6 Essentials for Effective Subtitling

By | December 7, 2020
  1. No word for word translation- I was backpacking and met a guy from Germany who was sitting next to me on the night bus. He wanted to tell me a joke but when he translated it, the joke made no sense despite the fact he spoke fluent English. Even if you are bilingual it is often hard to translate because matters such as word order can vary dramatically between languages. It is for this reason that subtitling companies and multilingual pay per click managers should not translate word by word but rather sentence by sentence, expressing the meaning of what is being said.
  • Timing- The captions should appear and disappear exactly when required. It is very frustrating when the subtitles disappear and the character’s mouth is still moving. However, the text does appear a fraction of a second later than the dialogue because the viewer’s brain needs time to realise a character is about to speak and thus, divert their eyes to the subtitles.
    Another factor of timing is that the subtitles must not overrun into another shot. If a film has a shot of a man speaking followed by a shot of a goat and the subtitles overrun, the viewer may think they are watching a film with a talking goat. Perhaps this might heighten their enjoyment but more likely it will lead to confusion. The subtitles must also be on-screen long enough for the viewer to read them but not so long as to make the viewer think they are a fresh set of subtitles.
  • Identity of characters- The character’s identity must be kept intact. For example, let’s take Stewie Griffin’ the popular baby from ‘Family Guy.’ What makes Stewie comical, as a character, is the fact that he is well spoken. He uses words like ‘Mother’ instead of ‘Mummy.’ Despite the fact that the two words essentially mean the same thing, it is important to choose the word most fitting for that particular character, otherwise the joke and the character’s identity will be lost. This is especially important when taking into account issues such as nationality.
  • Presentation- Subtitles should be situated in the bottom corner of the screen. Too much space for subtitles will detract from the picture. Several subtitling companies believe that the text must not exceed three lines of speech but othersagree that two lines should be the maximum amount.

The subtitles should be very easy to read, they must not be blurred and must stand out against their backdrop. The font should be sensible and easy to read, ‘Don Vito Corleone’s’ famous line-

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” would look ridiculous if presented in comic sans.

  • Punctuation- It is vital to choose a respectable subtitling company that include the correct use of punctuation. Poorly punctuated subtitles will hinder the way in which the text is to be spoken. This includes the use of the full stop, hyphens, commas and question and exclamation points. Companies have to be careful with the comma; midway through a line is fine but it must not be used to end one set of subtitles before another begins. This will just cause confusion for the viewer.

Italics are a necessity for anything occurring off-screen. For example if the film/show opens with the voice of a narrator.

  • Sound- Sound effects must always be put in parentheses to separate them from the dialogue.
    For deaf viewers, subtitles need to explain where there is diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Diegetic sound includes the background noise of characters and noises from objects within the film/show. For example a telephone ringing or a school bell. Viewers need to be notified of this. Non-diegetic sound exists out of the space of the story. This may include a feel good song at the end of a rom-com or a melancholy song for an emotional scene. If a deaf viewer is not kept in the loop with non-diegetic sound then the effect of the film can be taken away. A suspenseful thriller where a police detective searches a house may appear mundane but for a soundtrack creating suspense that warns us of what is to come. Thus the subtitles need to explain (suspenseful music).

Jessica Wight has written the article above. Jessica is a content curator who at the moment works on a travel project for the apartment rental agency, San Sebastian hotels, an apartment and accommodation rental agency in the Basque Country, located in the north of Spain.