28 June 2022

The rules for good subtitling

Categoria: Subtitling

The spread of multimedia content in world marketing strategies has led many companies to discover just how important it is to follow certain rules to ensure good subtitles.

This requirement becomes clear as soon as attempts are made to launch a brand abroad, leveraging content that is already available in the original language. Automated translation is commonly chosen to contain cost, but this decision may undermine effectiveness and negatively impact brand awareness.

Automatically generated translations, without any input from industry professionals are full of linguistic and technical inaccuracies, which can lead to misunderstandings and worse still, push people away instead of attracting them. This loses potential customers. Nowadays, many machine translation inaccuracies appear so well written that marketing staff may not notice them — to ensure accuracy, a professional is needed.

Correct subtitling requires the input of a translator specialized in providing this kind of service. Translation of multimedia content must be grounded in certain rules regarding the main characteristics of subtitles, i.e.:

  • length;
  • summarization;
  • synchrony;
  • color;
  • position.

Compliance with these rules strongly influences end product quality. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Length, summarization and synchrony

The first rule for a good subtitle is appropriate length. The sentence must be no longer than two lines. Lengthy expressions occupy more screen space, encroaching on images, or requiring resizing of type. Both circumstances should be avoided, as they hinder enjoyment of the content. Sentences need to be concise, which leads to the second rule — summarization.

Time and space limitations make it impossible to transcribe everything that is spoken in full, so summary is required. The 5Ws are crucial in this sense, providing essential information by answering: who, what, when, where and why.

A good subtitle consists of a single concept, the most important one, so anything superfluous — that is not necessary for understanding the message — should be eliminated. In doing so we must bear in mind another aspect: translations in some languages naturally come out longer than the original. Finding linguistic expressions that are congruent, understandable to the audience and within applicable length limits is the key challenge here.

The third rule for good subtitling is all about the synchronicity of text, sound and image. Sentences must be in sync with all the elements in the scene. So if there is an explosion, laughter or any other sound effect, it needs to be reproduced at the exact moment as it takes place. Anticipating such effects in the text is strictly forbidden as it would ruin the surprise. As far as dialog is concerned, the subtitle must align as much as possible with the spoken words and the speaker’s rhythm.

These three rules focus above all on the content, whereas these next three mostly regard form.

Colour, position and duration

Those who work in marketing are all too aware of attention to detail. This criterion holds true for subtitling.

Let’s go back to our list of rules and a fourth one on colour. A good subtitle never attracts attention to itself but should always accompany the scenes shown. Bright colors must be avoided — it is best to write sentences in white on a black background. There is one exception to this rule however: Different colors may only be used when several actors are speaking at the same time, with the matching of a different color to each voice.

Position is another crucial element. The text should be placed at the bottom of the screen and in the center. However there are exceptions, such as dialog, in which the text is placed on the left and right, to make it easier to understand who is speaking the words on screen. The presence of other elements that may hinder central positioning must also be considered, and a suitable solution must be developed, bearing in mind that all parts of a video must harmonize.

The last rule addresses the length of time for which the text is displayed. A subtitle should remain on screen between 1 and 8 seconds in total, the estimated time it takes to read a sentence. Here too there may be exceptions. Longer display times may be used whenever there are uncommon or lengthy words, series of numbers and dialogs. The ultimate aim is to let the viewer enjoy every single scene and keep track of the plot.

With automated translation alone, we run the risk of breaching these rules, resulting in a poorly subtitled video. This setback hinders enjoyment and spread of content, which negatively impacts company image and business opportunity. This is why it is important to turn to a professional if you wish to enter new markets with new content and win over the intended audience.

At Way2Global, we provide a subtitling service focused on enhancing our customers’ content, delivering quality, speed and sustainability. A special team is put together for every single project to ensure unbeatable quality and efficiency; each project sparks a value chain, which generates benefits for all our stakeholders. This is why so many companies turn to us.


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    Laura Gori è Founder e CEO di Way2Global, agenzia di traduzioni dall’anima Benefit, oltre che startup femminile. Dopo trent’anni alla guida di una piccola multinazionale della localizzazione, Laura ha deciso di ricominciare daccapo e di fondare Way2Global per fare impresa a beneficio della società e dell’ambiente, oltre che della crescita aziendale. Fervente paladina di Benefit Corporation e delle istanze di empowerment femminile, Laura coglie ogni occasione per diffondere consapevolezza su questi temi e contribuire all’affermazione di un’economia più giusta, egualitaria e sostenibile per tutti.