SubComm Infographics – Subtitles: A Balancing Act

By Rita Menezes

Rita Menezes is a translator/researcher. In 2024, she defended her PhD dissertation on subtitling revision. She has been working as translator, subtitler, transcreator and reviser/quality controller in several audiovisual, transcreation and marketing projects; these projects include, for example, films and series now on streaming and marketing campaigns of well-known brands. As a researcher, her main research interests are subtitling, subtitling revision/quality control and pivot subtitling. She is co-author of the educational project ApiVoT and co-editor of a special issue of “Perspectives” about pivot audiovisual translation. Creativity, ethics and technology are areas that pique her curiosity.

Subtitling is a form of audiovisual translation. It consists of small chunks of written text that translate the dialogues of the characters in a film or a series, for example. These bits of text are often shown at the bottom of the screen. Subtitling is used to make sure the foreign language is easily accessible, while the audience can still hear the original content. For the subtitles to be effective and meet their purpose, the audience must be able to read and understand them while watching what is depicted in the image (the visual) and hearing what is being said (the audio) – even if it is a foreign language, the tone of voice and the way words are uttered are still very relevant to recognize the characters and get the full picture (pun intended!). If the audience is not able to hear the audio or see the image, other forms of audiovisual translation are required: subtitling for the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH) (see Infographic Different Types of Subtitles), which includes relevant non-verbal sounds and character identification, and audio description (AD), where a narrator describes relevant visual cues (you can read more about AD on this RNIB post).

The act of reading the translation, seeing the image and listening to the audio at the same time requires some intellectual effort from the audience, yet we do it all the time. The more we are used to reading subtitles, the easier it gets. The subtitler, the professional who creates the subtitles, is fully aware that, on the one hand, the audience resorts to audiovisual content to learn or be entertained and, on the other hand, there is a lot of information to grasp in a short span of time. Skilled subtitlers can create subtitles that cater for audience needs, provide the maximum information possible to be read with a minimum effort, are linguistically correct, do not draw away audience attention and go practically unnoticed. How is that possible?

Photo by Riccardo Ginevri on Unsplash

In a very delicate balancing act, because gains and losses are carefully equated, the subtitler selects what is to be translated and how it will be presented to the audience. This selection and presentation is not created in a vacuum and it follows very specific rules that exist to ensure the consistency and improve the usefulness of the subtitles. When creating subtitles, the professional is confronted with challenging situations and must come up with the most efficient solutions for a certain context; this means decision-making and creativity are constantly in the spotlight.

There are several things to consider when creating the subtitles, namely combination of text and image, coordination of text and sound, time and space constraints, text reduction and text condensation, segmentation, readability, linguistic and translational aspects, spoken language features and narrative continuity.

Subtitles are to be combined with image and visual information. This means that (i) subtitles should not block anything important in the image, hence their usual position at the bottom of the screen, (ii) the content of the subtitles should be consistent with the image, providing information somehow connected to what can be seen on the screen at that precise moment, and (iii) subtitles have to follow the flow of the film and not be disruptive.

Subtitles are to be coordinated with sound and auditory information. In this sense, (i) subtitles should match the pace and tone of the spoken dialogue and be consistent with the information conveyed by the sound, and (ii) in the case of subtitling for the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing, relevant non-verbal sounds (for example, baby cries) and character identification are also included.

Subtitles must be synchronized with the sound and image, while respecting the rhythm of the film. This obligation places constraints on how much time is available for each subtitle and how much space it occupies. The subtitler decides how many seconds each subtitle is shown (usually between 1 and 7 seconds) while taking into consideration (i) the number of words in it and how long it would take the audience to read them, (ii) the pace of the dialogue (that is, how fast the characters speak) and how that influences reading speed, since the subtitle should be roughly appearing and disappearing when the character begins and ends speaking, and (iii) the shot changes (which is the transition between shots) and how they set boundaries. Even though there is no standardization of the way subtitles are presented, in the Western tradition they occupy up to two lines on the lower part of the screen and are centrally positioned. Depending on the distribution channel, they can occupy between 35 to 42 characters per line.

Often, it is impossible to translate all the spoken dialogue and include it in the subtitles while attending to space and time restrictions, particularly with fast paced dialogues. Therefore, text reduction and text condensation are recurrent strategies. The subtitler either reformulates what is relevant and needs to be included, or deletes what can be omitted. Either way, considering that subtitles constantly interact with the audio and the video, many linguistic elements that are left out can be inferred by the audience listening to the audio or looking at the image. The audience is never deprived of information, but sometimes the information which is retrieved from the subtitles needs to be carefully selected by the subtitler.

The physical distribution of the text in a subtitle is also carefully considered in order to ease reading. It is called segmentation and it consists of splitting the translated text into meaningful units of sense, ensuring that the audience will be able to read and understand the whole text in the shortest amount of time possible. An optimal segmentation follows syntax and grammar, while acknowledging the rhythm of the discourse, its prosodic features, and shot changes. Considering it relies heavily on grammatical features, segmentation rules might vary from one language to another. We can discuss segmentation within a subtitle (that is, between the first and the second line, also known as line-breaks) or between subtitles (when there is a sentence that occupies more than one subtitle). Note that poor segmentation might impair reading and it can be a distracting element.

Subtitles are an example of a fragmented and ephemeral text – text is broken into pieces and the audience is allowed to read it only once for a brief amount of time. These characteristics make subtitles more difficult to read than other types of text. This becomes even more challenging if the syntax (the structure of the language) is complex, if the semantics (the meaning of words) is difficult to understand, or if the pace of the dialogues is fast. Readability has to do with how quickly and easily subtitles can be read. Respecting the syntactic and semantic units of a language improves readability; ensuring the balance of the ratio of words in a subtitle and its duration also improves it.

Considering the linguistic and translational aspects of subtitling, paying attention to grammatical, lexical, pragmatic and cultural aspects to make sure the text is both accurate and reliable is of the utmost importance. Creating subtitles is more than replacing words in one language with words in another – linguistic subtlety is always on demand. Additionally, subtitling solutions are contextual, so there is more to consider than just the spoken words; the situation where the communication takes place and the characters’ style of speaking are also to be taken into account when producing the text. For this reason, spoken language features like register, slang or dialect are frequently included in the subtitles to depict the characters more accurately. Finally, the narrative continuity, for example, from episode to episode in a series or in what concerns characters’ names or frequently used expressions, has to be ensured, thus helping viewer’s experience.

Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash

Balancing all this calls for special skills: language proficiency and cultural awareness, a deep understanding of how film works, an excellent notion of time & space and a thorough perception of rhythm & flow, all along with technological and research skills.

Like a trapeze artist, a subtitler resorts to flips and tricks, that is to say strategies, to make sure the necessary information is made available in a timely and viewer-friendly manner – all this mid-air, a.k.a. managing a busy schedule (see Infographic The Business of Subtitling).

And like riding a unicycle, subtitling requires an extraordinary level of flexibility and coordination to turn all the obstacles into purposeful translated text while caring for the audience.

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If you want to learn more about subtitling and its standards, you can read the Code of Good Subtitling Practice, which provides a set of instructions and is endorsed by several associations and professionals. If you are more interested in understanding how subtitling standards, guidelines and policies vary from one country to another, check the list of subtitling standards provided by AVTE – Audiovisual Translators Europe and the list compiled by ESIST – European Association for Studies in Screen Translation with guidelines for subtitling, SDH, dubbing and AD. If segmentation and readability are concepts that pique your curiosity, you can read this paper by Perego on subtitles, line-breaks and readability. Finally, you can read more about the nature of translation in subtitling in this article in The Conversation.

Are there further open access resources you would recommend on this topic? Please comment below with links!

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