Reading time: 5 mins

As we discussed in our first article, subtitles allow you to reach a wider audience and come in many shapes and sizes. We discussed why subtitles are important, how they are made, and what types of subtitles there are. In this article, we will focus more closely on the subtitle translation process and the pitfalls to avoid. Once the transcription and timestamping are complete, it is time for translation. The subtitle translation projects our team receives are varied. We help our clients translate the subtitles of their audio-visual file, whether it is a film, documentary, promotional video, or e-learning material, in a number of language combinations. Specific translation rules must be followed when translating subtitles, requiring extensive knowledge on the translator’s part. We list the main challenges below and advise you on how to tackle them.


Word-for-word translation

Adapting subtitles word for word is not an option. In almost every case, a literal translation will fail to convey appropriate meaning or evoke the same feelings in the reader compared to the original, both of which are incredibly important in subtitle translation. Additionally, subtitles need to use as few words as possible. This means that if the spoken text is translated literally, it will be far too long to fit on the screen.

Reducing the number of words

Most subtitles are limited to two lines appearing at the same time – each line can contain approximately 35 characters, while the two lines together should come to around 70 characters. To meet these precise standards, thoughtful translation is required; specific words must be sacrificed and sentences must often be completely reconstructed to retain the core meaning of the original spoken text.

Timing is important

The minimum duration of a subtitle (how long it is displayed) is usually one second, with a maximum duration of about six seconds. The ability to meet time constraints throughout the translation process goes hand in hand with reducing the length of the translation. Subtitle text must be concise and quick to read. The subtitle timing must be so precise that they appear on screen when the speaker is speaking, which is usually done through appropriate timestamping. When this is not the case, it has a major and embarrassing result: subtitles appear on the screen at the wrong moment (too early or stay displayed for too long) and do not match the speaker’s timing.

Communicating the right message

When translating subtitles, the linguist must be aware of the different language registers and styles used by each speaker in the video. For example, an elderly woman speaks differently to a teenager, and the queen speaks and writes differently to a factory worker. Appropriate vocabulary, phrasing and sentence structure can accurately convey the speaker’s age, status, and personality. Though this rule is not unique to subtitle translation, breaking it is much more noticeable, irritating even, than in other mediums.

Multicultural content

All translators face the challenge of taking into account a variety of cultural contexts and styles – subtitle translation is no exception. When translating content from one language to another, it is important to ensure that the translation reflects the target audience’s values, conventions, and cultural characteristics. Even symbols have different meanings depending on the target language or reader. Subtitle translators must take great care to avoid insulting or misleading the reader, avoiding any possible miscommunications. This is especially challenging when translating informal spoken language, such as curse words or slang, which is common in films and TV shows. Special care and precise instructions on how to tackle such elements are needed, so the translated subtitles are appropriate for the target audience both in meaning and cultural impact.

Lack of visual context

Translating subtitles without the corresponding video is particularly challenging. Without access to the visual images, the translator cannot always identify the speakers or consider precise timing. To achieve a high-quality subtitle translation, the audio, video, and subtitles must all be fully synchronised, which can only be achieved by the translator having access to all three.

Machine translation

You may be tempted to rely on machine translation to translate the subtitles of your video. Using automated translation engines such as Google’s can only lead to errors and a subpar result. If you need a subtitle translation, your best bet would be to use native speaker translators who are certified, qualified and – human.

Additional short tips and tricks

Did you know that the human eye can read about 15 characters per second?

This fact forces the translator to compress the message, to reduce it to its key parts. Why? Well, we speak much faster than we read. Especially when translating a film, the subtitles must keep up with the fast pace of the dialogue. In some cases, when a lot has been said but not enough space and time is available for the subtitles, the translator has to choose whether to leave out certain information or find inventive ways to communicate a lot of meaning in a limited number of characters.

Other essential formatting and technical rules:

  • A line can have a maximum of 40 characters. This makes it easy to read.
  • No more than two lines should be shown at a time; only use both if truly necessary. The lines should not obscure essential information displayed in the video: titles, speakers’ names, functions, etc.
  • The first line should ideally be shorter than the second. This is more convenient to read.
  • There should be a pause of around 2-4 frames (80-120 ms) between each subtitle. This ensures the reader has “registered” the subtitle lines changing.
  • A dash at the beginning of a line indicates a change of speaker.
  • Some sound effects (laughter, echoes, music, etc.) may be indicated if they aid comprehension. Square brackets should be used to indicate them. This “rule” is followed in closed captions.
  • Other voices should be italicised (e.g., background music, internal character monologue) to distinguish them from the foreground speech.
  • White text on a black, slightly transparent background provides the best contrast for reading.
  • Numbers from one to ten can be written in words. After that, leave them as numbers. Keep measurements, weights, percentages, ages, recipe quantities, street numbers, etc. written as numbers.
  • The subtitle must appear slightly before the corresponding spoken line. Too early and you may ruin a surprising twist, too late, and you risk making it harder to read or understand.
  • Subtitles should appear at the end of a shot transition, whenever possible.
  • A subtitle file (e.g., srt. file) should be imported, not ‘burned’ directly into your film. This way, the viewer can decide whether or not they wish for the subtitles to be displayed.

You might be wondering what exact information you need to provide your LSP with when ordering a subtitles. No worries, we have you covered! The perfect subtitling brief is the topic of our third article on subtitles, which will discuss how to best order a subtitling service to receive a subtitle file that fits all your needs and requirements. Keep an eye out for it in our May newsletter!

Looking for a subtitling service? We are are happy to help. Feel free to contact us at, so that we can discuss your needs!