Vera Content team in action 2023

Subtitling translation is an excellent way to make your content more accessible to consumers worldwide. But there are some key considerations to ensure subtitles effectively maintain your message when adapted to different languages. 

Keep reading to discover how to translate subtitles correctly, plus five top tips that every global video content creator needs to know. 

How do you translate subtitles?

VeraContent team members working on laptops

Translating subtitles begins with how you would translate any other content: with a qualified linguist. That’s why, at VeraContent, we maintain a vetted pool of talented translators who are familiar with their local market’s language and culture. 

Neural machine translation tools are key for the first step of the subtitle translation process. But for best results, always have your final translation reviewed by a professional linguist before publishing. This helps to verify translation accuracy and avoid any mistakes that are potentially embarrassing, inaccurate or even offensive.

Keep in mind that translating subtitles might require a degree of localization services. While translation is the conversion of a text from one language to another, localization goes a step further and also checks the text is culturally appropriate, respectful and relatable to the target audience.

When localizing, your linguist will adapt any expressions, idioms or cultural references to the new market. Otherwise, you might end up with a subtitle translation that looks like it makes sense on paper but fails to connect with your audience in reality. 

For an example of successful subtitling, see VeraContent’s partnership with IE University to subtitle their “Next Best You” campaign.

How do you add subtitles to a video? 

Here are three steps:

  1. First, transcribe your video. You can do this yourself or with a transcription tool like Otter. If using an automated tool, make sure to edit the text as it’s rarely 100% accurate. Once you’ve got the edited transcription, have it translated into the target language by your linguist. Be sure to have them save it as a .SRT file. This is a common subtitle format and it’s what you’ll need to use for platforms like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. 

Note: for a video already published to YouTube, instead of transcribing, you might instead extract the subtitles and edit them in the source language, then translate them into others. This was the case when VeraContent provided multilingual subtitles for SaaS company, Onshape

  1. Upload your captions. How you do this depends on the platform, but usually you can click “Edit Video” and add captions that way. See our guide below for more details.

Pro-tip: For more on the advantages of adding subtitles to social media videos, see our guide: How important is subtitling on social media?

  1. Try it out! Check that the subtitles are working by playing your video. Be sure captions are turned on in the player control settings. 

Those are the basics for translating and adding subtitles to a video. Read on for our top five subtitling translation tips for global video content creators. 

What is the difference between subtitles and closed captions?

Closed captions are designed to aid individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing in understanding on-screen content, providing a detailed description of the audio. They serve to closely depict on-screen actions and dialogue, while subtitles offer translations of dialogue spoken in a different language, facilitating comprehension for viewers.

Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to adapt the subtitle translations

A woman working on subtitling translation on her laptop

It will always take viewers more time to read words than to hear them. While adapting the text to the chosen language, keeping the subtitle length brief is vital to a successful subtitle translation. 

Did you know that English is more concise than Spanish? While it’s the second fastest spoken language in the world, Spanish words contain less information per syllable. Thus, English sentences tend to be shorter, due to the syntax and morphology. This means that translating from English to Spanish can increase the text length by up to 20-25%.  

This also applies to other languages. For instance, translating from English to Swedish can increase the subtitle length by 35%. Meanwhile, Korean has a lower rate of speech than English and due to its script, Hangul, subtitles tend to be shorter than in English. 

As you can see, it’s important to consider how your target language will generally affect subtitle length. If your subtitles end up too long, it’s worth adapting them to be more concise. Here are a few tips to do this:

  • Edit out unnecessary words
  • Use antonyms if it makes the subtitle shorter
  • Change grammar or sentence structures
  • Combine two sentences into one 

“What we tend to do is ask the designers or the engineers: ‘What is it that you want to say?’ Not the actual transcript, but what is the core message? And we’ll find a completely different way of saying it that fits that character limit.

Anne-Sophie Delafosse, localization manager at Deliveroo

See also: Content marketing in Spain vs. the US: 9 key differences

Tip #2: Timing is make-or-break

remote showing subtitles button

Unsynchronized subtitles are distracting and frustrating for viewers. Unless it’s a live translation situation, timing issues can never be tolerated. 

A subtitle should appear when a speaker begins speaking, and end roughly when the speaker stops. The ideal amount of time to give a subtitle is around two seconds, although this can change depending on context. 

If you’re having trouble syncing subtitles or experiencing subtitle delays, various online tools can help you shift the subtitles a few seconds earlier or later. If only a few lines are delayed or early, try a partial subtitle shifter tool. 

See also: 5 machine translation tools that are better than ChatGPT

Tip #3: There’s a science to subtitle length and spacing

two women watching subtitles in a museum

We’ve discussed why it’s so important to keep subtitles concise, but how long of a line is too long for viewers to keep up with? 

Here are the most common guidelines video subtitlers are recommended to follow for any language using a Latin script:

  • Break a subtitle longer than 42 characters into two lines.
  • If you break a subtitle into two lines, keep them as close in length as possible. 
  • Never use more than two lines per subtitle.
  • Keep the subtitle reading speed to a maximum of 21 characters per second. 
  • If subtitles are over 21 characters per second, try to cut them down as much as possible while preserving the meaning. 

Breaking subtitle lines goes beyond just text editing. It has to keep a visual flow. For example, lines must be balanced in length. 

For example, you should break a line like this:

I found a dog, a cat, 

three rats and a goldfish.

Instead of like this: 

I found a dog, 

a cat, three rats and a goldfish. 

When it’s impossible to break lines cleanly without disrupting linguistic units (like adjectives with their nouns, for example), you can go with something less balanced or consider rephrasing lines. Take this example below:

I learned more about ancient 

martial arts on YouTube.

You might be able to rephrase the line depending on the context to something like:

  • I learned more about it on YouTube.
  • I studied ancient martial arts online.
  • I watched martial arts videos.

For more guidance on how to break lines and find the best spacing for video subtitling, TED Talks subtitle translation guide has more examples. 

See also:  Audiovisual translation services: A complete guide for your business

Tip #4: Don’t just translate—localize

We translated the subtitles from Spanish into English for Nathy Peluso’s single, Emergencia.

Localization goes beyond the words—it adapts the content to the target audience’s emotion, values and concerns. This process can even extend to visuals, like graphics or color palettes. 

In the case of subtitling translation, localization prioritizes making sure the audience connects with the content over creating a perfectly one-to-one transliteration. 

See also: Translation vs. localization: What’s the difference and why should you care?

That’s why when Sony Music Spain asked us to translate the subtitles for Nathy Peluso’s Emergencia from Spanish to English, we knew it would take more than a transliteration to convey her emotion, flow and style.

Translating subtitles for music is tricky. Lyrics are a creative expression and more like poetry than prose. To maintain the song’s use of metaphor and idioms, we worked with two Spanish linguists who were familiar with the artist’s work.

One example in the song that demonstrates this translation balancing act is the line, “He perdido mis anillos en el batalleo.” The original lyric is relying on the idiomatic Spanish expression “caerse los anillos” or “my rings falling off.” It essentially means to humble yourself, to do dirty work that is beneath you, thus your rings have fallen off. 

Simply translating that line to English wouldn’t make sense, as we don’t have that idiom. Instead, we translated the phrase to “I got my hands dirty in the daily grind.” It not only conveys the same message as the original line, but it also keeps the visual reference to hands. 

“VeraContent is the only translation solution we’ve worked with that could accurately adapt the Spanish lyrics into English while capturing all the nuances and context of the song—and also reflecting the artist’s unique voice, writing style and power.”

Luis Ángeles, Video Commissioner at Sony Music Spain

The result? We provided a powerful, accurate translation in just two days. The video released on February 18, 2022 and as of November 2023, has over 8 million views. 

To learn more about our work with Sony Music Spain, see our case study: How Sony Music Spain is sharing Spanish music across a global audience with high-quality English subtitles.

Tip #5: Rely on your linguists

VeraContent's core team

The Korean Netflix drama, Squid Game, was praised for its storytelling and themes of wealth disparity, but Korean speakers quickly noticed the English subtitle translations were often botched mistranslations that, at times, completely undermined the original captions’ meaning and nuance. 

It was particularly bad with the English closed caption subtitles—which are intended for hard of hearing and includes descriptions of background/sound effect noises. Viewers began questioning Netflix’s translation strategy, stressing the importance of translation accuracy and accessibility. 

Accuracy, as well as proper punctuation, spelling and font size/color are all factors that should be reviewed in a quality assurance screening. 

Most subtitle translation services, including ours at VeraContent, have a two-step process with a strong editorial emphasis:

  1. The first linguist reviews the brief given to them by the project manager and translates the text into the target language, keeping an eye on cultural considerations. 
  2. The second linguist checks the translated subtitles for accuracy, effectiveness and adherence to the client’s brief. 

“Those two steps are essential, and anything above that is the gravy.”

– Shaheen Samavati, CEO of VeraContent

This second step is vital to ensuring every bit of translation is error-free and captures the original meaning of the text. It evaluates the subtitle translation on a technical and cultural level. 

For help with adapting your content to local audiences, download our interactive worksheet below:

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Ready to start translating subtitles?

Subtitling translation is a tricky process, especially when it comes to more creative content. Even big audiovisual companies like Netflix can struggle to ensure their subtitles are accurate, effective and easy to read. 

At VeraContent, we help businesses translate their visual campaigns. Our vetted pool of talented linguists know how to adapt content with the right feel and nuance. And our process ensures subtitles are checked for accuracy and relevance to get the true meaning across. 

To learn more about how we can help and if you qualify for a free content consultation, reach out to us today and tell us about your project.