Job Description: Today I’m going to talk about writing annotations. You will have this job either as part of creating a dialogue list or spotting list, or as a member of a team in an English department. If you work in an English department, the work is often divided depending on the strengths of each person. So you might be asked to write annotations and not ever create a spotting list, just depending on deadlines and skills of the people in the department. When you freelance, you could be expected to provide annotations in addition to a DL or SL. But you are unlikely to be hired just to write annotations.
Some of the job titles which could include writing annotations are English Editor, Master English Transcriber, or just a member of the English department or international versioning department.
What are annotations?
Annotations are notes for translators which accompany the document they are going to be translating.
If you’ve ever gone to a country where a different language is spoken, you might have had the experience of opening a translation dictionary and seeing three or four different words to choose from. How do you know which one has the same meaning you want to use? Like if you are in a hotel looking for your booking, how can you be sure you aren’t telling the concierge that you are looking for some reading material? This is where annotations come into play.
After a dialogue list is completed, you’ll go through it looking for any words or phrases which could be mistranslated or which might not appear in a dictionary, like slang or informal words. You will provide context or suggestions on what the words mean.
You’ll explain what idioms mean. Like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Other countries might not use that expression, so a literal translation of it could seem nonsensical. An annotation would need to be added to explain that it is an idiom, meaning it is raining a lot, and that if there is a similar idiom in whatever language being translated into it should be used here instead of using a literal translation to keep the flavor of the character and dialogue in tact.
Other things like humor, double entendres, words with one or more possible meaning in a dictionary or even things which are just said to be silly should be annotated to help ensure that the correct context remains in the translation.
You also might be asked to include relationships between people - like if someone is an older or younger brother or sister to another character, and you always need to include measurement conversions - like from Fahrenheit to Celsius or Miles to Kilometers.
We even once had to add an annotation to explain that when a character said “good night,” it was ok even though it was still light outside because it was late enough in the day and the character was going home from work for the night, to say “night” instead of “day.” So, there are some cultural things which might not even occur to you, but when those questions come back, you just add another annotation to make sure everything is clear.
Humor is an especially important thing to annotate because it can be so different from country to country.
Some companies will also require that you include an internal note of where you sourced your research. Did the spelling of an actor’s name come from an article in Variety or the actor’s IMDb page? Did you just look at Wikipedia and think that was good enough?
Ok, another story. When we were working on MI3, there is a scene where Tom Cruise’s character is climbing the Vatican wall. We couldn’t find anything on-line (again, years ago) about how tall the Vatican wall was, and we were specifically asked to include that information in a revision of the DL. So we had to call the Vatican to ask them about the wall, although I was find measuring how many Tom Cruise’s tall it was, the client wanted something more precise.
I also got really mad when we were working on Nanny McPhee and were asked to include an annotation for the word “stock pot.” There is only one definition for stock pot and it really bothered me to have to include a definition of it in the dialogue list. But, the client is always right. You add what they want and then you hold a grudge about it for 16 years.
Example: Here’s a transcription of part of the video I did on dialogue list creation. I’ve added some annotations to it, including one where I correct the spelling in a title I put up on the screen. Oops!
You can see that the annotations are included with each entry of transcription or spotting. This is a good reason to keep dialogue entries short, so that if a lot of annotations are required the translator doesn’t have to look too far to find them.
Qualifications: English proficiency. A lot of writers and English majors go into jobs in the English department. Although most jobs in an English department can be done by someone without a bachelor’s degree, getting past the HR gatekeepers without one can be hard.
Tests: As with all of the jobs in an English department, you will have to take a basic test which will include some proofreading skills and will probably have some of those annoying errors which are so common in English, like it’s and its or two, to and too. You might also be asked to write an annotation or two, just to prove you understand what they are.
Training: But as with most things, you are unlikely to get a lot of training. You’ll will be given an example document, mostly for formatting, and probably there will be some kind of guidelines document with lots of examples of what kinds of things to annotate in it. However, it is pretty common when you first start doing this that someone with more experience will review your work and provide you with notes. So you’ll benefit from being fast at picking up what the notes are correcting in your work, and not taking the criticism too personally.
What kind of person is this good for: I really think it is helpful for someone interested in writing annotations to have studied a foreign language at some point. I’m terrible at French, but it was my minor in college and I love it. Having studied a foreign language helps you realize just how easy it is to pull the wrong word out of a dictionary, so you better understand why annotations are helpful.
You also have to be interested in researching things and then able to distill that research into a short, easy to understand summary. Being clear when explaining things is vitally important. If you are the kind of person who often gets asked what your social media posts mean, or just get comments with question marks in them, this is probably not something you would excel at.
The downsides: You can’t really start annotations until the dialogue list is completed. You’ll need to be careful when scheduling that you keep in mind just because a project comes in on Friday and is due Monday that doesn’t mean you can start on the annotations on Friday. You’ll probably start on Saturday. Tight deadlines can be a drag when you need to do a lot of research for a specific project, so being a fast reader and fast typist are helpful skills to have.
Like everything in the English department, working nights, weekends and holidays is more the rule than the exception.
Also because of global production, having a deadline of 9 pm on a Sunday night isn’t unusual so that files are ready for someone in India as soon as they get to work Monday morning, or to be trying to finish something in London’s overnight so they have something ready in the morning.
The pay: If you can get a job at a company that does this for big studios, you can make enough to survive, but you won’t be getting rich. It will be rolled into a job in the English department, so it is also unlikely that you will just have a job of writing annotations. But with work distributed within the department based on the strengths of the employees, you might be able to only do a little bit of transcription and spend most of your time writing annotations.
As far as freelancing, this is unlikely to be a specific standalone job. If you take work either creating dialogue lists or spotting lists, you might be expected to include annotations with your files. The amount of detail in the annotations varies, usually depending on the kind of project you are working on. TV shows can get by with fewer annotations because the same people work on them week after week and have probably already created their own personal translation dictionaries for things which reoccur week after week. Independent films which are just getting the DL or SL as part of a delivery requirement won’t require as many annotations as a studio film, like for Disney or Marvel or something. Don’t be surprised if a big studio comes back and says there aren’t enough annotations in a file or that a translator has requested more explanation of something.
I really enjoy writing annotations, provided there is enough time in the schedule to do the research. I hate when they are rushed, but it can be really interesting and a way to learn about all sorts of different topics and engage different though processes about what words mean and how they are used.