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Making Right-to-Left Subtitles with Amy

Michael Sum

Michael Sum

6 January 2022

Making Right-to-Left Subtitles with Amy - Voquent

We have all kinds of talented and wonderful people working with us at Voquent. 

Crafting top-quality right-to-left subtitles is not an easy feat for any producer, especially when it's the exact opposite of what we are used to. That is why we work with the best of the best, who embody the optimal method for producing subtitles for any RTL language, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew included. 

So join us as we chat with our super subtitling specialist, Amy McLaren, to learn about the ins and outs of this process.

Q: Tell us about your role at Voquent

Amy: I am one of the AV Producers here at Voquent and consequently part of the projects team. We predominantly liaise with our database of voice-over artists/subcontractors and see all project briefs through from the early stages of pre-production all the way to post.

I often describe my job title as a somewhat 'umbrella term' – a wide range of aspects come into play and responsibilities that fall under the role of a producer here. My day-to-day can vary quite considerably purely depending on the briefs that come through to us.

Some people might not be aware of it, but we also specialise in a range of other accessibility services on top of voice-over to make content readily available to a broader audience on a much larger scale.

Subtitling is something that we easily receive a significant number of queries about. The more common requests are for West Germanic and Romance languages, i.e. English, German, French, Italian etc. However, we have also done numerous projects that have required subtitles for Semitic and Indo-Aryan languages, some of which read right-to-left.

Q: What RTL languages do you get requests for most?

Amy: Arabic is hands down our most asked for in terms of RTL subtitling. I can only assume that this is due to its notability as the official language of over 20 countries – most other RTL languages don't have anywhere near this level of presence. However, we have worked on a few jobs that have required other eminent RTL languages, such as Urdu and Farsi.

Q: When subtitling RTL languages, what can go wrong?

Amy: I feel like RTL formatting is neglected when it comes to advances in subtitling software. Whilst specific software has proven to improve methods in which we can use the correct alignment, it still involves a bit of fiddling with the internal settings to get it right. Making what is a relatively straightforward process for LTR become a more tedious task for RTL. 

The main issue that I've always stumbled upon is when we get to the stage of burning the subtitles into the video. Despite my best efforts to maintain it from the edited SRT files, burning in always seems to have complications retaining the correct layout.

I won't lie, there are ways of resolving this, having spent more time messing around with certain methods than I'm willing to admit, but it's about being wary that no other problems have been introduced in the same breath.

I do feel as though we are making progress – credit where credit is due – but I still believe that it needs to be further addressed/more time being invested in making the process as a whole less complicated, whether editing or burning in.

Q: How are these handled in contrast to other languages?

Amy: Out of the thousands of languages spoken around the world, only 12 of these are written with RTL scripts. From this stat, you can only assume how most software will have likely swung towards accommodating the mass, so it is a much more straightforward process to subtitle and burn in LTR languages.

That being said, Premiere Pro only developed a fully functioning captioning channel earlier this year, rather than relying on the video channels to facilitate subtitle text files. Before this, we were much more limited in terms of customising the style and positioning of the subtitles, some of it even involved a bit of maths to sort out!

But in general, LTR languages are much more straightforward to deal with and don't require as much faffing about internally to get them to display as you want them to.

Q: Can you explain more about the process for RTL subtitles?

Amy: Sure! As most computers are standardly set up with a default to render out left-to-right text, we need to follow a set of steps to change this. The main thing that is important to check is when generating/editing the subtitle text file is ensuring that it is set to the correct Unicode to secure the settings in place for burn-in.

If this isn't done correctly, it could result in errors with the letters not displaying as they should. If you don't speak the language, your main telltale sign as to whether this has worked or not is the placement of any punctuation – it should flip to the opposite side of where it initially was before the changes were applied.

Q: What software do you recommend for RTL subtitling?

Amy: If you are looking for a quick, easy and affordable solution to fix the formatting, I'd definitely look to use some of the excellent freeware that's about. SubtitleEdit is an excellent tool for editing and proofreading the subtitle text file and flags issues to you that don't run in line with general subtitling practices.

It also has an RTL mode where it changes the alignment of the text to read the right way around and allows you to save the text file correctly. Then for burn-in, again, if you are looking for an inexpensive way to do this, HandBrake is another freeware that supports RTL subtitles. The only downside is that HandBrake only has default style options and doesn't allow you to customise these.

If you are happy to purchase software, Premiere Pro's latest update is a one-stop-shop for subtitling, it even has settings specifically to convert to RTL easier.

Q: When working with RTL languages, how is the on-screen text localisation work approached?

Amy: So, the main thing that I would flag that should probably be taken into account at the very early stage of pre-production if you are planning on localising your video content would be spatial consideration. This doesn't matter too much for the subtitles themselves, as they will usually be displayed in the lower thirds of the screen anyways and not cause much disruption to how the video appears unless you opt for a customised style.

However, it is definitely something that you would want to bear in mind for any on-screen text work. This is especially important if you have very specific designs/animations that move in particular ways and may be structured to suit left to right formatting. If we attempt to adapt this for RTL, it may ruin the overall look of the video.

Depending on how the client has created their video will ultimately result in how we would go about editing this. Still, it will usually be through the means of Adobe Creative Cloud, and After Effects in particular.

Summary

Thanks for the insight, Amy! As you can see, there are some serious considerations to make regarding RTL subtitling, all of which add up to a procedure more complicated than just reversing the words.

Fortunately for us, we can turn to professional AV producers like Amy and the team to get the job done, perfectly. When you work with Voquent, you are opening your project up to the excellence that we work with and guarantee the highest quality RTL subtitling services out there. 

Foreign Language Subtitling

Accessibility Services

Michael Sum

By Michael Sum

Marketing Specialist and resident Content Monkey at Voquent. Michael has a lifelong passion for gaming media and bases his personality on whatever anime he is currently watching.

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