Video is taking an increasingly bigger piece of the pie of content production. Compared to text-based content, video often has much more expressive power to convey your company’s marketing or technical message. When your company is operating in an international context, video localization is the next hurdle to take.

Making your video production available to a global audience can be done in two ways: by adding a voice-over or by subtitling your video content. While there definitely are good reasons to opt for voice-overs, subtitles have a number of advantages:

  • Hiring a voice-over artist requires a certain budget. Subtitling on the other hand is much more cost-effective.
  • A voice-over can be distracting. When a movie is dubbed, it takes away a little of the emotion and meaning of the original speaker.
  • Search engines look for more than text displayed on your web page. In fact, subtitles contribute significantly to your search engine optimization as well, because they enable search engines to understand the subject matter of your video.

The difficulty of providing good subtitles is that you have to stay true to the original meaning of the video content in your translation, while taking into account time and space restrictions. For example, for reasons of readability, it is important not to place too many words or characters in a line while subtitling.

A few rules of thumb for subtitling:

  • Two lines of roughly 35 characters is the most common guideline for the amount of text you can display on a video. For a video with a 16:9 ratio, about 68% of the video width can be used for subtitles. For a video with a 4:3 ratio, take into account 90% of the width of your video that you can use for subtitle text.
  • Each two-line subtitle can last 1 to 6 seconds.
  • A change in scenes or camera shots can affect the duration of the subtitle.
  • Captions should be timed to appear and disappear exactly when the words are spoken.

Here are three things to keep in mind before starting a subtitling job. 

1. Follow the original style and emotion

In text-based documents, paying attention to style and emotion conveyed in the source document often requires the translator to read between the lines. But in video content, the translator actually has visual and audible clues on how to express certain things. A good translation stays faithful to the original emotion and speaking style of the source content. As mentioned in the BBC’s subtitle guidelines, you need to consider the speaker’s register, nationality and era, which can affect the choice of your vocabulary:

  • Register: mother vs mum; deceased vs dead; intercourse vs sex
  • Nationality: mom vs mum; trousers vs pants
  • Era: wireless vs radio; hackney cab vs taxi

2. Don’t translate word by word

Experienced translators know that not all languages are equal in length. An English text will usually be shorter than a German text for example. It’s something you need to take into account when you are designing a brochure or a website. But with the limited real estate of a subtitle, it’s even more critical.

A translator should focus on conveying the right meaning in the amount of words that are available.

There is an exception to this rule, in that quotes by public figures should be subtitled verbatim (word for word) whenever possible. If there is time for verbatim speech, it is better not to edit unnecessarily.

3. Pay attention to timing

Subtitles should match the pace of speaking as closely as possible, because otherwise, it can be confusing for the viewer. However, this is easier said than done. Especially for rapid speakers, it can be tough for translators to fit it all into a single subtitle frame.

Another factor that affects subtitling work is the amount of time needed to read the subtitle. You will need to ask yourself whether viewers will be able to read your subtitles in the given 1 to 6 second time frame.

When you are dealing with rapid speakers, you might need to edit out some words to fit it all in and to provide more time for the viewers to read it. If that is not possible, you might consider carrying over subtitles to the next scene, although with critical shot or scene changes, this is not always a good idea.

It’s better to make your translations as short as possible. But to do that without losing any of the original meaning and emotion takes practice.

Translating your video project?

Do you want to take your video project to a wider, globalized audience? Do you consider adding subtitles to your videos, but you don’t know where to start? Maybe we can help. Be it for marketing video content, technical how-to videos or video-based e-learning localization, we have the people and the skills in house to help you.