SUBTITLING: Why Linguistic and Technical Accuracy is Important
May 28, 2024

SUBTITLING: Why Linguistic and Technical Accuracy is Important

When adapting entertainment or business communication for a global marketplace, subtitling is one of the options available and has many advantages.

Subtitles can be used as a written rendering of the dialogue or narration contained in a video in the same language as the original audio, or as a translation of the original audio in another language. In both cases, the purpose of subtitling is to make sure that people who cannot hear or do not understand the language spoken in the video can still receive the message.

Although it appears simple, subtitling is a complex process, requiring many steps and expertise to get right. Often we don’t notice how much work goes into subtitles until we see them done badly.


The first step of the subtitling process is the transcription of the audio script—if there is no written version of the audio, a transcriber will listen to the original recording and write it down word by word. Once the script is completed it will either be used to create the content of the subtitles, or if the video is destined for another country, it is will be sent for translation.

Translation (adaptation)

Contrary to popular belief, the content of translated subtitles is most often not a word-for-word translation of the original script. Translators working on subtitles need to understand the topic they are working on, and convey the context, meaning and tone of the original video into the target language. But that’s not all.

Subtitling has its own specifications, criteria and restrictions. Time and space are the two main restrictions affecting the final result. Subtitling needs to support the image and the audio content within the time and space available, and that is determined by the existing video. For that reason the translation cannot be a simple one-to-one conversion.

Here are some of the technicalities involved: the space normally set for video subtitling is limited to 2 lines, usually placed centred at the bottom of the screen (unless some other writing appears there in the video, in which case the lines for the subtitles will be temporarily moved to the top of the screen). Each line cannot contain more than 34 characters, about half that for Chinese and Japanese characters. As for the time, a subtitle standard duration goes from a minimum of 1 second to a maximum of 6 seconds.

Such parameters are based on the direct relation between the duration of a subtitle and the number of characters that can be read within that time, taking into consideration average reading speed, which is normally about 3 words per second. That means that on average it will take a viewer at least 4 seconds to read 2 completed lines of subtitles, made up of a total of 70 characters or approximately 12 words. If the timing is shorter you must calculate fewer characters.

Despite those restrictions, it is still important that the textual content of the subtitle doesn’t become unnatural, and it should be presented with the same punctuation, spelling rules and all the other normal language conventions.


Another important technical step of the subtitling process is called “spotting”, which is where the translator has to calculate the time at which the subtitles will appear and disappear from the screen, so that the subtitles are synchronised with the audio.

The duration of the subtitles can be affected by all sorts of features contained in the video, like for example a change of camera shot or change of scene, as in such occurrences the viewer would tend to re-read the subtitles.

In order to perfectly assess reading speed, screen positioning, durations and shot changes, translators use professional subtitling software where they can access the video and accurately time-code their captions while they translate them.

At the end of this process, and after carefully following all of those criteria, the ideal final result should be perfectly synchronised subtitles, fluently following the audio and the images of the video, to the point where they become a natural part of the viewer’s experience.

How to make the best choice

There are many key factors to keep in mind when deciding what solution to apply for your audio-visual product, like budget, deadline, cultural preferences of the target market and so on. Whatever the choice, there are always pros and cons to weight up.

Cost and turnaround time

In case of a project with limited budget and a short timeline, subtitling will definitely be a better choice, compared to dubbing (re-recording the audio with a new speaker), as it cuts out all the costs associated with studio recording, sound engineering, post-production editing, as well as the fee for professional voice-over actors.

For the same reasons, when it comes to the turnaround time, subtitling is normally much quicker as it involves fewer steps, and therefore fewer professionals, than dubbing.

Cultural preferences of your target markets

As with any localization project, culture plays a very important role. It is crucial to research the preferences of the target market, and in particular whether the population prefers to read subtitles or hear the audio in their native language. While in certain countries the viewers are used to reading subtitles and enjoy hearing the original audio of the video, in some other countries subtitles are seen as an annoyance that might put the audience off. Literacy is another cultural factor to consider. The size of the target audience is also an element to keep in mind—some smaller regions might be more difficult to find voiceover artists for, making dubbing more expensive.

Having said that, every project is different, and it is important to take into account all of the perspectives involved, like the impact you want the video to make, the aesthetic of the visual, and the ultimate distribution channel.

Subtitling is one of the services offered here at Braahmam. When you want your message to go global, we can advise you as to whether your video will work best with subtitles, re-dubbing or a combination of both. Our experts have the tools and skills needed to ensure accurate and professional results which match your video’s quality. Get in touch for more information.

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