Revised: August 2021
Subtitles are something that many of us don’t even take notice of but their importance should not be underrated. Here we take a look at what subtitles are, where they are most used and how they are made.
We have put together a brilliant all-in-one-place guide on everything you need to know about subtitling. We’ve attempted to answer all your questions, and if you still have any subtitling doubts we would be delighted to help.
We also show that in some circumstances it won’t be necessary to hire a subtitling company to carry out the full subtitling process; indeed you may be capable of producing the subtitles yourself. Check out our information on subtitling file formats and what they mean. And if you do choose to go with a subtitling company we have a simple guide that shows you what to look out for and what to avoid.
What is subtitling?
Subtitling is the process of adding text to any audio-visual media to express the message that is being spoken. Essentially, subtitles are a written abridgement of the spoken audio. They allow people to read and understand what is being said, even if they don’t understand the language of the speakers. And without subtitles it would not be possible to grasp the subtleties contained in verbal communications.
Subtitles can basically be added to anything that includes moving pictures, but are most commonly used on film and television, promotional and corporate videos and increasingly becoming more popular on YouTube and internet videos
Subtitles are typically displayed on 1 or 2 lines of text, in 2-4 second bursts. They are a condensed, summarised version of what is being said. Good subtitles should allow the audience to comfortably read and understand them, whilst still being able to consume the visuals.
Check out some style options within subtitling choices.
So now we understand what subtitles are, why do we use them?
Research by Ofcom on television accessibility found that 80% of users who use subtitles are actually not deaf, nor hard of hearing. Of course, those that are deaf or hard of hearing are a very important part of the audience, but we found it astonishing that such a high number of viewers preferred to watch media with subtitles turned on. If you are wondering why, here are some of the main reasons cited by users:
- There is loud background noise while they want to watch something.
- Watching media and not wanting to distract others (e.g. in an office environment).The audio speakers or headphones are not loud enough (e.g. on an Airplane).
- The volume of the media is inconsistent (quiet speech vs loud background music).
- Watching media in a foreign language (and increasingly foreign language learners).
- Watching media with sensitive subject matter in public (on transport).
- To save battery consumption on their personal device.
- Taking notes from educational or resource videos where the dialogue is fast.
And these are only some of the examples why people are making a conscious decision to enable subtitles. Businesses too should ensure they have subtitle options to fulfil their maximum audience capacity. Furthermore, the ever-increasing proportion of the population that is deaf or hard of hearing, is a demand too big to exclude.
Subtitles vs. closed captions
At a quick glance, closed captions and subtitles look almost identical, meaning that many people don’t actually know the difference. However, the two are designed for different purposes, with important distinctions between them.
Subtitles provide a text alternative for the dialogue of video footage – the spoken words of characters, narrators and other vocal participants.
Closed captions, on the other hand, not only supplement for dialogue but other relevant parts of the soundtrack – describing background noises, phones ringing and other audio cues that need describing.
Essentially, subtitles assume an audience can hear the audio, but need the dialogue provided in text form as well. Meanwhile, closed captioning assumes an audience cannot hear the audio and needs a text description of what they would otherwise be hearing.
Do you need a subtitling company or DIY?
There are many reasons for hiring a subtitling company yet there are also practical reasons for manually inserting subtitles yourself. How you choose to approach this, may depend on a range of factors such as your own video editing and language experience, subtitle style choice, language, time constrictions and editing and file preferences.
The pros of using a subtitling company are having a trusted professional do all the technical work (time-coding, syncing, encoding etc.) and they can also customise the subtitles in a variety of styles (font, colour, placement). Not only can this save you a lot of time, but their expertise will cut out any errors you may experience personally – saving you time, money and hassle.
However if you have knowledge of the subtitling process or if you can dedicate the time to train yourself or pay someone to learn then it may be more cost effective to DIY, especially if you need frequent subtitles.
Follow this flow chart to find out what is likely to be the best option for you.
What services does a subtitling company offer?
Professional subtitling companies offer a range of subtitling styles and will have a dedicated project management team to examine individual projects carefully in order to determine and advise the best approach to each individual project.
For example, you may wish to have the subtitles burnt in to a video file or have an on/off option. If you’re mastering the project yourself, you may prefer to be given the subtitles as a text file or burnt-in to an alpha channel (transparent video) to easily insert in your video edit. Choice is power when it comes to professional subtitling services, so make sure your chosen supplier has the best options available for your project.
To get the best out of your subtitling project remember to specify what video formats you require for burnt-in subtitles e.g. .mp4, .mov or .avi are common, particularly for internet use, but if your final format is a DVD the subtitle company will need to know in advance. Alternatively if you just need subtitle document formats, which format you choose will depend on where the video is being published e.g. SRT format is fine for YouTube or Vimeo, whereas STL is best for a DVD project. There are many different file formats. You need to explain to the subtitle company where you will be using the video and they can explain the best file format to use.
What to look out for? If you need translated subtitles, find out if the subtitle company will allow you to create your own translations. Subtitling companies should offer translation as an extra service but it shouldn’t be mandatory for them to translate. If you’re looking for the most cost effective solution choosing to translate your own documents is a good way to reduce costs and a reputable subtitle company should be able to guide you through the process and provide instructions about character limits. However it’s still important you choose a translator who has specialised in subtitles for the best results.
Subtitle companies may also have an insight into what subtitling styles are most accepted in the country they will be shown in.
The role of a subtitle translator
Subtitle translations are unique to any other kind of translation. Primarily because there is a strict character limit for each line of subtitles (typically 37 characters per line for Latin languages). This means a direct translation is unlikely to fit, and the translator needs to think creatively to create a ‘constrained translation’ which summarises what is being said, but still retains the core message.
Subtitle translators are creative linguistics and it’s a real talent to be able to convey what is being said by only using the limited space and time available. It’s not only about getting the message across to the viewers but also about carefully selecting the most suitable word choice. It’s a skill that requires recognising why one word may have distinct associations than another similar word. In English we have many words that are very similar but can have completely separate connotations.
|Emotional word||Intellectual word|
It is essential to have native speakers producing subtitle translations that understand the culture, humour, etiquette and quirks of the language, making careful and thought out word choice selections to a professional standard. Exact translations don’t always exist, for example common English phrases like ‘pot calling the kettle black’ or ‘curiosity killed the cat’ might raise a few eyebrows if you directly translated them into Arabic or German.
This is also where style comes into play. Like it or not translation is very subjective and personal to each translator. Especially in the role of subtitle translations where not only the words, but the atmosphere, music, sound effects play a part in conveying the message. This is why quality subtitle translators, even the most experienced, use proof readers to agree on the best translation solutions.
Using the best subtitling software
When looking for the best subtitling software there’s a wide variety to choose from and a quick search will have you overwhelmed with choice. We believe there is a piece of software out there for everyone and the best advice is to use the trials and demos to find the subtitling software that matches your needs.
We will discuss four software systems here, they vary in their capabilities and pricing but are all widely renowned.
- Screen Systems offers a huge range of products for a variety of subtitling processes like Teletext, streaming, localisation and real-time captions. WINCAP Q4 is their “complete package” software, for subtitle creation and offers open subtitles and Closed Captions for all kinds of video formats and works with multiple file types.
- Similarly EZ Titles offers four subtitling products for different purposes including 3D Titles for subtitling on 3D videos and EZ Titles Plug-ins that works with your video editing software, such as Adobe Premiere or Avid, to edit and burn in subtitles.
- Annotation Edit is for Mac only and offers import/export support for hundreds of formats. It supports a simple user interface and intuitive subtitle timing editing plus it can burn to Quick Time video.
- Subtitle Edit is free and still has a vast section of tools and capabilities allowing users to create timecoded subtitles to video, import and convert subtitle files and export in hundreds of different formats. It has no live streaming, teletext or burn-in features but it’s a good tool to start on, especially for anyone wanting to experiment with subtitling skills.
A good subtitler and translator will use what works for them. There are many more options available other than the four mentioned above. Each has a slightly different user interface and involves different skills and training to the get the best use from them.
If your work often involves delivering files like SRT, SCC or PAC then you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a full piece of software that also gives you streaming captions. EZ Titles comes with Translation Template tool and Screen Systems offers a Translation Manager product.
Subtitles can also be added to videos manually using video editing programs, such as Adobe Premiere, Avid, Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas. Of course these come with their own cost but if you already own one of these or looking to venture out on something new and can also stand the tedium process of adding and editing each subtitle individually it is certainly a contender.
The file formats for producing subtitles
File formats can sometimes get a bit confusing especially if you are new to the subtitling world. We have created a simplified version so you know exactly what each file is and what they are best used for.
SRT/.srt file format
(Derived from the software programme SubRip)
This file format (SubRip Text) is one of the most dominant formats in the subtitling field, along with .txt and .stl. It contains groups of formatted plain text lines that are separated by a blank line. Each text group is numbered sequentially from 1 upwards, with the timecode format hours:minutes:seconds,milliseconds.
An .srt file is compatible with most subtitling software and can be easily uploaded to YouTube videos under the “Closed Captioning” option. It can also be edited quickly in any text editor, as it is a plain text file and does not carry any video data. Therefore its compatibility makes it one of the preferred file options. When an .srt file is used in conjunction with the desired video, subtitles will appear onscreen when the video is played.
SUB/.sub file format
(Derived from the software programme SubViewer)
SUB files are not as common as SRT files but they share the same text file qualities. SUB files use the .sub extension to describe timing and titling data, and hold rendering instructions and metadata within them. Each subtitle section consists of comma-delimited time ranges which allows captions to be displayed during each range. Alternate languages can be included by creating a separate .sub file for each case.
SSA/ASS file formats
(Derived from the subtitle editor Sub Station Alpha)
SSA/.ssa file format
SSA (Sub Station Alpha) is one of the older text-based subtitle formats, and accommodates more sophisticated subtitles than the conventional SRT – it allows for advanced display features like positioning, karaoke, style managements, etc. SSA files are often used in anime “fansubs” to allow subtitles to be overlaid onto video while it is being encoded (hardsubbing).
ASS/.ass file format
The ASS file format is a derivative of the SSA – both are extremely similar, with ASS being an advanced version of the SSA. Like the SRT, this format is text based with a particular syntax.
SSF/.ssf (Structured Subtitle Format) file
SSF files are dissimilar from the simple text code of other popular plain text file formats. They have a more complicated syntax and are difficult to edit manually with a text editor. This makes them one of the least popular subtitle file formats in the industry.
So now you have everything you need to know about subtitling. You know what subtitles are and the different reasons for why and how we use them. Video dominates the digital world, both at home and at work and with no signs of slowing down its growth. Equally the demand for subtitles is set to rise with it.
Each company, project or individual will have a different answer to the question of whether producing the subtitles individually or if paying the extra cost for a professional service is worth it. But we also now appreciate that subtitling translators deserve a lot more credit than they are given. A lot of effort, knowledge and experience go into choosing the text we see on screen. We could say that subtitling translator professionals have their own place on the linguistic art and creativity spectrum, hats off to them!
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the different names of subtitling files and software packages available but as we break them down we hope that you understand a little bit more about what each one can provide and the unique benefits of each.
Here at Matinée Multilingual, we are experts in subtitling services and we understand the need for professional and accurate subtitle services in over 80 languages. Our affordable, high quality service means we’re a credible subtitling company, trusted by clients in the UK and throughout the world. We also recognise the need for flexibility and choice, and we’re delighted to offer options and that fit any project and budget.
Get a free personalised subtitling quote by contacting us!