An Accidental Beginning

How a chance request led to a lifelong career

Going to the cinema is an activity I used to do a lot with my dad. We’d watch the blockbusters, and these were released so regularly that I’d often find myself going once or twice a month.

Cinema releases in Thailand are subtitled. You have the option to watch dubbed ones, but we never did. I find dubbing significantly detracts from the experience. Not hearing the actors’ actual voices to me meant I was missing a crucial aspect of acting. And that was a no-no.

So subtitles are what we opted for. And from the time I was able to understand the spoken English and compare, I realised that the Thai subtitles were brilliant, almost without fail.

For as long as I can remember, there are a few big names in the cinema subtitling field. At the end of each movie, as the credits began to roll, the name of whoever had translated that movie would come up. Translation by:…

I admired them. I wanted to be like them. I’d give anything to see my name roll on the big screen. But for decades, I sat on my heels and did nothing.

I loved the idea of it and was convinced I’d be good at the job. But — be it out of fear or sheer laziness — I never investigated how I could go about getting into the cinema subtitling world.

Until one fateful day: I was working in an English language school, and one of my colleagues asked me for help faxing a document. It looked like a contract, and for whatever reason she felt compelled to explain what it was.

Turns out it was a contract to freelance as a subtitles translator for a localisation company. I was instantly intrigued. Go on, she urged, apply, you’re sure to get it.

With her encouragement and the grateful realisation that the stars have aligned for me to begin my subtitling career, I applied to become a Thai-to-English subtitles translator.

The response came back: we have no Thai-to-English position, however we’re looking for English-to-Thai translators. Would you like to take our test?

I was dismayed. I was good at English, not so much at Thai. In past attempts at translating English to Thai for commercial purposes, I had failed terribly. Once my translation was so mangled that I was asked to find a different, better translator.

My problem is that I think in English. English is more natural to me than Thai (despite the latter being my native language) and so I tend to express things in Thai using English structures, and with weird vocabulary.

So, I was not confident to say the least. But another colleague (this is a story of helpful colleagues) urged me on: Go on, it can’t hurt. If you never try, you never know.

So I said to the company I would do the test. And with much apprehension, I sat down one day and did it.

To my great surprise, I enjoyed it. It was difficult, but I fell in love with the process of translating the dialogue from English to Thai. Somehow it was different from all other English-to-Thai translations I’d done.

I enjoyed it so much that I dared to hope I’d get the job. I knew my translation wasn’t perfect, but I was a little bit confident that it would be good enough.

Thankfully, whoever was grading my work agreed, and I got in. This was September 2016.

Suddenly, I was in a whole new world of subtitles translation, full of optimism and hope. Only to have both quashed when, after having refused one dubbing project that would have been too difficult for a beginner, my coordinator went radio silent.

It was only in January 2017, three months later, that I received, and accepted, my first subtitling project. It was a 44-minute episode of a series, and took me 9 hours to translate. And I probably didn’t do a very good job of it.

But with practice (the projects came regularly after that) and feedback, I got better. And eventually I became good, so good that I’ve been in the top-earning bracket by quality for years now.

Back in early 2020, my company pivoted with the times to use AI to translate and have humans review (and edit) the work. Editing AI-translated work was a new skill, one which I’m still working on. I still stumble from time to time when the AI translation makes sense but is actually wrong.¹ But these blunders are rarer with each project.

It’s been well over four years now that I’ve been freelancing as a subtitles translator. I’ve worked with at least five coordinators as they come and go. I’ve stayed with the same company, they’ve been good to me. I’ve done subtitles for many leading platforms which I cannot name. But if you watch until the end you may well see my name roll: Translation by…

Each time someone comes to tell me that they’ve watched a show I translated, I puff up with pride. Subtitles translation is a time-consuming and often not well-paid gig, but for me it’s a labour of love. I do it because it brings me joy, the money is a bonus.

It’s funny how life happens sometimes. A childhood dream realised with a chance request to help with the fax machine. She could have asked anyone at the school, but she asked me. I could have given up when no Thai-to-English position was available, but my colleague egged me on.

Infinite thanks to both individuals for setting me on this path (you know who you are). I shall continue to slave away my weekends and hone my skills. And maybe one day I’ll finally take that big step and worm my way in to cinema subtitling.

I don’t think I’m good enough yet. But I also don’t think I’ll ever feel good enough. So might as well bite the bullet and try for it. You know what they say, shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars.

And that’s my story of an accidental beginning. How about you? Did you ever experience something similar? Has fate ever looked down and winked at you?

Send a reply, leave a comment, share with your friends.

Until next Friday… Stay cool, stay safe, stay thoughtful,

Val

Before you go…

This post is taken from my October 15, 2021 newsletter. If you like what you’ve read, check out the archive or sign up for a thought like this every Friday.

Footnotes

  1. Over the year, the AI translations have gotten significantly better. It’s astounding to see what technology can produce. Their speech can be as natural as human speech, it’s really quite impressive.

--

--

--

Weekly essays that make you stop and think

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

The Cost of Waiting for a Raise

How I Ended Up Working For Two Conmen

Managing Cultural Differences in Remote Work

Having Trouble Finding a Job with Social Science Degree? Here’s What You Can Do

A month of breakthroughs

The power of community

Unlock your Real Business Problem — and Solve it — Sooner using Anticipatory Leadership

Be Service Driven

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Val Thinks

Val Thinks

Weekly essays that make you stop and think

More from Medium

2022 Beauty Trends We Think You’ll Love According to Your Zodiac Sign

Dreams don’t die, people do

I’m a Nigerian, and I’m NOT a scammer…

I’m a Nigerian, and I’m NOT a scammer -Nigerian map

Follow my own advice