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Subtitling: Importance and challenges

Posted by Sithara Ramachandran

Posted on 15 February 2021

Subtitling: Importance and challenges

Subtitling: To increase the reach and accessibility of your Audio-visual content

Subtitles are text originating from a dialogue, a commentary transcript, or screenplay in movies, TV shows, video games, and the like. They may either be a form of written translation of a dialogue in a foreign language, with or without additional details. Subtitles help viewers who cannot understand the spoken language or have accent recognition problems to understand the conversation.

Subtitles allow individuals to read and understand what is being said, irrespective of language barriers. They are considered essential to understanding the subtleties contained in verbal communications. Subtitles are most commonly used in movies and TV shows, and promotional and corporate videos. YouTube and internet videos are also increasingly using subtitling to boost viewership.

Subtitles are usually viewed as two lines of text at the bottom of the screen, in a 2-4 second burst. It is considered good subtitling if the subtitle appears and disappears precisely when the words are spoken yet ensuring that captions appear on-screen long enough to be read.

Subtitles are important…

An average person spends 84 minutes per day watching online videos. According to Zenith’s Online Video Forecasts 2019 report, it is expected that this number will increase and reach 100 minutes by 2021. Communication is better than ever today through the audio-visual media. Subtitles play a key role in helping improve communication. These are no longer deemed to be necessary for only those with impaired hearing. They are now playing a significant role in helping audio-visual content gain global recognition. Filmmakers, especially, are finally accepting and recognizing subtitles as extremely important to reach a wider audience. Localization goes hand-in-hand with subtitling and includes adapting cultural references to local standards or phrases in a film or sequence. These localization and subtitling skill sets help to make programs and movies understandable for all audiences.


Subtitling, besides dubbing, is one field where translators are more active. It is known to be a complex process that requires high focus and a great deal of concentration. We take a look at a few of the several challenges surrounding the subtitling process.

Dialog tone: The dialog tends to be informal in films and television shows. Translating subtitles, in this case, may seem easier; however, it isn’t so.

Multiple Speakers: It is important to capture each answer and word spoken in a movie by each character for subtitling. In situations where several speakers are speaking at the same time, it is challenging to identify who said what and responded to what at the same time. In addition to screen space and pacing, it is essential to ensure that the corresponding text is clear as people speak and that readers are able to finish reading each subtitle before the next one appears. When you need to handle fast-paced talks, debates, or disagreements between half a dozen individuals, things get trickier.

Cultural localization: The dialog usually contains a great deal of region-specific slang, idioms, and cultural references. It can pose a real problem to localize such dialogs. On the other hand, if the translator has specific knowledge about the culture and regionalisms of the country where the film was produced, they will have a competitive edge.

Text Length: Subtitles are used to localize a film or video content in order to reach more people. Another challenge in translating subtitles is to keep each subtitle short enough to comfortably fit on the screen, enabling the viewer to read easily and quickly. It is important to ensure that the dialogue speed in the footage does not outpace the viewers’ reading speed. Also, translators should be aware of the limitations on the number of characters most appropriate for each line of subtitles and adhere to them. Opting for shorter words and simpler language to keep the character count down is a good option to consider.

Style: An extra effort must be made to exclude any literal translations while translating subtitles. A literal style of translation can confuse the viewers and result in poor translation/text adaption. Language in subtitles should flow naturally and be capable of being easily read so that the audience do not have to divert their focus from what they are watching, just to understand the subtitles. A literal translation of subtitles can turn a fabulous movie into an experience that is substantially less enjoyable.

Font size: The text must be readable from all devices and screen sizes. Finding the right font size can be a challenge for subtitles. Subtitles with the right font size can easily adapt to the screen dimensions and remain clear and comprehensible.

How to deal with these challenges

Several factors need to be taken into account in order to deliver subtitling as a professional service. This requires a good level of preparation and high focus. It is important to employ the right experience and the skill set to get the best translation possible. A high-quality service/product should ensure that content is appreciated and used in the same way as the original by a large audience.

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