How the Arabic subtitles are put on Hollywood blockbusters

Watching movies all day is a tough job for the workers in the subtitling division at Gulf Film in Dubai, the largest subtitle laboratory in the Middle East.

Dubai, January 13, 2011 - Operator Sandesh Anthony operates the Monal Laser Engraving machines at Gulf Film in Dubai January 13, 2010. (Jeff Topping/The National)
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // In a modest office in Deira, Andre Ferzli spent 24 hours last week scanning every speaking scene in a film called The Dilemma.

The American comedy, starring Vince Vaughn, Winona Ryder and Jennifer Connelly, will be showing in cinemas next week, but Mr Ferzli was one of the first people in the UAE to see it.

He is one of three men who spend up to 10 hours a day watching the latest Hollywood releases frame by frame and entering the subtitled text.

The sentence must not stay on the screen longer than three seconds and it must not contain more than 40 characters.

To do his job Mr Ferzli, 37, from Lebanon, must not only be fluent in Arabic, English and French, but have a lot of patience.

"There is a lot of pressure on us to get it exactly right," he said. "We have to concentrate a lot and constantly double-check ourselves. Although people think it must be fun getting to see all the films first, we actually spend more time focusing on the words than the action of the movie."

Mr Ferzli is part of the subtitling division at Gulf Film in Dubai.

He also spent last week working on Wild Target, a British drama about a hitman who lives with his mother.

Next week it will be 13, a thriller starring Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham and 50 Cent, due for release this month.

Gulf Film is the parent company of the Grand Cinemas chain and the only company in the GCC to own laser subtitling machines.

Every week Mr Ferzli and his colleagues work on between eight and 10 films. The English script arrives at the offices in Dubai weeks before the cinema release date so that it can be sent to the translation centre in Beirut.

Once the translated version arrives, the team waits for the 35mm film reel to be sent from distributors so they can enter the translated text on to the moving image.

It is not a matter of simply entering the words, they must replay the movie many times, listening to the dialogue, checking the translation and making sure it fits the screen. They must also tone down any swearing or sexual language, as well as skirt over areas of religious contention.

Alain Baradhai, 41, the manager of the subtitling division, described the challenges: "In every film there is something which we cannot translate directly," he said. "Whether it is an expression or a saying or something more controversial. We know the film will be viewed by government censors after us so we don't try to omit anything, we just try to soften the language. It's something you gain with experience."

Censorship laws across the Middle East mean it is illegal to release a film without subtitles. The managing partner of Gulf Film, Ahmad Golchin, says this has kept the company busy. "We set up the laboratory because we wanted to create subtitles for our own films," he said, referring to the distribution company he founded with his partner, Salim Ramia, in 1989.

"Then we began to expand and now with five laser subtitle machines, we are the largest subtitle laboratory in the Middle East. The machines are at work 24 hours a day, six days a week."

While there are other ways of subtitling, such as using wax and chemicals for lower budget films, the laser method is much more efficient and used exclusively for mainstream releases. It takes 48 hours for the team to enter the subtitles on to one full-length film.

The most painstaking part is "spotting and simulating", or putting a number where each subtitle is to be placed.

The film is checked at least four times before the engraving process, which takes between six and 18 hours. The final stage uses water and hot air to remove any remaining dust on the reel.

The job involves a constant round of deadlines, Mr Baradhai said.

"Most of the time we are working with big Hollywood films and they come in only a few days before the cinema release date.

"We have no time for mistakes and no time for delays, we have to calculate the work down to the last minute and make sure it is finished on time," he said.

The longest day in recent memory, Mr Ferzli said, was when Carlos, a film about a Venezuelan revolutionary, came in the day before it was due for its Middle East premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The team worked from 9am until 4am the next morning to get the job done.

"It is a job and like any job, it becomes routine," he said. "But really it is a nice one. What is better than watching movies all day?"