29 June 2021

What makes a good subtitle?

Categoria: Linguistic Services

Producing subtitles isn’t like regular translation – in fact, it’s a whole different story. Let’s take a look at what makes a good subtitle.

There are two main differences that set subtitles apart from regular translations:

The first is linked to the nature of the source material. While regular translation involves translating a written document into another language, subtitling involves translating and transcribing speech. To bridge the divide between speech and the written word, it’s important to take a series of specific steps, which we’ll look at in more detail later.

The second difference is the space and time limitations that all subtitles are governed by. When you’re translating a document, nobody expects the translation to be half as long as the original, but with subtitles it’s vital to be as concise as possible – nobody wants to have to read lines and lines of text while trying to watch a movie.

It’s essential that some specific criteria be adhered to when translating audiovisual content, whether it’s a film, TV series, advertising video or promotional product.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics you need to keep in mind when tackling this particular form of translation.

The need to ensure subtitles are legible and feel natural

The first thing to remember is that all subtitles must be legible.

Imagine watching a glossy promo video in a language that you don’t know – and being unable to understand the subtitles because they’re too small or disappear too quickly.

The frustration caused by this can disappoint the viewer and even put them off the product being advertised.

It’s essential to check that the translation is very visible and remains on the screen for long enough to allow the viewer to read it.

As a rule, you want to have an easy-to-read font, an adequate size and a dark background to make the subtitles easier to read.

It’s also important to consider the communication channel that the subtitles are going to be used for. Viewers can read faster if they are watching something on a big screen, compared with a television set. As such, this influences the way in which subtitles should be formulated.

Another key consideration is to ensure that subtitles have a natural feel to them.

It’s not easy to make concise subtitles feel natural, but here are some technical rules and solutions that help to get round that problem.

It’s possible to integrate things like intonation and vocal characteristics using punctuation like question marks, exclamation marks and hyphens – all of which are familiar to viewers.

But there are two more factors that subtitlers need to keep in mind: completeness and discretion.

Completeness and discretion

Time and space limitations mean it’s necessary to reduce the length of the translation to ensure it can be used as subtitles. However, the risk is that you lose important information – so it’s vital that this part of the process be done carefully.

Completeness is the third characteristic of a good subtitle. Without it, the quality of the end product will undoubtedly be affected.

To avoid omitting crucial information from the source material, it’s important that the subtitler watch the content in full. This enables them to ensure they include all the key information and lets them decide which parts are superfluous and can be left out.

Finally, the fourth characteristic of a good subtitle is discretion.

The goal is for viewers not to notice that they’re reading anything at all. The audio and visual dimensions should merge together and contribute to a sole narrative, which facilitates comprehension of the message and enriches the user experience.

The best way to achieve this is to have just one phrase on the screen per scene. This takes a load off the eyes and allows the text to flow more naturally.

It’s only possible to get all this from a subtitling project if you work with a specialist translation agency.

Here at Way2Global, we have a team of experienced, dedicated native-speaker subtitlers specializing in a range of fields. Together, we can ensure that your content is translated to a professional standard that takes it to the next level.

Need a subtitling serviceGet in touch!


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