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Subtitles have become indispensable to any piece of visual media. Adding them to a video will ensure that you reach the widest possible audience. This article will describe why you should use subtitles, what they are, and some dos and don’ts for how to write them so they are ready for translation.

Why? Subtitles give you greater reach

The first thing you may ask yourself is, ‘Honestly, is it worth it?’ All we can say is, ‘yes!’ We have several reasons:

  1. Subtitles make your content accessible to everyone, without the need to hear it. This is one of the main benefits of subtitles. You can include the speaker’s words, video meta‑information, such as the off-screen speaker’s name, the way something is said (whispering, yelling etc.) or background sounds (e.g. music, traffic, or wind rustling in the treetops). All of this enhances the understanding of the video content for people who are not able to listen to the audio.
  2. Subtitles broadcast your content worldwide. By providing a translation of what the speaker is saying, your audience extends from speakers of the original language to speakers of any language you choose for your subtitles, worldwide. The possibilities are limitless!
  3. Subtitles enable users to understand your content without disturbing others. As reported by Digiday, 85% of Facebook videos are watched without sound on mobile devices. More and more people use social media on the go (e.g. on public transport or in a waiting room), so it is important for them to have the option to understand videos without sound.
  4. They make your content searchable and findable. YouTube captions can be read and indexed by both YouTube and Google, which allows the search engines to get a better understanding of your video content. You can either include the transcript of the text in the captions, or paste the entire thing (or key sections, depending on the length) into the video description. As explained by 3playmedia, YouTube’s automatic captions are not indexed by Google or YouTube due to the high error rate, so high-quality professional captions are the only way to reap the SEO benefits.

What? Subtitles vs captions

‘Subtitle’ is the most commonly used term in the world for text that appears below video footage. Subtitles can be in the same language as the video or a translation of what is being said. ‘Caption’ is a term most commonly heard in North America; it is used exclusively to refer to subtitles in the same language as the video. When referring to a translated video, the internationally accepted term is ‘subtitles’.

Both subtitles and captions are text elements displayed on the bottom of the screen, but captions provide additional or interpretive information to people who need more information. SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), as they are also called, describe other auditory information apart from the words spoken (see point 1 above on meta-information). The subtitles or captions are almost always a transcription or translation of the spoken language in the video, as opposed to other text that can appear on the screen, which summarises . There is a difference between closed and open captions. Closed captions can be turned on and off, i.e., the viewer can choose whether or not they want to see them. This can be done with a simple click of a button on the video player. Open captions are ‘burned’ into the video itself, are always visible, and cannot be disabled.

How? Transcription and timestamping

The process of developing and editing subtitles can sometimes seem nothing short of an art form. If they are poorly written, they become almost unreadable and therefore useless. To make an effective instructional video, for example, you must first write the script (text spoken by the voiceover), which can then be easily turned into subtitles. Other types of videos often require the transcription of every word spoken by each speaker first, which is time-consuming.

The syntax of the spoken sentences may be adjusted very slightly, since subtitles must be both easy to read and grammatically correct. For example, in French, ‘Si j’aurais su’ must be written as ‘Si j’avais su’, or in English, the colloquial question tag ‘innit’ would usually be transcribed as ‘isn’t it’. It is essential to check your spelling and grammar – as with any text primarily intended to be read. Small mistakes can have a big impact on your company’s reputation.

Once a transcription (or script) has been made, the next step is to timestamp the text. The text must be referred to the precise time position (to the second) in your video file. This way, it will appear on the screen at exactly the right time, i.e., when the speaker says it, and not a moment too soon or too late. The subtitles then appear simultaneously with the corresponding spoken words.

After transcription and timestamping, it is time for translation. The best choice for your transcription and subtitling needs are specialist translators with years of experience. The ultimate goal is subtitles that integrate seamlessly with the audiovisual information, so that the viewer does not realise they are reading while simultaneously absorbing the image, sound, and text.

This article is the first of two on subtitles. In the next one, we will delve deeper into subtitle translation: how it is done, what needs to be taken into consideration when preparing the translation, what information to include into your brief when commissioning a subtitle translation from your LSP, and more.

With our tailor-made services and our pool of professional linguists, highly experienced in subtitling, optimise the distribution of your content internationally! Do you have an enquiry or an order? Please contact us at We will be happy to help you.