Subtitlers: the unsung heroes behind the screen

Subtitlers: the unsung heroes behind the screen

While enjoying your favourite television programme or movie, you might need the help of subtitles to understand the meaning of the dialogue being spoken in a foreign language. Subtitles are lines of words at the bottom of the screen. They appear on the screen when the actors start to speak, and disappear when they stop. We call this “synchronisation”. The best subtitles should be there without disturbing the enjoyment of the programme, while giving out enough information to the viewers.

People who write the subtitles are called subtitlers. They are usually given the script beforehand. If they do not have the script, they might have to transcribe the dialogue themselves. Before they start the actual translation, they have to watch the programme to make sure they understand it thoroughly. They also have to divide the original dialogue into units to be subtitled. This segmentation process is important because it will help the subtitler overcome the constraints of both time and space when they translate.

Since space on the screen is limited, the subtitler has to restrict 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, and distract the viewers’ attention, they can affect the enjoyment of the programme. Subtitles should be concise so that not much of the screen is occupied. A one-line subtitle is usually preferred to a two-liner for Chinese subtitles, while two-line subtitles are more common in English. 

The speed of the subtitle is important as well. It should be shown at the pace of the dialogue (as mentioned earlier, this process is known as “synchronisation”). The viewer’s reading speed should also be taken into account. There is a six-second rule that is commonly adopted among subtitlers in Europe. According to this rule, an average viewer can comfortably read the words written on two full subtitle lines, with a maximum of 74 characters in total, in six seconds.

A well-trained subtitler can translate the dialogue without compromising on tone or style. The wordplay will be subtly handled, and the subtitler will also check for any jargon, and translate it appropriately. When they find some culturally-specific terms in the original language, they have to consider their acceptability to the viewers and adopt the right translation strategy to get the message across. They may use a localised term to translate these cultural terms, or they may use a more well-known word to ensure the meaning is understood. 

The subtitlers have been working hard for you. So the next time you’re viewing a subtitled movie or television programme, appreciate the wonderful job these unsung heroes have done. 


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