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Subtitling Tips: Do's and Don'ts

The dos and dont's of subtitling

Verity Hartley at LanguageWireVerity Hartley , Marketing Specialist, LanguageWire ||  Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you have watched a movie or video with subtitles there is a good chance that you instinctively know what makes a good subtitle track over a bad one.

Good subtitling requires skill and practice and enhances your understanding of the action taking place on the screen.

Bad subtitling can actually reduce your comprehension of what is happening by confusing who is speaking, poorly translating what is being said or simply being difficult to read.

So, to help you get the best out of your subtitling efforts here are some useful dos and don'ts for giving your viewers the best experience.

Subtitling DOs:

1. Keep the subtitles concise and use simple language.

If you are subtitling an interview you will need to translate the speaker word for word, but in other situations, you can paraphrase words and phrases for better comprehension.

2. Make sure the subtitles are synchronized with the audio.

Out-of-sync subtitles are immensely frustrating for the viewer and can only really be tolerated in live translation settings. Take the time to make sure your subtitles match the audio.

3. Use appropriate font size and colour, and avoid using fancy fonts.

Resist the urge to make your subtitles fancy or flamboyant with garish colours or fonts. Choose a simple sans-serif font and use either black text or white text on a black background.

4. Use proper punctuation and grammar in the subtitles.

Poor spelling and grammar can lead to poor comprehension for your viewers. Also, remember that different languages use punctuation differently. Speak to a language expert to be sure.

5. Use speaker IDs to indicate who is speaking.

Make it easier for your viewers to understand who is speaking by indicating the speaker's name before their speech. Often this is done in capitals and sometimes placed in square brackets.

6. Use brackets to indicate off-screen sounds or actions.

Captions help hard-of-hearing people understand actions and sounds that may be taking place off-screen. The sound is described and placed in brackets, usually on its own line.

7. Use ellipses to indicate pauses or incomplete thoughts.

If a speaker stops speaking before, they complete their thought or sentence, be sure to add an ellipsis (...) to show that the statement is incomplete and not your subtitle.

8. Use italics to indicate emphasis or foreign words.

If a speaker is using a lot of stress in their speech to emphasise certain points you can highlight these using italics for the words carrying the stress. Also good for indicating when a word is intentionally untranslated.

9. Use a neutral tone and avoid inserting personal opinions.

The job of a subtitler is to faithfully capture the words being spoken. If you have some creative freedom to paraphrase, be careful in your choice of words and how they may be interpreted.

10. Edit and proofread your subtitles carefully to avoid errors.

Make sure you always run your subtitles past a proofreader to catch any mistakes or to highlight any sentences that might not pass a sense check.

Subtitling DON'Ts:

1. Don't use too many words in one subtitle.

It takes the average viewer 4 seconds to read 12 words. So, try and keep your subtitles under this limit per subtitle. Any more and you risk viewers missing the end of sentences. This is usually 2 lines of text.

1. Don't split sentences across subtitles.

Try and end your sentences with one subtitle. If you are captioning a speaker word for word this may prove more difficult so in this case remain faithful to the audio and follow the flow of the speaker.

2. Don't use too many special effects, such as flashing or scrolling text.

Similar to choosing a good font and clear readable colour for your subtitles, do not use flashy effects on individual words or the subtitle as a whole. The goal is readability.

3. Don't use slang, jargon or obscure expressions.

Translate the text in its simplest form. Not everyone understands all slang references and if you try and save space by using a slang term you can lose comprehension.

4. Don't translate idioms or cultural references literally.

As with all localization tasks you should make sure you are speaking the language of your target audience, including any idioms or colloquialisms. Use a native speaker to translate these naturally.

5. Don't change the meaning of the original dialogue.

Faithful transcription is the aim of any subtitler. You may have to make some creative choices from time to time but try and remain as true as possible to the source text.

6. Don't omit important information.

As the subtitler, you are not the arbiter of whether the information is essential or not. Include all the information for the viewer to read and decide for themselves what is essential.

7. Don't use subtitles as a substitute for dubbing.

Subtitles are essential and should be provided in all videos to reach the largest audiences, but there is also a place for fully dubbed voiceovers. Speak to an expert to decide what you need.

8. Don't cover up important visuals with subtitles.

Subtitles should enhance comprehension of the video and not obscure it. So, if action is taking place in the bottom third of the screen temporarily move your subtitles to the top third. However, also work with your video editor to ensure the bottom third is kept as clear as possible.

9. Don't use all caps for subtitles, except for emphasis.

Just like in other messaging mediums, all caps are used to emphasise a loud sound or someone shouting. Sentence case should be used for all other subtitles.

Get Help from the Subtitling Experts

Hopefully, our list has given you some great tips for how to get started with your subtitling project. However, if you would like to work with a professional team of subtitlers experienced in localizing video content please fill out the form below and someone will be in touch soon.

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