An Introduction to Subtitling in Translation

When talking about subtitles it can sometimes feel like you’re speaking in another language rather than about one. There is a whole vocabulary of jargon-y technical terms that make an already complex process more opaque and confusing. And there’s a reason for that; subtitling is an intricate and artful process that involves special challenges and considerations that go beyond those already found in plain text translation. That being said, when you examine the words that make up the subtitler’s lingo, you can get insight into the process as a whole and even localization more broadly.

Here’s a list of key terms to listen to next time you talk to a localization professional. Once you get a handle on these, you’ll be speaking subtitler-ese in no time.

Queuing – For speakers of UK English, this may call to mind the image of waiting in line, and that wouldn’t be too far off. Queuing is the process of determining when the text on the screen will appear and disappear. Queuing is one of the aspects of subtitling that most distinguish it from plain text translation. The subtitler needs to make sure that the text is on-screen long enough to give the viewer enough time to read it, but they can’t allow the text to linger so long that it is distracting or bumps into the next subtitle. Queuing is all about fine-tuning the timing so that the subs are so smooth, you forget you’re even reading.

Hardsub – This is an export option in which the subtitles are embedded in the video file and cannot be turned off. Imagine the words being written on the frame in a permanent marker. The subtitles cannot be removed or altered in any way, including making edits to the text or display settings or even adding other subtitle tracks. This may sound restrictive, but it can often be useful to have a file with subtitles built-in. All you have to do is press play.

Softsub – This is an export option that provides a little more flexibility than a hardsubbed file. The subtitles in a softsubbed file can be turned on or off. Softsubs can also have more than one subtitle track, which means you can have more than one language in a video (but you can only play one at a time). Other display settings can also be managed in your media player, like font size and background.

SRTSubRip text format is the most basic file type for subtitles. It acts like a .txt file and can even be opened and edited in Notepad (though I don’t recommend the second part). Essentially, it contains the text that will appear in the sub-track with start and stop times along with special formatting, so it can be read by most media players and all subtitling software. If you want to make changes to your subtitles, this is the best place to do it, because the SRT is the file that is paired with all the other files to create the finished project. You can also add the SRT as a track to your video in the media player and use your subtitles that way without having to worry about soft/hardsubbing.

VTT – This is a successor to SRT that has gained a fair bit of popularity among video streaming services. What makes it so appealing for use online is that it was designed to work well with HTML5. That’s also its main difference from SRT. Other than that, the files look and function very similarly. It’s also easy to convert SRT to VTT and vice versa. The most important thing to consider when you are trying to figure out whether to use VTT or SRT is your media player. Not all media players handle both types, but many do.

Time codes – In an SRT file the time code is the coded information about when a piece of text will appear and disappear. They take this format 00:00:08,242 –> 00:00:10,687. The number before the comma is the second. As you can see, these codes can be manipulated down the thousandth of a second. If someone says they’re trying to “tighten up the time codes” it means they’re tweaking the queueing of the subtitle track to make it more precise.

Encoding – If you are subtitling into a language that uses a script or writing system (other than the Latin script, which is used to write English and the Romance languages) such as Mandarin Chinese or Russian, you may run into trouble with encoding. The encoding of a text tells whatever program you are using how to display the characters in a string of text. In other words, it is the guide the computer uses to transliterate the string as it sees it (a bunch of ones and zeros) to a format that can be read by humans. If the encoding is off, the characters will display as gibberish. If your subtitles look like a row of boxes or a series of random characters like “Æá ÆÖóÞ¢áñ” it’s a good idea to ask about the encoding. Bonus: Encoding errors are so common, Japanese has a word for the non-sensical output they produce. It’s called mojibake (文字化け) which literally means “transformed characters”.

Subtitling is just one of several solutions for conveying audiovisual content in multiple languages. Just like subtitling, audiovisual translation, or AVT, comes in many distinct forms each with its own set of advantages, drawbacks, and special considerations. For more information about other options, check out our overview of the most popular AVT methods.

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