Things to Remember When Localising Subtitles

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Netflix. Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. Some of the largest organisations in the world owe part of their success – indeed, ubiquity – to subtitles and subtitle translation.

Imagine trying to watch any of Netflix’s excellent selection of Korean dramas without good subtitles.

Think how many fewer – normally automatically muted – Facebook videos would get watched if there were no subtitles along the bottom of the screen.

But it’s not just in the entertainment industry and social media where subtitle translation is important:

In recruitment and employee training. In promotional videos and advertisements. In education and elsewhere. Subtitles are being used and localised for different audiences to maximise engagement and successfully reach distant regions.

If you are considering using subtitles on your latest project, here is everything you need to know:

What is subtitle translation?

Subtitle translation is the process of transcribing the spoken content of a video into text that will appear – commonly along the bottom edge of the screen – in time with the audio performance and translating that text for specific audiences.

Technically speaking, subtitle translation is one of the three types of audiovisual translation (the others being voice-overs and dubbing).

Even technical translation requires some interpretation and flexibility on the part of the translator if meaning is to be retained. But localising subtitles is almost as much art as it is science.

This is because there are many different aspects of the audio part in any given video content. Plus, there are numerous technical constraints of subtitles not often found in other types of translation:

1) Limited by space

There is a finite amount of space for subtitles on a screen. This is usually two lines of space with a set character limit of around seventy. This can be a major concern for some languages, as text can expand or contract after being translated.

2) Confined by time

The newly translated subtitles must match the original visual performance in terms of the speed at which the story is unfolding. If the subtitles lag behind or shoot ahead of what is on the screen, it can lead to audience disconnect and confusion.

3) Intention is more important than word

Directly translating the specific words used in the original performance may be less important than retaining the tone and intent of the message.

This means that subtitle translation is often more in the nature of transcreation. The linguist must creatively translate the audio, often with a different choice of words to preserve the original intent of the performance.

For example, a direct translation of a joke will rarely be funny in a new language.

4) Must match visual performance

As well as being a strict chronological match for the performance on the screen, the subtitles must match stage directions, footnotes and other dramatic devices.

This calls for a great degree of linguistic flexibility on the part of the translator. But the results can and do often enhance and support the on-screen performance when done correctly.

5) Representation of characteristics of speech

Video content may include strange natural word choices by performers, accents that need to be carefully represented to retain authenticity and numerous other unique characteristics. Ideally, all of these need to be represented in the subtitles within that limited space and timeframe.

Some subtitle creators use punctuation to depict emotion or pauses in conversation. This requires experience to accomplish correctly.

6) Screen location

Viewers in many regions are used to subtitles that appear at the bottom of the screen. On the other hand, some Asian countries prefer to position them vertically.

Sometimes, subtitles may need to appear in different locations on the screen in order to not cover up credits or important visual information. This may lead to further restrictions in character length for the translation during certain sections.

Is subtitle translation worth it? Some examples

Translating subtitles can be challenging. But, as what are now some of the most successful organisations in the world have discovered, the results can be infinitely worth it:


Netflix has over 200 million subscribers these days. But it wasn’t always so. One of the roots of its success that the streaming service acknowledges is the way it has since mastered localising its content for all of its specific regional and national audiences.

The company wasn’t always so successful though. Their first attempt at translating their subtitles was a dismal failure, plagued by poor quality and found almost laughable by its user base.

Today, Netflix’s expert subtitle translation is one of the pillars of its almost global domination.


YouTube has roughly 2.3 billion users. But “only” several hundred million of those have English as their native language.

As YouTube and thousands of advertisers have since worked out, if you really want to reach audiences that speak languages other than your native tongue in video format, you need to provide subtitles in the corresponding language.

YouTube generates an awful lot of revenue from its ads. And if you want to generate sales and interest from yours, translating your subtitles is the way to go.

Social media

Facebook ads are hugely popular among businesses seeking to advertise to audiences that they can increasingly cherry-pick the demographics and other characteristics of.

For videos on Facebook – which are usually set to automatically play muted – as well as Twitter and LinkedIn, it’s been shown that subtitles boost engagement.

Of course, without sound, getting a little inkling of what the video is going to be about is all the more vital. This means the first few seconds of what your advertising subtitles say require very careful attention.

Why translate video subtitles?

1) Reach a truly global audience

You might be translating subtitles to help your advertising videos on YouTube reach global audiences. You might be doing it to ensure more of your multilingual international workforce get the best learning outcomes from your safety training videos.

Whichever is the case, localising for more languages and regions means more reach. Online, English is used only by around 25% of internet users. Other languages – particularly Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic – have huge shares of the rest.

It’s also important to recognise that that 25% of English users aren’t all native speakers. Many would prefer to access all kinds of content in their native language – and may reward the company that reaches out to them with their loyalty.

2) Boost engagement and retention

Even adding subtitles to videos intended for your domestic audience – be they potential clients or employees – can boost engagement and retention. The same is even more true of videos intended for a global audience.

Not only will translated subtitles open up your video to a much wider audience, but they will also encourage them to engage with it. They may share it with their friends or interact with it where they may not have been willing or able to before.

3) Grow a global brand reputation

Becoming known as a company that takes the time and effort to reach out to its global audience with thought and care can pay huge dividends.

More than two out of three people are much more likely to buy from companies that make information available in their own language.

Plus, loyalty to and awareness of brands that have an excellent quality of engagement with their international audience is higher than that of bigger brands who do so less effectively.

Translating the subtitles of your video content is not the be-all and end-all of this. But it certainly plays an important part.

4) Keep costs lows

There are many benefits of properly transcreating some of your video content instead of only translating the subtitles. For example, an advertising campaign that would be received as witty and amusing in many areas might still have a premise seen as boorish or offensive in other regions. No matter how well it was localised.

Localising subtitles alone can be tricky without the right skills and experience. But it requires fewer individual specialists than localising the entire video. This latter might require shooting additional scenes, re-shoots or heavy editing, new voice talent, creative script translation and more.

This means the major advantage of translating just the subtitles of your videos has going for it is cost. Not that you should allow yourself to translate subtitles poorly – low-quality subtitles are rarely well-received. But even the finest translated subtitles will be cheaper than full video localisation.

5) Improve your SEO

Adding subtitles to your videos will have at least two clear SEO benefits:

  1. Improved interactions – get more likes, more shares, more comments, more links and so on from a larger audience in multiple regions and several languages.
  2. Let SEO spiders crawl your video – search engines can’t crawl video content. Adding subtitles gives Google and other search engines more data to understand what your video is about. Provide that information in more languages and you increase the search engines that can find your video and suggest it to searchers.

What are the different types of localised subtitles?

1) Subtitle translation

The most popular form of localised subtitles, these subs have been translated for a specific audience. For some content, this can include taking into account local cultural norms, preferences and expectations.

Subtitles usually only represent the words spoken by performers or actors. Standard subtitles like this normally start when the audio they are representing does and overlap the end of the audio by a second or two to allow reading time.

Faster audio or dialogue may require adaptation in the form of paraphrasing or shortening – especially as language can expand after translation. For some purposes, as close to a direct translation as possible is preferred.

2) Closed captioning translation

Closed captions (CC) are subtitles designed for the deaf or hard of hearing. Closed captions should relate all of the details of the audio – background noises and sound effects included – in addition to the vocal parts of actors or narrators.

Standard subtitles can only usually consist of two lines of text. Closed captions are usually permitted three.

3) Subtitle translation for access services

Access services for platforms like YouTube, streaming services like Netflix, and DVDs are designed to make content more accessible to different audiences.

Like closed captions, they represent the entire audio performance. They usually need to be selected in order to be active.

Subtitles vs dubbing or voice-overs

Subtitles are not the only method to localise audiovisual content for viewers that speak a different language.

Dubbing and voice-overs are often preferred by certain people or for specific purposes. However, it is worth noting that even in those circumstances, localising subtitles too is usually considered a good idea. This is because audiences then have the chance to make their own decision in line with their personal preferences.

Dubbing vs subtitles

Dubbing involves entirely replacing a video’s original audio track with a new one. This new track follows a localised version of the original script and will involve skilled vocal talent being cast for each original part.

There is an age-old argument about whether dubbing or subtitles are the best way to watch video content in another language. This argument tends to revolve around:

  • Artistic authenticity – some people argue that leaving the original audio performance in and using subtitles is more true to the artist’s original intention.
  • Distraction – others argue that drawing audience attention to the subtitles at the bottom of the screen detracts from the visual performance.
  • Language learning – many people learning a foreign language prefer the original audio with subtitling.
  • Cost – dubbing is far more expensive than subtitle localisation.
  • Accessibility – subtitles make audio performances accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. Dubbing does not.

 Voice-over vs subtitles

In a voice-over, a new audio performance is placed over the original. The original performance can usually still be heard at a lower volume. The new version is often performed by one or two voice actors delivering multiple parts.

The decision as to whether a voice-over or subtitles will be more useful for a given project would revolve around:

  • Cost – a voice-over tends to be more expensive than subtitle translation but cheaper than dubbing.
  • Perception of quality – even a high-quality voice-over may not be suitable for some purposes. For example, in entertainment when quality demands are high.
  • Purpose – but a voice-over may be the ideal choice for other purposes. This might include sports or new casts.

Getting the best from subtitle localisation

Subtitle translation is vital in almost every industry. Entertainment is the most obvious. But many advertising campaigns and employee onboarding programs in all sectors rely on effectively localised subtitles.

Properly localised subtitles are a powerful and effective tool. They can help you reach a global audience, boost engagement, improve your SEO and more.

But if you want to get the best when localising your subtitles, remember that there are different types as well as set technical considerations to bear in mind.


Need to localise subtitles for your video content?

Let’s talk. Kwintessential works with organisations including the BBC, American Express and many others to localise their content for specific audiences.

Get in touch today to see how we can help you localise yours.

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