Yes! I’m the one who translates “Shit” as Alla3na!

I remember a particular incident that took place one day in the bank, when I went with a colleague from work to cash a check. We arrived at the bank, I cashed my check and supposed that she was done too, but it seemed that there was a tiny problem. It turned out that her account was block for some vague reason, so we waited to see what the problem could possibly be hoping that it will be sorted out smoothly. Then, to our surprise, they told us that her account had been blocked because they couldn’t identify the job title, which was “subtitler”.

Apparently, subtitler comes from the word “subtitle”. That line of words that appears usually in the bottom of the screen to interpret what is being said in another language. Just like Microsoft Word, many people don’t seem to be familiar with the word “subtitler”, although nobody in his right mind would consciously  assume that movies translate themselves, or that automatic translation actually works. Yet, most people will make fun of funny/ wrong translation, and I was and still one of those, except that I took it to a whole new level now, because there are many things you may never know unless you enter the not-so- far away world of subtitlers, about which I’ll try my best here to set the record straight on some issues.

For some reason, I have never considered the possibility of working as a subtitler, not for a fraction of a second, as if there was no such job to start with. It wasn’t before I got a job at a subtitling company that I realized I could do such a thing. They made me take an exam, or shall I say an acid test, in which I had to translate lines from movies on paper. Can you imagine what it’s like to translate a pun or an innuendo completely out of context and without seeing the actual scene? It’s almost impossible, in some cases. So I wasn’t at all surprised when a week passed without hearing from them. That said, I was equally surprised when they actually called.

To cut a long story short, my career kicked off successfully, and I began devouring frames away, discovering the mysterious world of TV shows subtitling. My first official assignment was “Malcolm in the middle”. I was pleased since it was one of my favorite shows.  I remember how when I went home my sister asked me: So, how many episodes did you translate today? I was like: Hmmm, 10 minutes! And she was stunned, since she had the idea that when a show is 40 minutes long, it takes 40 minutes to subtitle, which couldn’t be further away from the truth. What she didn’t know is that sometimes a 40 minutes episode could take up to 2 or 3 days sometimes, depending on the show and on the subtitler themselves. Of course in the world of subtitling more minutes mean more money, and a top-notch subtitler can do up to 60 minutes per day after some practice.

As I said, it depends for the most part on the show itself. What accent do they use? Is there a script for this episode? Do they talk too much? Is there too much overlapping? Ect. There is no comparison between translating a thrilling and full of action scenes episode of LOST, and doing an episode of “Moonlighting” where young Bruce Willis wouldn’t stop gibbering. Further more, subtitling may change your view on certain shows or actors. I used to love watching ER, but after doing an episode that practically drove me crazy with all the over lapping and medical abbreviations, I’m not that fond of it anymore. It’s just very different from doing a slow-paced episode of desperate housewives; where Mary Alice seems to be in no rush whatsoever as she narrates the events.  There’s also a difference between those shows and talk shows. Nobody likes the latter, but the worst yet is car shows and real TV. I blew a gasket each time I was given an episode of “Top Gear”, “Monster Garage” or the notorious “Unique Whips”. And it has nothing to do with not being a car aficionado.

When it comes to movies, those are everyone’s favorite, especially horror movies where everybody shouts and nobody says much “subtitable” material. I remember doing Pirates of the Caribbean 2, perhaps the most fun subtitling experience ever! It was 2:45 minutes and I finished it in one and a half day, which was a big record! It was awesome because there wasn’t much blabbering, Johnny Dipp’s out-of-this-world terms and all the movie-specific words were explained elaborately in the script. Besides that I got to enjoy every single detail of the movie.

To tell the truth, I have to say that being a subtitler is not as fun as some people seem to think. It might be more fun that some jobs, but it doesn’t mean watching movies and TV shows all day long. It means a headset pressed against your ears, eye-strain, headaches, sedentary life style, watching crappy shows and one big word: STRESS, which for the subtitler is embodied in the word: URGENT. You can never guess when you might have an urgent assignment to deliver. Sometimes a channel might send a movie and demand it to be delivered in two days. Your job as a subtitler here is to bury your face in the monitor, don’t take full lunch breaks, and sometimes work extra hours to get the job done. I remembered when we translated the Da Vinci code (the movie). It was scheduled to be aired Thursday at 5:00, and we cut it really close by finishing it less than half an hour before the show time. It goes without saying that such a rush may very well undermine the quality of the translation, especially for a movie like the Da Vinci Code, which needs a good deal of research for historical accuracy.

Moreover, I discovered that when you’re a subtitler, you will use many words and expressions you used to make fun of in the past. “tabban” and “alla3na” are the most common translation for “Shit”. And while many people find it funny, you would soon discover that it’s just the right translation. Meaning, in English they use the word “Shit” to express anger, so you’ll have to look up a word in Arabic that is used to express anger, such as “tabban” instead of doing the most stupid thing a subtitler could do and use the literal translation of the same word. What I want to say is that sometimes it’s very hard to express things that are said in one language using another language, so subtitlers do find themselves cornered sometimes to use “funny” or “absured” expressions. In fact, many times when I mention that I’m a subtitler people would promptly say: Ah, so you’re the one who writes “Alla3na!”

Another thing that can be sometimes much of a nuisance is the subtitling rules provided by the client. Some rules are sensible but others are, or at least sound to me, ridiculous. For example: You’re not allowed to translate “Wine” as “Nabeeth”, you should translate it as “mashroob”, as if the viewer is so stupid as to think “mashroob” actually means “orange juice”! Their point is that by telling the real name of the alcoholic beverage you are promoting alcoholism. Give me a break here! What promotes alcoholism? This or scenes of men gathering around a gambling table drying cup after cup or even men drunk out of their minds? If you have this ethical concern, they why do you show these movies altogether? And I’ll tell you something: Many of those shows are pure white trash. Please don’t make me start on the bloody wrestling programs in which the word “bastard” is beeped (originally in the show not by the channel). Seriously? You pitch these pointless violent programs oozing with negative energy on teenagers and you’re afraid they hear such inappropriate word as “bastard”. Contradiction at its worst!

One last point in defense of subtitlers: we don’t always have a script at hand. Sometimes we have to deal with entire movies and subtitle them based on what we hear, with all the lousy audio, soundtracks, overlapping and even the noise of roaring engines. So, don’t be too harsh when you read a translation of something you could hear clearly on TV, but the translation looks completely irrelevant.

From my experience as a subtitler, I can tell you one thing: Don’t be one! Because once you’re there, you either can’t work in any other domain, or you just want to quit and do something that has nothing to do with translation. I turned out to be from the first type, but you can still run for your life.

Originally Posted on Friday, November 30, 2007 on

8 responses

  1. Pingback: 4 Years of THIS « Cinnamon Zone

  2. I worked as a subtitler! not for long though. People do tend to view it as fun – mOstly they r mistaken indeeeeeeeeeeeeeed.

    Now I only take translation jobs on specific subjects/material only, easier that way :).

    It is a side-job 4 me and I find it soothing to be honest, no complications.

    Thax 4 sharin`,


  3. Pingback: Subtitling… Again | Cinnamon Zone

  4. True that! and try translating Arabic movies to english, you’ll have goofy subtitles such as
    ” I have 9 kids in my neck”
    ” on my head”
    ” thanks for the food, construction!”
    ” say and change”
    ” expensive up to a banana”

  5. Well, yes. I had the same problem while translating in Spanish. I find it difficult to find alternative words (as literal translation would either be offensive or wouldnt make the right sense). So, I completely understand what you mean..


  6. I disagree here with Ola. I am a subtitler and I love my job. I get to learn many new words/terms in my native language which I did not know of despite having spoken the language for over 30 years. Regarding opportunities in other domains, well, along with my subtitler job, I do a lot of DJing as well. So, I dont find my options limited to subtitling. Its all about keeping an eye on other opportunities matching your interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s