by Ana Gabriela González Meade
In the early 90s, while studying Foreign Languages and having translated romantic pocketbooks, cookbooks, contracts, and official documents in addition to occasional consecutive translation gigs since my teen years, the then only nationwide, government-owned TV network based out of Mexico City was looking for subtitling translators.
I decided to try my luck. I showed up at the gate and asked to see the head of Post-Production. He handed me a written test that, to my surprise, turned out to be heavy on complex Spanish linguistics, spelling, and grammar. But, of course! I’ll never forget when he said, “We need experts in Spanish. Otherwise, how in the world would they be able to translate into it from any other language?” The written test was so lengthy it took me two whole days to complete. Then I was given a short documentary in English to be translated into Spanish in one of the booths they had set up for in-house translators. That was the fun part, of course, despite the fact that I had to learn how to operate the professional S-VHS Sony editing VCR player and corresponding remote in order to accurately spot the in-times and the out-times of each subtitle. But all of it paid off as shortly after they called to say I had passed both tests and they wanted me to start working right away!
My first paid subtitled movie in 1991 was Silence Like Glass (1989) about a ballerina who is diagnosed with leukemia, which entailed for me to look up medical terms in actual dictionaries and encyclopedias as we didn’t have Internet. As soon as I completed my first movie, I was literally handed the VHS tape for my second movie, which I was hoping to be about a more practical topic so I didn’t have to research “as much.” Turns out it was Stalin (1992), which is 2 hours and 52 minutes long. In those times, subtitling was done on a mimeographed translation template and using a small table with aspect ratio calculations for characters per minute.
As a translator filled out the template pages using a pencil, a post-production data entry assistant would feed them into a Chryon character generator. When both the translation and the character input were completed, the manual master tape deck operator would come in and the translator would sit down and watch the whole movie as the Chyron burned in the subtitles. Each typo spotted by the translator as the characters burned into the tape called for the tape deck operator to stop the tape, manually rewind it to get to the exact frame where the faulty subtitle would come in, wait for the character generator assistant to fix the typo by retyping the text, and play it again so the process could continue until the next typo was spotted. Actual pioneering stuff! From there, I was hired by the largest cable TV provider at the time, with the first subtitling software and PCs in our workstations. In 2001, I was hired by the first Burbank-based localization company, several of which would follow. Then DVD’s came along: our main market for over a decade. More recently, the largest streaming giant hired me in 2014, and the rest is history. But hey, watching your credit come up on TV, a DVD, streaming platforms or movie theater screens NEVER gets old!