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How to Prepare your Subtitles for Localization

Author: Andreea Balaoiu

How to Prepare your Subtitles for Localization

In her paper Translating Subtitles – Translating Cultures, Evgeniya Malenova highlights that “the development of media and cinema industry makes cultures – as sources of different values, experiences, customs or traditions – translate all these mental attitudes transnationally (…)

In the course of subtitling, cultural differences become an issue, because of the globalization of the cinema market and the availability of diverse content via the Internet. Showing films and TV programs in a source language accompanied with subtitles gradually becomes a worldwide practice, and the major task for a translator now is to prevent a communicative failure (…)”. (Translating Subtitles – Translating Cultures- Evgeniya D. Malenova, Omsk State University n.a. in Journal of Siberian Federal University. Humanities & Social Sciences 12 (2015 8) 2891-2900).

There are three main types of audio-visual translation:

  • Subtitling - timed onscreen text in a video, which shows all dialogue being spoken (What is Subtitling and Why Should It be Used? | USA Dubs)
  • Dubbing -the process used in filmography and videography in which recordings are mixed with the original production sound of a movie piece.
  • Voice-over – a production technique in which a non-narrative voice is overlapped with an original radio, film or audio-visual piece.

What is Subtitle Translation and Localization?

Reiterating our previous article covering this topic, What is Subtitle Translation, subtitle translation is defined as “a specific translation mode that represents one of the three main types of audiovisual translation, the other two being dubbing and voice-over” (Gotlieb, 2001), some even say that “subtitling is not translating. It’s a lot harder, but it’s a lot more fun” (Ivarsson, 1998).

In subtitle translation, the “speech act is in focus; verbal intentions and visual effects are more important than lexical elements in isolation” (ibid). This gives the linguist a certain amount of linguistic freedom; furthermore “subtitling has to manage without well-known literary and dramatic devices such as stage direction, author’s remarks, footnotes, etc.” that usually make the finished translation read more fluently (Gotlieb, 2008).

Why Localize Subtitles?

Just like any other thorough localization process, subtitle localization is executed sequentially, the first phase being an in-depth video analysis to collect and compile the text speech to be localized into the desired target language and market framework.

The next step is the actual localization phase, entailing a close rendition of the narrated text according to speech inflections and other relevant points of emphasis, in order to reflect the source content style as accurately as possible.

Lastly, any additional editing required is completed after adding the subtitle text within the video, alongside adjacent imagery, animations, music, or sound design that can benefit the overarching message.

Subtitle localization into different target languages not only contributes to the internationalization of a piece of video content, but also can reinforce the cultural and educational value of a cinematographic or audio-visual piece of content to other markets.

Additionally, subtitle localization is relevant in terms of SEO and content discoverability, reflecting relevant keywords, titles, and phrases, which can be easily picked up by search engines worldwide, especially if localized in international or high traction language combinations.

How to prepare Subtitles for Localization

There are four main considerations when preparing subtitle content for localization:

  • Subtitle length adjustment depending on screen size
  • Speech rate adaptation
  • Potential background obstructions, depending on subtitle positioning and frame size
  • Subtitle localization text formats

In terms of subtitle length, subtitles usually consist of one or two lines of an average maximum length of 35 characters; however, in some cases, there can be up to 39 and 43 characters. They are either centred or left-aligned and should be rendered in tightly knit semantic units, as compactly as possible.

Most clients, however, especially in television and film, request a two-line subtitle of 60-70 characters that stays on the screen for 5-8 seconds. In order to give viewers enough reading time, subtitles should be shown at a pace not exceeding around 12 characters per second and the lines must not consist of more than 70 characters per subtitle (1-2 lines), always aligned with the in and out times (when they appear and disappear on screen) (Gotlieb 2001).

Speech rate adaptation is paramount, considering that subtitles are ultimately meant to be read at a normal human speed, implying that the on-screen subtitle text volume should be balanced (between 125-200 words per minute), not disappear too quickly, nor linger too long, in order to provide a satisfactory user experience.

Subtitle positioning and frame size are equally important in preparing any subtitle localization, usually being displayed at the bottom 1/3 of a screen for optimal readability. However, in some countries, like Japan, for instance, subtitles may appear vertically, which is a considerable exception mandating additional screen frame size considerations in line with the text volumes, as well as background colours that could obscure the subtitle texts and make them more readable.

Lastly, a paramount element in preparing subtitles for localization is adhering to the suitable file formats such as VTT, SSA/ASS, or the go-to SRT file format.

The Bottom Line

Since today MemoQ and Trados Studio allow .srt file translation, more translation service providers can provide subtitle translation.

And AD VERBUM is certainly no exception, providing complex subtitle localization solutions into a diverse selection of international languages, that meet both your needs and budgets.
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Gottlieb, H (2008). Screen Translation: In Anne Schjoldager. Understanding Translation. Aarhus: Authors and Academica, p205-246.
Gottlieb, H (2001). Texts, Translation And Subtitling - In Theory, And In Denmark. University of Copenhagen
Ivarsson, J (1992). Subtitrēšanas māksla. Rīga: LVAVP. p79-84.

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