Have you ever been watching something and realised the subtitles are really hard to comprehend? You feel like your brain doesn’t have enough time to unpack what is being said before they disappear, leaving you perplexed and confused, but without a clear sense as to what exactly went wrong. Well, in today’s post that’s exactly what we’re going to look at. What things are important to consider in the translation of subtitles? What are the rules and what happens when things go wrong? Read on to find out!

From Netflix to the Workplace

Subtitles are increasingly all around us, and in many more languages than before. Online streaming platforms like Netflix mean that we now watch television content from all over the world, with European shows like Money Heist and Call My Agent becoming international sensations. And it’s not just TV – as our workplaces become more digital and our working environments more global, corporate videos complete with subtitles are becoming all the more pervasive. From punchy films about values and sales results to recorded Zoom presentations and team training videos, subtitles make content more accessible and multilingual.

In fact, subtitles are becoming so common we sometimes don’t even realise we’re using them – that is, until something goes wrong. There’s nothing worse than clunky subtitles which are hard to follow, but the rules for good subtitling are not always clear. Sometimes a certain line of text may seem perfectly fine – free from spelling mistakes or bad grammar. But even so, it’s tough to read. The fact is, subtitling is an art form with its own rules to follow beyond what applies for normal translation.

The golden rules of subtitling

Any good subtitle translator or agency offering subtitle translation will be well familiar with the golden rules of subtitling. To name but a few of the most crucial:

Rule No. 1: Two lines, no more than 40 characters per line.

So that our brains can comprehend the information displayed on screen, each subtitle should be comprised of no more than two lines of 40 characters in length each. This is a huge challenge for the subtitle translator if transcribing directly from dialogue as it means the original words need to be condensed down as succinctly as possible, but without compromising on tone, meaning or even small throw-away details that might seem insignificant at first but prove to be important later on.

Rule No. 2: Linguistic wholes should not be separated.

It makes it easier for our brains to process subtitles if linguistic units are kept in-tact. That means splitting lines at the end of clauses rather than breaking them up across the two lines or across subtitles. Again, the challenge here is to adapt the subtitled text so that lit can be split in the right way, but without compromising on meaning. Breaking up linguistic wholes can cause quite the headache for viewers as text becomes difficult to read but there is no obvious explanation as to why.

Rule No. 3: Subtitles need to sync up with the dialogue.

In addition to the linguistic and translation challenges involved, proper subtitling also involves technical skill. Each subtitle needs to come up at just the right time so as not to spoil the viewing experience. Subtitles which pop up too soon might cut through the dramatic tension or give away information too early, while delayed subtitles will leave viewers frustrated as they wait to find out what has been said. Subtitles that are out of sync create dissonance between what’s on screen and what’s being said and this interferes with our suspension of disbelief, making it harder to enjoy the experience.

What about software that generates subtitles automatically?

Looking at the rules above, it’s pretty clear that subtitling is no walk in the park. But what about subtitling software, you might be wondering? Even Instagram has the capacity to generate captions automatically, so how can it be so complicated? Why not just switch on some auto-captioning software, run the results through Google Translate and voilà – multilingual subtitles in an instant.

You only need to Google “subtitling blunders” to quickly see why this might not always be a great idea – from Nazi Ghosts running up and down the British coastline to Swedish politicians supposedly boasting about their sandcastle-building abilities , there is no shortage of examples online about the pitfalls of fully automated subtitling technology.

That’s not to say auto-subtitling software is worthless, but only a human translator can craft a creative and succinct set of subtitles that ticks all the boxes above and conveys your message in flawless English, Danish, Spanish or whatever language you need.

Subtitling experts

If you have your own film/TV content, corporate video, product presentation or any other kind of audio-visual material that you would like to make available in multiple languages, be sure to hire a subtitling expert for a professional outcome that your viewers can follow without any trouble. Read more about our Subtitling services here

Here at Comunica, we have ample expertise within the realm of subtitling and would be more than happy to chat about your project and find the best way forward for your subtitling needs.