7 tips for quality subtitling and captioning

  • Tip 1: Having clear, easy to read captions

A maximum subtitle length of two lines is industry standard and also recommended. In some cases, you may have three lines, however this is usually when we have to take the sound effects or character ID’s in closed captioning into consideration.

Ideally, each subtitle should contain a single complete sentence, wherever two lines of unequal length are used, the upper line should preferably be shorter to keep as much of the image free as possible and in left-justified subtitles in order to reduce unnecessary eye movement.

Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks, ideally at clause or phrase boundaries.

  • Tip 2: Correct positioning of the captions on the screen

The normally accepted position for subtitles is centered and placed towards the bottom of the screen, but in obeying this convention it is most important to avoid obscuring ‘on-screen’ captions or any part of a speaker’s mouth or eyes.

If you are working on a closed captioning project, ensure to clarify if you need to position the captions according to the speaker’s position on screen.

  • Tip 3: Using italics properly!

Italics should be used in the following cases:

A voice-over reading of a poem, book, play, journal, letter, etc. Note: This is also quoted material, so quotation marks are also needed.

When a person is dreaming, thinking, or reminiscing.

When there is background audio that is essential to the plot, e.g.: a TV or radio.

Off-screen dialogue, narrator (see Exception 2 below), sound effects, or music (this includes background music).

The off-screen narrator when there are multiple speakers on-screen or off-screen.

Foreign words and phrases, unless they are in an English dictionary.

  • Tip 4: Subtitling is not writing.

Remember that you cannot use bold in subtitling. Nor are underlined words permitted in subtitling.

You cannot break up a word with a hyphen when it doesn’t fit; eg.

Her family was very under- standing and compassionate.

Additionally, the language register must be appropriate and correspond with the spoken word.

Subtitling is not recreating the story-line but obvious repetition of names and common comprehensible phrases need not always be subtitled.

And don’t forget to subtitle the signs. All-important written information in the images (signs, notices, etc.) should be translated and incorporated if it is relevant to the plot, and wherever possible.

  • Tip 5: You can never know enough.

Subtitlers must always work with a (video, DVD, etc.) copy of the production. If possible, try to obtain a copy of the dialogue list or script and a glossary of unusual words, names and special references. The more accurate information you have, the better the quality subtitles you will create.

If you are subtitling a series, find out if previous seasons or episodes have been translated. Consistency is super important when subtitling.

  • Tip 6: Keeping things out.

As a general rule, avoid omissions. However, it is not always possible and in some cases, if you do not omit some of the text, viewers might miss it all.

In some events, it is ok to omit repetitive or irrelevant dialogue. Omitting vocatives, for instance, is usually welcome after a portion of the show has been seen and viewers are comfortable with the character’s names.

Hesitations or self-corrections can also be omitted. They are sometimes confusing for the viewer and can hinder direct understanding. The same applies for redundancies and repetitions.

  • Tip 7: Simplification

You should simplify the text to make the subtitles easy to read so that the viewers can understand them at first sight.

Let’s look at modulation, which portrays the same (or similar) situation from various perspectives. We can make a complete sentence fit in the short space available if we slightly change the point of view. See the example below:

The sushi was made by us

We made the sushi

I hope you enjoyed reading these tips and that you will find them useful in your practice.


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