me to put more heart into it.

    I was using “Subtitling Workshop” to edit and create new subs. But there's no way I can control font size and colour. Can you advice me on professional subtitle editing/creating softwares that I got to use to present the subs in a way it's pleasing to the audiences' eyes? And what would be your recommendation for the sub format that would suit best for both theatre and computer screens? Please help me out, esp with the software part. Thanks in advance!



  19. Thanks for your comments. Glad to know you are into subtitling too.
    About the subtitling software, the one I use is SPOT. It has all the features that you request. It is a paid software, though. Another thing, you should be aware that sometimes the projectors do not support these extra features rendered. For instance, many of our theatres do not even support a music symbol. But, if it is for internet purposes, then you may experiment freely.

    Best wishes in all that you do.


  20. Hi. I thought I read your name in the end credits of Ennai Arindhaal today and decided to reconfirm the same. That's how I landed on this page. I believe its important for our body of work to reach the vast multitude out there to showcase who we are. In that context an delighted that quite a few directors are resorting to good subtitling. The work you did in ennai arindhaal was commendable – I was intentionally reading them and saw them largely being appropriate. I come from advertising where I constantly see abuse of Tamil in dubbed advts and it boils you over. The same would be the case when one messes with other languages. So keep it going. Have been wanting to get into sub's as well for few years now but have never managed to figure out how to go about it. Someday I guess it will happen. Best wishes to you. Regards Raghu


  21. Anonymous

    Hi Nandini,
    What a writing!! So nicely put up. Thank you for giving us the insight on subtitling. Hearty wishes for your future projects and Madhan sir's projects too.

    Take care!


  22. Dear Nandini,

    This is an awesome write-up for anyone looking at creating career from subtitling. Very much inspirational stuff. I had no clue on the intricacies of crafting a subtitle before I read your blog. Keep inspiring! Good luck with all your future endeavors!



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