[NOTE: The information given here is for educational and personal purposes. I cannot condone the illegal duplication of movies for the purpose of distributing to others, but you are within your rights to make backup copies of the films you own. In fact, in one case, I actually had to make a backup copy of a film because the original (which I paid good money for) would not play in my DVD player. ]
Even if you can follow German films without too much difficulty, it’s nice to have English subtitles. The East German films distributed by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst have excellent English subtitles, and I will always recommend them as your primary source for East German films, but what about those films you want to see that aren’t available with English subtitles? Is there a workaround?
The answer is, yes, but it means some work. Happily, there are some excellent programs out there that can make the process easier. One quick caveat, however: I use a PC, so all of the programs I describe in detail are made for that platform. I know VLC Player is available for both Macs and PCs, and is recommended for both. The subtitle editor Jubler is available for both platforms, but, the last time I looked Jubler was missing a few features that I will be discussing. If you use a Mac, and have done this kind of work, I’d love to hear your recommendations. You can respond to this post in the comments below. So, without further palaver, let’s begin!
As already mentioned, the best source for East German films in America is The DEFA Library, but these films don’t need subtitles added. Their subtitles are already better than anything you are likely to come up with. The second best source for DVDs is—surprise, surprise—Germany. There are a few vendors that sell from Germany, but the shipping can be costly and you might have to wait a month or more for the package to arrive. There are a few companies that sell German DVDs through Amazon and ship to the United States on a regular basis, and a few companies stateside (also on Amazon) that sell East German films, but I think you’ll find their prices higher and often neutralize the advantage of buying from them.
Sometimes you can find films you’re looking for on streaming services such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Veoh. Be advised, however, that often these streams are often illegally uploaded and won’t be up for long. Ignore any streams with titles like “FuLl MoViE AvAiLaBlE HeRe!!!!” These are come-ons to get you to go their websites, which usually require you to enter your credit card information. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to give my credit card information to a company that uses such a sleazy technique to try and lure me in.
Extracting the Video
If you’ve downloaded the movie from an online source, you can skip this step, but if you have a DVD without subtitles and you want to add them, you’ll need to extract the video from the DVD. There are a number of programs that will do this. DVD Shrink and Mac the Knife do this very well, although both programs are a bit long of tooth now, and were initially designed to compress movies so that you can burn them onto 4.7 Gb DVDs. Other programs that can do this include Format Factory (PC Only) and MakeMKV (PC and Mac). In some cases, the video you’ve downloaded might not be compatible with DVD burning software, in which case you’ll need a conversion program as well (Freemake Video Converter is a good choice), although I’m find this increasingly unnecessary as more and more services move away from Flash, and as burning apps add more compatible formats. You’ll want to extract the video as a single file. Normally, copying software splits a film up into smaller, more manageable parts. You can still do this, but it will will mean extra steps in the subtitling process, so, for now, we’ll stick to the single file technique.
The next step is to find subtitles. Of course, the best way to watch a movie is without subtitles, but perhaps your German isn’t good enough to follow everything, or you want to show the film to other people who don’t speak German. You can do a Google search for subtitles, but I’ve found that this will sometimes give you sites that don’t really have the subtitles you are looking for. It’s better to go to a site such as subscene.com, or http://www.moviesubtitles.org, that is a known source. If subtitles are available for a film, they will, in all likelihood, be available at one of these sites. Start with the film’s title in its original language, and then try searching for the film under alternate titles.
The best, and easiest files to deal with are SRT files. The SRT file is a common standard these days for online subtitles because an SRT file is really just a text file with a different suffix. You can open them with any text editor and they are completely readable, which makes them a good choice for translation purposes.
Sometimes you’ll find subtitles for a film in other languages, just not in English. If the subtitles are in German, more the better, but sometimes you might find subtitles for a German film in another language entirely. You can still use these to create English subtitles, just keep in mind that the translations are more likely to have some serious errors or changes in meaning than subtitles translated from the original German. If the subtitles for the movie you want to watch aren’t available in English, you’ll have to create your own. I’m going to give you the quick and dirty method using translating software, although be advised, this will yield subtitles with several mistake—sometimes laughable ones, such as the way Google Translate likes to turn Frank Schöbel into Frank Sinatra.
Suppose the DVD you own already has subtitles, but not in English. What then? The problem here is that subtitles on a DVD are bitmapped, which means they need to be converted to text before you can translate them. My choice for this is Subtitle Edit, which has OCR capabilities and can convert existing subtitles on a DVD into an editable format. Jubler on the Mac will also do this, but I’ve read that Jubler has trouble with umlauts, which don’t seem to be a problem for Subtitle Edit. As one might expect, this type of conversion with any OCR solution will sometimes lead to gibberish. This is especially true when the subtitles are italicized. Some sources I’ve encountered some sites that recommend VobSub, but I don’t. It’s decidedly more complicated and requires you to download a half dozen separate programs to do the job.
But what if your DVD or video doesn’t have English subtitles, and you can only find the German ones—or, in some cases, subtitles in another language entirely? Again, Subtitle Edit can do the translations for a number of languages. You can also run the whole file though separate translation software, either online or with a standalone application. Just make sure that the software doesn’t alter the carriage return and line feed commands in the process. You can spot when this happens easily enough because those nicely spaced lines of dialogue will suddenly compress down into one gigantic paragraph.
Once the subtitles have been translated, you’ll still need to go through and fix things. In all likelihood, there will be a few cases where the translating software will have done such a terrible job that it’s rendered the dialogue incomprehensible. Idioms are usually rendered literally, which can make no sense in another language. How much of this you want to engage in will depend on your tolerance for bad subtitles. If you’re not careful, you can spend months on this sort of thing. Remember: our goal right now is not to create a perfect set of subtitles, we only want to create a usable set for now.
Syncing Your Subtitles
The next step after you’ve prepared you SRT file is to make sure that everything syncs up. Here’s where things can get messy. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and the subtitles were be in sync with the movie, but, more often than not, they will need tweaking. Start with the first line of dialogue in a film. Do the subtitles appear just as the words are said? If not, write down when the dialogue is spoken, and compare it to the time listed on the subtitle file. For instance, if the first line of dialogue occurs at 2:42, but the SRT file has the time set to 2:45, it means you have to decrease the time by three seconds. In Subtitle Edit, you’d do this by going to the menu and choosing “Synchronization > Adjust All Times.” You’ll then get a dialog box that lets you set the time earlier or latter as needed. I’d recommend setting the time for all the lines at this point, because unless your working with a copy of the film that has been edited, or was uploaded at the wrong speed, the dialogue should all line up after this change. To check this, skip ahead twenty minutes and see if the dialogue and subtitles still line up. If they do, skip ahead another twenty minutes and check again. Keep doing this until you reach the end of the film.
One of three things will happen when you do this. In the first case, the film and the subtitles will continue to match up, in which case, you’re job is finished. In the second case, the film and subtitles will line up until a certain point, and they’ll suddenly be way off. If that happens, it means the film either has additional scenes, or is missing scenes from the version used to make the subtitles—usually the latter. Go back ten minutes and see if the subtiles line up again. Depending on what happens, go forward or backward until you reach the point at which the video and subtitles deviate and either remove the extra lines, or shift the remaining subtitles from this point until the end so that they line up again. When you find the point at which the two files no longer match up, check to make sure that there aren’t other discrepancies at this point, such as repeated lines—a common problem with Google Translate.
The third, and most complex case you’ll encounter is when the subtitles line up at the beginning and slowly shift throughout the film. This might mean the frame rate was different, which can be changed in Subtitle Edit. You can also fix it sometimes by changing the speed percentage. Both of these options are a little more complicated to use, and explaining it here would make this already too long page even longer, so my advice on this one is to play around with it and see what works for you. For this process, you’l want to write down the times for the first and last lines of dialogue and tweak the settings until they line up. Then go back through the film twenty minutes at a time and make sure there aren’t other discrepencies.
Watching the Movie With Subtitles
Now that you’ve got your subtitles translated and synced up, you’re ready to either watch the film on your computer, or burn it to a DVD. If you just want to watch it on your computer, as I mentioned at the start of this article, VLC Player is the way to go, First open the video file and then choose “Add Subtitle File” from the VLC Player Subtitle menu. You can also hard code subtitles with VLC Player, if you’re so inclined (there are several YouTube videos on how to do this). If you want to burn the movie onto a DVD, there is no shortage of programs that can do this for you. Some are free, and some are not. I normally use DVD Flick, although I understand this program has been discontinued.
That’s it! You should now be able to watch your film with subtitles now. For more on the process of translation, check my post on the Pop Void Blog where I talk about my first attempt to add English subtitles to a German teen flick, and the process I used to create subtitles for Heart of Stone. If you have some good recommendations for DVD burning and subtitle editing, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Please be sure to list whether the programs you list are for the Mac, PC, or a Linux-based system.
The most challenging job I’ve given myself in subtitling a movie was in creating the subtitles for the 1977 East German teleplay Cyanide (Cyankali). I’d created English subtitles for German movies before, but they were movies that had German subtitles I could work from. Between my B-level knowledge of German and Google Translate, I’d managed to cobble together English subtitles for these films without too much difficulty. I have, on occasion, tried to create English subtitles from scratch by listening to what’s being said, but I found myself falling down when the talking got too quick, too regional, or overlaid with other sounds and voices. Cyanide had no German subtitles, but I did have Friedrich Wolf’s 1929 play to work from. Unfortunately, the play and what appeared on East German television didn’t always match. Several things were cut out of the teleplay to make it fit the 90-minute time slot. There were also changes to the dialogue that were either done to make things more comprehensible to a modern audience, or to fit the dramaturge’s requirements. (The dramatuge, in East German television, held a position similar to that of a censor in US television).
I started with a Google translation of the play but quickly gave up on that approach. Google Translate does a decent job of translating 80% of the time, but I found it easier to find the corresponding text in German and work from that. As always, expressions and idioms presented problems. “As if we’re children picking peas under out mothers’ skirts,” doesn’t really work in English; and I was only guessing when the play refers to “Eckert” when Hete threatens to go to “Eckert” for an abortion. There’s also the possibility that Wolf used Eckert because it sounds like “Eckart”—the name of a notorious anti-Semitic playwright whose adaptation of Peer Gynt was a favorite with the Nazis around the time that Wolf wrote Cyankali. Idioms are even more problematic, especially the old ones sometimes used here. When Hete asks “Wie lange musste denn brummen?” You won’t find a translation engine that will get you anywhere close to the meaning, I had to turn to a book of German idioms printed in 1900 to find the answer.
In a few places, I found myself completely lost, and just soldiered through, sometimes going back when the meaning became clear later on. I’m still not entirely sure I got the conversion between Prosnik and the others at the dinner table correct, or even in the ballpark.
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.