Subtitlers: The Unsung Heroes Behind the Screen

By AU Kim-lung Kenneth
Assistant Professor and Programme Leader of BA in Translation and Interpretation
Department of Linguistics and Translation

When enjoying a favourite television programme or movie, many people need the help of subtitles to understand the meaning of the dialogue. It may be in a foreign language or one in which the viewer is not completely fluent, meaning they rely on the words shown at the bottom of the screen to aid their understanding. The best subtitles should be “synchronised” with the actors speaking on screen, provide an accurate and reasonably idiomatic translation, and not distract or confuse in any way.

People who write the subtitles are usually given the script beforehand. Sometimes, though, they do not have this advantage, Instead, they have to listen to the original and transcribe the dialogue themselves before starting the translation. That can mean watching some scenes several times to make sure they understand certain points correctly. It is also usual to divide the original dialogue into units to be subtitled. This segmentation process is important because it helps the subtitler overcome constraints of both time and space when matching the original with the translation.

Space on the screen is limited, which restricts the number of lines per subtitle and the number of characters per line. Each full line will have no more than 37 characters. Each letter, number, punctuation mark or space is counted as a character. So a two-line subtitle can hold a total of 74 characters.

As the subtitles cover up part of the screen, that can be a distraction for the viewers and can affect the enjoyment of the programme. Therefore, subtitles should be as concise as possible, ideally using just one line subtitle if in Chinese, while two-liners are more common in English.

Speed is also a consideration. The subtitles have to keep pace with the dialogue—the “synchronisation” mentioned above—but the speed at which the average viewer reads must be taken into account as well. In Europe, subtitlers commonly adopt a six-second rule. They reckon that’s long enough for the average viewer to comfortably read the two full subtitle lines with a maximum of 74 characters.

The mark of a well-trained subtitler is someone who can translate the dialogue without compromising the tone or style. - Kenneth Au

The mark of a well-trained subtitler is someone who can translate the dialogue without compromising the tone or style. Any wordplay must be handled with subtlety, and it is also important to check for jargon and translate it appropriately.

Also, if there are some culturallyspecific terms in the original language, the subtitler has to consider how they will be understood by other audiences and adopt the right translation strategy to get the message across. In some cases, it can make better sense to use localised terms or contexts to translate these cultural terms, or use a more generic word to ensure the meaning is understood.

Writing subtitles is not an easy job, so next time you’re watching a subtitled movie or TV show, give some thought to the wonderful work these unsung heroes have done.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Young Post, South China Morning Post, on Feb 26, 2016. (