Best practices for subtitle translations

Best practices for subtitle translations

Contrary to fansubbing, which is the practice of fans grouping together to subtitle their favorite movies or TV series, professional subtitle translations are bound by certain standards and best practices which are going to be touched upon in this article.

Pick a format

One of the first decisions to make when subtitling a video in one or more languages is the subtitle format to be used. Hard-coded subtitles, i.e. noneditable subtitles embedded in the final video, is one option. The alternative is soft-coded subtitles, mainly in srt format that can be toggled on and off. In the latter option, the subtitles are not embedded in the video and allow for more flexibility, such as having only one video and being able to choose the target language, by selecting the respective translated srt file.

Keep your subtitle translations short

Subtitle length depends on the media where they will be presented, but in general, they should not exceed 40 characters. Subtitles for TV, where the public is broader and of various literacy levels, tend to be shorter, thus allowing time for all viewers to read the subtitles and enjoy the on‑screen action. On the other hand, acceptable subtitle lengths for videos on the web or movies at the cinema tend to be longer, given that the audience is expected to have a higher average reading rate. Of course, the number of characters per line depends on certain standards that are different for each language.

Do not use more than two lines

Each subtitle should not be more than two lines. The general idea behind subtitles is to help the viewer understand what is being said in a video or movie, while allowing them to enjoy any graphics, images, or anything else that may be depicted on screen. As a result, when translating for subtitles, linguists should remember that their work is supplementary and should not take the viewer’s attention from the rest of the screen. Therefore, trying to convey the meaning uttered within 1 or maximum 2 lines per subtitle is a standard practice.

Keep semantic units together

When subtitling, transmitting the gist of the meaning to the audience is of crucial importance for the subtitles to be successful and not hard to read. Given the above consideration, there are certain length restrictions as to how much may be conveyed in a subtitle. So, when a phrase is divided in two lines or in more than one subtitle, it is important to keep semantic units together and not separate them. In other words, a subtitle translator should make all efforts to keep verbs with their pronouns, nouns with the articles defining them and so on.

Beware of the in and out times

The time that a subtitle appears on screen and the time that it leaves the screen is very important. When syncing the translated subtitles, each subtitle should appear on the exact moment when the speaker starts speaking and should leave the screen not very long after the speaker stops speaking. Another important consideration is that when the audio text is dense and a subtitle needs to appear right after the previous one, there should always be a minimum gap between the two subtitles, so that the viewer’s eye can realize that the subtitle has changed and there’s a new one to read.

Make your subtitles culturally relevant

Whether you have a marketing video to attract more clients, a presentation video of your business or a video for entertainment or informative purposes, cultural considerations are very important for subtitle translations. All videos should be subtitled in a way that the oral speech is converted into written speech, in a style similar to the one of the speakers and culturally acceptable for the target audience. In other words, it is a good practice to find equivalent idioms, puns, or wordplays in the target language, whenever these are used in the source video. This may be challenging, but it is also very rewarding when done effectively and with precision.

Make your subtitles visible

Choosing the appropriate font, font size, color and positioning is important. The subtitles may be linguistically perfect, but this is of no use if the viewer cannot read them because the font color and contrast with the image makes them hard to read. Also, on certain occasions, there may be on‑screen text, like the job titles of the speakers in informative videos or documentaries. In these cases, the subtitles should be repositioned in a way that they do not overlap with the on-screen text and can be read without any issue.

And a tip!

Whenever more than one target languages are involved in a subtitling project, regardless of the platform that you want to present your subtitled video in, and regardless of the subtitle format that you wish to work with, it is always a good idea to transcribe and time code the original video. This way, there will be a common starting point for all languages involved in the project and you will be saving on cost, as the time coding will not need to be performed from scratch for each language.


In an attempt to close this short article, I would like to mention that the recipe for successful subtitle translations may be long and dictated by various guidelines followed by significant players in the field of audiovisual translation such as the BBC and Netflix. However, if subtitle translations are performed with precision by professional translators,  they can leave a very good aftertaste and impression to your targeted audience.