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  • Writer's pictureAlfonso De Luca

Practicing Subtitling with TED and Understanding 'Common Sense' Guidelines

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

In our journey towards becoming successful freelance translators, we've touched on how important it is to train your language skills to become proficient in 'writing translations' - that's what I like to call it. We've already said that both volunteer work and competitions are essential to practice. In particular, volunteer work is underestimated, although a very effective way to start passing agencies' tests and delivering good translations.

Today we'll talk about TED, a non-profit media organization that hosts talks on different topics - education, business, science, tech, and creativity. You can apply to practice subtitling - a core skill for audiovisual translators, but also for everyone working on videos, such as video game localization specialists. We'll also use TED guidelines to explain the concept of 'common sense' guidelines that every linguist should know and follow.


TED Talks are 'influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity, with subtitles in 100+ languages.' If you're trying to get some practice, applying for TED is better than doing nothing. Of course, keep applying to agencies and follow webinars. The more you do, the better!

The platform has two 'core' requirements that you need to meet to apply and work as a subtitler: fluently bilingual in both source and target languages (i.e., you don't need to be bilingual, but you need to be fluent enough in your source language to provide good quality subtitles); the other one is knowing and consistency use and enforce their subtitling best practices.

What Do You Mean by 'Common Sense' Guidelines?

Now, if you're meant to be a successful translator, you must know that every client you'll come across will, more likely or not, need you to follow specific guidelines, read reference material, and the like. Some of these rules are pretty much shared across the language industry and for your language pair.

Once you memorize a particular rule from one client, you'll realize that most clients have similar rules they require you to follow. In some industries, such as audiovisual, the rules involve - of course - subtitles, for the most part. For instance, if you want to subtitle for Netflix, you need to know their specific guidelines. Same thing for Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu... You get the gist.

For now, let's focus on TED guidelines. So, reading their subtitling best practices page, you can see what I like to call 'general common sense rules'. Stuff that should be the core of every good linguist's skill set:

  • Give clear feedback - When you receive feedback, answer politely and constructively. This way you also don't risk being misunderstood, and those who review your work will generally be more likely to agree with your point.

  • Don't get personal with criticism - Again, always sound professional, and don't get personal with your counter-feedbacks to reviewers. It also helps you to be positive about working with a client.

  • Choose universally understood expressions - Another important thing: do not use regional dialects of any sort. If you're unsure whether an expression you're about to use is a dialect or not, search it on Google, read several sources, and compare results.

  • No changes for the sake of it - Self-explanatory. I also work as a test reviewer. One recurring issue with applicants is that they distance themselves too much from the source text. Either by inexperience or because they don't like how the source text is worded. It's okay to apply changes in syntax and slightly in meaning to get your point across to the final users in a clear way, making sure the text sounds fluent and natural. Just always ask: am I changing this just because I don't like it, or because it's objectively improving the text? It takes practice to understand this fine line. Keep practicing.

  • Be cooperative when disputes arise - Again, this is more on the human side of things. You need to sound professional and polite, not only skilled, to work with people. At the end of the day, the client is paying you, and the 'client is always right'. If you sound too arrogant in your communication, they might be less willing to work with you. No work, no money. Remember that.

Taking Action Is Everything

So, you now have another source of practice, just apply here. Do it now! Doesn't matter if you don't feel confident enough. At all. Remember that failing is better than not taking action in the first place. Below, I'll leave some important web pages that you should read before applying, so you better understand how TED works. This is also a good exercise for practicing guidelines comprehension. Next time, we'll talk more in detail about subtitling standards across the language industry - which also apply to TED - as we move forward to acquire all the skills to become successful. Keep an eye out for new posts.



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