Everything You Need to Know About Subtitling, Closed Captioning, and Audiovisual Translation

Audiovisual translation has been on the rise in recent years, partly thanks to legislation in many countries promoting accessibility for people with sensory disabilities. But what exactly is it, how is it produced, and why should organizations utilize it? 

Three Types of Audiovisual Translation

The most common type of audiovisual translation is multilingual subtitling (also called interlingual subtitling), where the language of the media is different from the language of the subtitles.

The second type is same-language subtitling (also called intralingual subtitling), where the subtitles are in the same language as the media.

Finally, there is subtitling for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, called Subtitles for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH) in the UK or closed captioning in the US. 

Subtitling Process

Subtitles are created differently depending on the materials provided by the client. Some clients don’t provide any script or template, such as a file that contains timecoded subtitles in the source language. In these cases, the subtitler needs to use audio to create the subtitles.

If the client provides a script — also called a dialogue list (usually as a Word or PDF file) — the subtitler can refer to the materials provided during the translation process. If the client provides a timecoded template containing the original dialogue, in most cases, subtitlers cannot amend the predefined time cues and need to replace the source text with their translation.

Another scenario is when a video production needs to be subtitled in multiple languages. In this case, to increase efficiency, a source template is a must that can then be distributed to the various linguists. Sometimes, for videos in a language other than English, an English “pivot” template is created, and then this intermediary template is translated into other languages.

Two types of professional subtitling software exist: (1) cloud-based software like OOONA and (2) desktop-based software like EZ Titles and WinCaps.

Subtitling Requirements and Quality

The overall aim is to produce subtitles that the viewers can read effortlessly and comfortably while enjoying the images at the same time.

Subtitlers must pay attention to length, measured in characters per line (CPL), and display speed, measured in characters per second (CPS). They must also be mindful of the context, the genre of the video, the layout of the text, and the readability and legibility of the subtitles (e.g., breaking the lines in a manner that facilitates the reception of the message). 

Subtitlers need to follow detailed guidelines and style guides. These can vary per client or per country, but most have the following similarities: 

  • The minimum duration of a subtitle is usually 1 second (although some companies allow for less), and the maximum duration is usually between 5 and 7 seconds. 
  • The CPL is usually between 37 and 42 (but can be fewer for vertical videos that circulate on social media). 
  • The reading speed fluctuates between 15 and 20 CPS (but can be fewer for children’s programs).

Subtitles are generally centered and positioned at the bottom of the screen, though they may have to be raised to the top of the screen if they overlap some onscreen text or cover important images. Additionally, subtitlers may need to translate some onscreen text and lyrics if they are plot-relevant.

Benefits for Organizations

Closed captioning and subtitle translation services allow companies creating entertainment and video content to optimize their audience reach, increase revenue, and maximize the accessibility of their productions.

There are many reasons why captions and subtitles are important:

  • They help people with hearing impairments and those who don’t speak the same language as the video’s audio track to understand the content.
  • They are valuable learning tools for people who are studying a foreign language. 
  • They are convenient for people who watch videos in a noisy environment or need to mute the video.
  • They help videos rank higher in search engine results pages.
  • They help businesses reach new markets and customers.

In the digital age, video performance is often measured by reach, views, shares, engagement, and a range of other key metrics. In most cases, subtitled videos outperform those without subtitles, because viewers are more engaged and watch videos in full when subtitles are included.

Adding subtitles to your videos can add clarity to content when it involves technical language, industry jargon, abbreviations, or names of individuals and organizations.

Another great benefit of adding subtitles is that they are proven to allow viewers to maintain concentration for longer periods of time and retain more information. They provide a far better experience for those with poor concentration, attention disorders, or autism.

Sectors Where Subtitling Is Needed

The Entertainment Industry. Films, documentaries, reality shows, and series are internationalized thanks to multilingual subtitles. We need to keep the viewers engaged with the story, and subtitles become essential to convey the feelings and emotions of the feature.

The Corporate Sector. Corporate audiovisual content has become a key element in any internationalization strategy, such as when a company has many offices around the globe. It is essential to ensure that the video speaks the language of the target audience and communicates the values of the corporation.

Education. Online learning has been booming in recent years. In some cases, even traditional educational institutions require e-learning subtitling services to accommodate the demand of more students choosing to study remotely. Subtitling allows institutions to reach a more diverse pool of students. Additionally, university websites must be accessible to all students, requiring SDH and Audio Description for all online videos.

In a global, digital society, subtitling needs to be part of any marketing strategy to make sure that audiovisual content travels around the world and reaches as many viewers as possible. High-quality subtitling is a key component of successful content creation.

Jorge Díaz-Cintas
Jorge Díaz-Cintas is professor of Audiovisual Translation studies at the Centre for Translation Studies of University College London. He is project leader of the AVTpro certification.
Cécile Pasquet
Cécile Pasquet is founder and Managing Director of JustRightSubs, which offers closed captioning services and subtitle translation to and from English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.


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