Skip to main content

Translation Industry Blog

Gain in-depth knowledge and perspective on various aspects and topics of translation and translation industry

What is Subtitle Translation

In our latest article, we cover the topic of Subtitle Translation and the differences between the various types of services involved in the process.

Author: Olafs Berzins

What is Subtitle Translation

YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, and even Twitter use subtitles for their videos. All these and more companies have millions of active users and paid subscribers. They reach their audiences by using Subtitle Translation Services, and so can you!

Of the three main types of audiovisual translation - subtitling (term), dubbing, and voice-over - subtitle translation is the cheapest because there is no need for additional staff, such as sound engineers and voice-over artists. Usually, translated subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen, they are centered or left-aligned.

They must not take up more than two lines and exceed the pre-determined character limit. Subtitle translation (process) is done by a special translation tool, but traditional CAT tools can be used as well.
The overall text quality during subtitle translation is not diminished, rather it may even be improved because additions, verbiage, speech peculiarities, unknown information that a reader might not know are not translated; therefore, the translation is more concise.

Now, let's get down to details regarding the topic of subtitle translation.

What is Subtitle Translation

In academic terms, subtitle translation is “a specific translation mode that represents one of the three main types of audiovisual translation, two others 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).

But, for an everyday person, subtitle translation is a translation of the text that appears on-screen while someone is speaking. In essence, subtitle translation is daily work with audiovisual materials that requires technical knowledge, as well as linguistic skill.

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 Translate Subtitles in Your Video

Let’s look at a few movies and TV streaming services: at the end of March Netflix had 183 million subscribers around the globe (gained 15.7 million paid subscribers in the first quarter of 2020); Disney+ surpassed 50 million global subscribers in its first five months alone; Hulu has 30 million paid subscribers (up 7.2 million since 2018). These massive figures were gained by translating their content into various languages, and all these services use subtitles (Conklin, 2020).

Then there is YouTube. It has 2 billion logged-in monthly users, and almost 15% of YouTube’s traffic comes from the States; each visitor spends 11m 24s per day on YouTube on average; over 70% of YouTube’s views are on mobile and YouTube is the second most-preferred platform for watching videos on TV (Cooper, 2019). Remember that YouTube’s main revenue comes from adverts that are displayed before, after or in-between videos, and these ads could be yours.

Then, of course, there are social media platforms: Facebook with its more than 2 billion active users, Twitter with 271 million users worldwide, and LinkedIn with around 550 global users (Fouche, 2019). Now, imagine putting your company’s advert on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn in a video that has been localized for a specific audience: the possibilities and reach are limitless.

Technical Specifications of Subtitle Translation

Subtitle translation is a technical process. Usually, companies that specialize in this type of translation have their own language tool that the translator uses; therefore, a client knows that their requirements will be met.

Usually, these requirements (or technical specifications) are: the number of characters that should be on the screen and the length of time of the subtitle, meaning, for how long a subtitle should be seen on the screen.

In theory, 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 centered or aligned-left. However, in some countries like Japan, for instance, subtitles may appear vertically.

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 some 12 characters per second and the lines must not consist of more than 70 characters per subtitle (1-2 lines) (Gotlieb 2001).

Currently, there are also professional subtitle translation programs that work with pixels not characters, allowing for proportional lettering, which means that linguists can write as much text as possible, depending on the font size being used and the actual space available on screen, but this software is still expensive and not so widely used.

Subtitle Classification

A lesser-known fact about subtitles is that they can be classified.

First, subtitle translation for content localization. This is the most common; a typical subtitle uses one or two lines and it is placed at the bottom of the screen, or sometimes at the top, if the subtitle overlaps with hard-coded text such as opening credits and non-verbal dialogue or text.

Subtitles start with the audio but continue to display one or two seconds after the audio has ended so that the reader can finish reading them. If the dialogue or monologue is fast-paced, the subtitles are normally shortened or rephrased (Gotlieb, 2008).

Second, closed captioning - subtitles for the hard of hearing. Subtitles display only the spoken text (sometimes non-spoken, depending on what is seen on the screen), but closed captions display also a text description of what is heard, for example, describing background noises, a phone ringing, and other audio cues.

If subtitles generally use two lines then, closed captions can have three. Also, note that closed captioning is a US-specific format of subtitles for the hard of hearing (1).

Third, subtitle translation for access services. Similar to closed captioning, these subtitles have not only the spoken text but also speaker IDs and sound effect descriptions and may also be seen on-screen where the speaker is positioned. These subtitles are optional for online videos or on-demand streaming services or DVD, meaning, you have to select these in order to see them.

Disadvantages of Subtitle Translation

Some critics of subtitle translation note that its disadvantages are mistranslations and that it takes the attention away from the picture. But one has to remember that mistranslations are not exclusive to subtitling, and when it comes to subtitle translation then, indeed, picture is king.

Remember that subtitles are made shorter in order to fit the time and space constraints recommended. In most cases, these limitations can help the audience receive the main idea without unnecessary information, but still be faithful to the source text.
Furthermore, technical specifications are not set in stone.

Some clients allow three lines on screen, sometimes even more, and some even demand that nothing is to be omitted, basically requesting a word-for-word translation. All preferences can be met both technically and linguistically.

Other Forms of Audiovisual Translation

There are three types of audiovisual translation: subtitling, dubbing, and voice-over. We have determined what is subtitling, but what about the rest and should you, as a client, consider them?

Dubbing is the traditional alternative to subtitling; it is when the translation is provided through a voice-over and the source language is not heard. In voice-over, on the other hand, the source language is heard. Voice-over and dubbing are still vastly popular in some countries, but in large parts of the world only subtitling is used both for economic reasons and because subtitling also facilitates foreign language learning.

So, should you consider dubbing and voice-over when subtitling is an option? It depends on your budget and the target audience. Even though dubbing is more expensive than subtitling, France uses it more in order to soften the English language presence in society. Probably not, if you want to save money (and who doesn’t?).

But if you have a film that has to be seen by children and you want your message to be heard and understood precisely as intended, and if you know that the target audience is more patriotic and they want to hear only their language, then dubbing is going to be the best option despite the cost.

Does Subtitle Translation Diminish Overall Text Quality?

The translator does not have to translate everything that is said on the screen because almost every time the omitted information is additions, verbiage, speech peculiarities, and unknown information to the viewer that does not impact the viewer’s ability to understand the action in the picture (2).

The subtitle translator facilitates the reader by making the translation simple, concise, with the main idea intact. In subtitles, it is more a sense-for-sense translation. The translator has to keep in mind, that the subtitles complement the picture, not the other way around, so the viewer has to be able to read and keep the action in the picture in his focus at all times.

Also, AD VERBUM’s staff have conducted their own research into subtitle translation and came to this conclusion themselves - the translation quality is not diminished. It was noted that, indeed, some information had to be omitted but, in most cases, it was additional by nature, the omission did not alter or impact the viewer’s understanding of that was seen (Bērziņš, 2014).

Bottom Line

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

However, only Trados Studio 2019 has the option to use both a .srt file and a video file simultaneously; thus, ensuring that the translation is in harmony with the video. It is no longer a service exclusive to companies that have the global titling system (GTS) at their disposal. Currently, there are many types of software available free of charge for translating subtitles, and which one you go for is your choice.

AD VERBUM will help you speak with your clients globally by translating your video content to a language of your choosing with a software of your choice, and we are happy to offer a solution that meets your needs and budget.

Learn more about ways that we can help your business by reading more of our articles and subscribing to our newsletter so you don’t miss any new insights on how you can spend less and reach more.

Start Translating Today


Bērziņš, O (2014). Film Subtitle Translation From English to Latvian: The Problem of Technical Specifications Diminishing The Translation Quality: Ventspils
Conklin, A (2020). Streaming services by the numbers. Available:, Last accessed 23rd September 2020
Cooper, P (2019). 23 YouTube Statistics that Matter to Marketers in 2020: Available:, Last accessed 22nd September 2020
Fouche, K (2019). Twitter Vs Facebook Vs Instagram Vs LinkedIn: Which is Right for You?: Available:, Last accessed 22nd September 2020
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.
OLD, Oxfords Learners Dictionaries. Available:, Last accessed 28th September 2020
1) Closed Captions Vs Subtitles and Why the Difference is Important. Available: /, Last accessed 24th September 2020
2) Ensure that subtitles are easy to read. Available: Last accessed 28th September 2020.

ISO 17100:2015

Translation service quality certified company.

ISO 9001:2015

Quality management system certified company.

ISO 27001:2013

Information security standard certified company.

ISO 18587:2017

Machine translation output post-editing quality certified company.

Subscribe to our Newsletter
2027 National Development Plan Latvia

On 28.03.2024 AD VERBUM Ltd. signed an agreement No 17.1-1-L-2024//180 with the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia on receiving support for export assistance under the project “SME Innovative Business Development” co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.