Subtitles and the Art of Subtitling

Subtitles and the Art of Subtitling

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Everyone knows what subtitles are. What everyone might not know is that the job of the subtitler is far from being simple and some subtitlers like to call subtitling a form of ‘art”.  For example, one of the questions we are asked most frequently is why subtitles do not correspond exactly to the original dialogue. This is because we normally speak much faster than we can read, so the original dialogue has to be edited in order to make sure people have sufficient time to read the subtitles and enjoy the image at the same time (we want to watch and enjoy the film, not read it, right?). For this reason, the subtitles will often have to be a condensed version of the original dialogue. Also, each subtitle can have a maximum of 2 lines and each line can contain a maximum set of characters (usually around 39/40). But the challenges of subtitling do not stop here. To facilitate reading, each subtitle should also be a coherent and logical unit and line breaks within subtitles should follow syntactic and grammatical considerations. Compare the two examples below:

Yesterday, I went to the market
and bought a new bag.

Yesterday, I went to the
market and bought a new bag.

Splitting the unit ‘the market’ over two lines forces the brain to pause to retrieve the missing piece of information, making reading much slower. Finally, subtitles have to appear and disappear in sync with the speech. In the industry, this is called ‘spotting’, ‘timing’ or ‘originating’ and is one of the most important skills a subtitler needs to master. Subtitles that appear too soon or too late can be very distracting and annoying, and can ruin the whole viewing experience.

For all these reasons, subtitling needs to be done by professional subtitlers in order to be done right. Only work with highly skilled professional subtitlers who are aware of the subtitling requirements and constraints and aim at delivering only the very best subtitles. Don’t let bad subtitles steal the show!

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