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  • Writer's pictureLucy@LHTranslations

What does it take to be a subtitler?

Who puts those words at the bottom of the screen? Is that someone’s job? Well, yes. And it doesn’t always happen overnight either. Interlingual subtitles are those which translate the language spoken and transpose them into the written word in the intended viewer’s language.

Pretty cool, right? I don’t think series like The Bridge and Spiral would have been very successful on the BBC without those words at the bottom of the screen, but someone put them there, and not just anyone; a subtitler! So, what are the key skills to being a good subtitler?


Well, those who have received formal training in subtitling will know that there are basic guidelines as to how subtitles should appear on screen. A professional subtitler will quickly be able to tell the difference between machine-automated subtitles and those cued by a human. This is because normal guidelines dictate that subtitles should be cued in (enter the screen) as soon as an utterance starts and stay on screen roughly long enough for the viewer to read them. The average adult reading speed ranges from 17 – 20 characters per second, but this also depends on the content of the dialogue (complex vocabulary, complicated subjects, etc.) and what is going on in the image.

Ideally, subtitles should impact the image as little as possible, be limited to two lines, and not stay on screen indefinitely. Different media companies stipulate different best practices, so it can be hard to keep up with the rules sometimes. Netflix, for example, now like to “chain” their subtitles so that there aren’t gaps of varying lengths between subtitles: ‘No gaps of 3-11 frames should be seen between subtitles. Gaps between subtitles should either be 2 frames or 12 frames or more.’ That said, we don’t all work for Netflix and each agency will or should have an in-house style to work from.


Translation itself is no easy task, but subtitling has the added challenge of demanding that the translated text be readable and clear. There is no point writing a completely faithful translation if the subtitle is too long to be physically read before it leaves the screen. This is why subtitlers will often opt to translate meaning rather than words. As long as the tone and meaning is carried across and the viewer is able to read it and digest the information, that constitutes a translation and successful subtitle! For this reason, subtitlers have to have an in-depth knowledge of not only their mother tongue, but also the language their working from (source language). Take, for example, the use of the word ‘Yeah’ in English. Depending on the context, this can mean different things, e.g.:

  1. Yeah, no = No.

  2. No, yeah = Yeah.

  3. Yeah, yeah = Yeah, right.

  4. Yeah… = Yeah, right.

  5. No, no, no, yeah = Yeah.

You get the picture! It’s a minefield, so be careful!

Use a thesaurus, sure, but don’t take it too far!

You also have to be flexible and have some crafty synonyms up your sleeve. Don’t do a Joey from Friends and go nuts with a thesaurus, but you will have to get creative and often find a similar word with less characters or one that’s more suitable to the style of the character in the audivisual material you’re working from.


One of the big differences between translating a document and translating spoken word is the variation of registers. In a document, you’ll probably not encounter too many different registers. For advertising content, say, you might stick to a fairly informal/call to action-type register, or for a birth certificate/legal document you will use legal jargon and more formal syntax. However, with film material, you will encounter a whole range of registers because, as in real life, different people speak with different tones depending on factors such as their age, upbringing, culture, status and who they are talking to.

For example, a character such as a lawyer will speak in a very formal register in court, but may adopt a much more informal style outside court when talking to a friend. Knowing how to write and portray both those things and everything in between is, in my opinion, one of the major skills of being a translator. The acrobatics of jumping from character to character and conveying their personality through the language they are using can be exhausting (not to mention trying to fit this onto one or two lines). This is exacerbated by the fact that subtitlers are rarely included in the production process, predominantly working in what feels like a strictly post-post-post-production capacity, so we often have to infer the director’s intentions for a character unless provided with a detailed show guide.

Imagine, for example, you are trying to translate the French phrase ‘il pleut comme vache qui pisse’. This may normally be translated as the idiom ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’. Now, imagine that the speaker is young. If you’re English, can you imagine a teenager saying: ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’? No, me neither. Instead, I’d go for something more vulgar such as: ‘It’s pissing it down’.


In terms of presentation, subtitle guidelines range on average between 32 to 45 characters per line. This means that subtitles will often have to be spread over two lines rather than one, and this is where segmentation comes in. Good segmentation (knowing at what point of a sentence to push the subtitle to the second line) is key to the aesthetics and readability of a subtitle, e.g.:

  1. I had to go to the shops because there wasn’t any milk left.

  2. I had to go to the shops because there wasn’t any milk left.

Which of the above examples reads best to you? It’s not always that straightforward and there are often constraints due to shot changes and unavoidably long words etc., but as long as you’re not consistently breaking subtitles off mid-clause, you will be OK. You should also avoid splitting a noun from its article (i.e. the mouse), a subject from its verb (i.e. he played), nouns from adjectives (i.e. beautiful day) and names should be kept on the same line where possible (i.e. Mrs Rebecca de Winter).


This has got to be the best, and yet one of the most challenging aspects of subtitling. Translating humour often involves wordplay, puns, idioms, tongue in cheek language, slang, curse words and much more. I believe this is where an intimate knowledge of your native language and culture really comes into play.

Some of the trickier culprits are cultural references that don’t translate well. For example, in England, most people will know who Susan Boyle is*, but would a joke involving her name carry over to a Spanish viewer in Spain? Probably not. That’s where we can maybe look for equivalents, and if there isn’t one, we may have to summarise the intended joke, i.e. reality TV star/dark horse/hidden gem.

Puns and plays on words are another fantastic challenge, and finding equivalents in your language can be great fun. Insults often prove to be a particularly delightful source of creativity and hilarity. For example, how many ways can you think of for calling someone old, both in English and your second language? Yes, probably more than one! Some affectionate, some not so much. Which one you use will depend on the effect intended. *For those who don’t, Susan Boyle suddenly rose to fame in 2008 on Britain’s Got Talent as a very unassuming woman with an amazing voice.


Proofreading and watching through your own work once you’ve synced your subtitles is very important. As you subtitle a programme, you may learn more about the characters/plot and want to change the way you’ve cued certain subtitles or translated certain words so as not to give too much away or get rid of redundant information if your reading speeds are too high.

Making sure that your spelling and grammar is consistent (US/UK variants) is crucial – always check your project manager/client’s brief – and make sure you’ve used punctuation and dashes for multiple speakers as instructed.

Attention to detail is key!

Subtitling or audiovisual translation is, in my humble opinion, the most fun form of translation and I’d encourage you to try it if you’re curious. If you have a knack for languages and a good sense of humour, this could be the career for you!

This has been LH Translations

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