Subtitle Translation: Make Your Video Content Relevant

by Patrick Pittsford

What is subtitle translation? Subtitle translation is the practice of translating the source language contained within a video to a target language through written text subtitles. Translating subtitles is an art as well as a science — timing and nuance are as critical for the end-user as the text itself. To be done effectively, subtitle translation requires highly skilled linguists and translators who are native speakers of the target language, and located – ideally –  in the target-language geography.

With the advent of machine translation applications, many people assume that translating text these days is as easy as just pushing a button. But direct, word-for-word translation omits the subtleties, idiosyncrasies and inflections that are unique to each language and locale. 

Additionally, subtitle translation comes with a very specific set of rules. Take, for instance, the widely accepted “six second rule,” which says that a full two-line subtitle should be displayed for six seconds in order for the average viewer to be able to read it. Considering that every language has its own set of characters and letters, what specifically goes into those two lines is what separates machine-translated output from what a skilled linguist would develop.

So, what are the benefits of subtitle translation, and how can subtitle translation be advantageous to you and your organization?

Whether you need to translate an entire film or a simple, instructional video, using subtitles is a cost-effective way to reach a broader audience. Subtitles allow you to communicate your message to specific markets and regions without having to reshoot your video or hire voice talent to record over the source language, both of which are costly and time-consuming.

If you’re trying to expand your business into overseas markets or train employees in a specific country, subtitles can help take your business to the next level.

In addition to becoming more accessible to a global audience, subtitles can help increase your visibility on search engines. Google’s search engine spider, Googlebot, can extract a multitude of data from the text on a web page, but only a small amount from a video or audio file. Therefore, subtitles help Googlebot understand the value and relevancy of your content, which can then improve your SEO, and potentially move you closer to the top of a Google search.

Keep in mind that not all subtitles are created equal, and that there are a couple different video subtitling options to consider.

First, there is source-to-source subtitling, which means the audio and the subtitle text are in the same language. This type of subtitling is a useful learning tool, but also assists those with hearing impairments. Medical facilities often use this kind of subtitling in staff training and patient materials.

Then of course there is foreign language subtitling, which includes written text in a language that is different from the audio’s. The best way to tackle this is to first prepare the source-language subtitle content before translating the text. Then, using that subtitle file, the text can easily be translated into multiple languages. It’s also easier and quicker to edit subtitles than it is to edit a dubbed video should changes need to be made.  

There are also different options for displaying subtitles as well. Embedded subtitles remain on the screen, while interactive subtitles — also known as closed captioning — give the viewer the option to turn them on or off as needed.

So, if you’re considering adding subtitles to your videos, why is it important to work with a professional translation organization?

Consider this: In a 2019 commercial for Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, a 13-year-old fashion designer speaks to a 98-year-old fashion model in English. In the source language, the conversation between the two women was sweet and innocent, but the Korean-language subtitles were so offensive that Uniqlo eventually had to pull the ad. People claimed that the commercial’s subtitles made light of the horrors of Japan’s forced occupation of South Korea between 1910 and 1945.

Obviously, this was not the company’s intent. Not only did it offend a nation, but the subtitle mishap damaged the brand’s reputation. 

Relying on a well-established professional translation service could help you avoid costly mistakes like Uniqlo’s, in addition to some of the following subtitling pitfalls.

Poor timing: Surely, you’ve seen a poorly dubbed films from decades ago in which the voice-over words don’t match the actor’s mouth. Timing is everything in dubbing as well as in subtitles. If words appear on the screen too soon or too late, you could confuse your viewer. A professional translator will take the time to synchronize what’s happening on screen and what’s written below.

Making incorrect assumptions about language and culture: If the translator is not located in the target-language geography or, at a minimum, deeply familiar with the locale, it can be easy to fall back on assumptions concerning the content being translated. Most locations have their own unique way of speaking, and if a translator is lacking in this knowledge and expertise, it could end with content that is culturally tone deaf at best, or completely offensive at worst, much like Uniqlo’s ad in South Korea.

Additionally, professional subtitles will convey individual speech styles, rather than making every character sound the same.

Poor line breaks: Long strings of text must be broken up into segments, otherwise the entire screen would be filled with subtitled text. When and how to break certain lines is a skill developed through years of translation practice. A professional translator will ensure that lines are broken correctly and at the right time, making the viewer’s experience as seamless as possible.

A professional subtitle translation service should offer a turnkey solution to your needs. From creating subtitle files to ensuring synchronicity between the audio and the text, a professional agency should do all the heavy lifting for you.

Whether you only transcription of your video’s audio or fully validated, subtitle translations in multiple languages, an experienced translation and localization agency will help you get your message across to your target audience.

Patrick Pittsford

Marketing and Sales Associate

"I enjoy working with the diverse group of people at Interpro. They not only make for a dynamic work environment but are almost always good for a laugh during my work day."