Best Practices for Online Subtitling

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Here in EngageMedia, we put utmost importance in subtitling videos. Beyond what’s obvious, we see it as a means to broaden public access and understanding of critical human rights and environmental stories from the Asia-Pacific region.

Climate change, human rights, freedom of expression, corruption, religious intolerance, and now a pandemic—the 4.3 billion people in the region face similar issues. With hundreds of different languages in the region, a subtitled video brings forth a lot of discoveries and learnings. In the end, we hope that these aforementioned reasons bring solutions to our common challenges.

Furthermore, recent articles relating to online engagement also show that same language subtitles (also called captions) are not only for the hearing-challenged. Gadgets and mobile devices make it inevitable for people to multitask, and subtitles make it easier to comprehend video content.

In this context, we republish this guide that first appeared on our website in February 2013. We’ve added some points to give it an update.

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Subtitles as seen from the interface of Amara, an open-source platform for video subtitles.
Timing

  • Subtitles should appear and disappear exactly when the words are spoken. However, ensure captions appear on-screen long enough to be read.
  • There should be two lines of text on-screen, at most.
  • Set the minimum time of display to 1.5 seconds for very short dialogue (such as an answer to a question, “Okay”). These minimums do not apply in some cases with rapid dialogue.

  • It’s best to consider whether the audience will be able to read through your subtitles while still following the events in the video.
  • If a lyric is repeated, create a gap between the end of the first lyric and the start of the second repeated lyric. This ensures that there is a ‘blink’ on and off visually between each line to indicate to the viewer that the lyric is sung twice.
  • Use a separate subtitle for each sentence of dialog. Avoid ending a sentence and beginning a new sentence on the same line, unless the second sentence is very short in length.

Meaning

  • When translating from a different language, translate meaning and not just words, making sure to get the point across to the audience.
  • Quotes by public figures should be captioned verbatim (word-for-word) whenever possible.
  • Retain words like “but,” “so,” or “too,” as they are essential for expressing meaning.
  • Ensure that all actual words are captioned, regardless of language, dialect, or slang.

Sound

  • When speech is inaudible, put up a label explaining the cause, e.g., (traffic drowns speech)
  • Show sound effect captions in lowercase italics enclosed in brackets, e.g., (dog barking) (child screaming)
  • If there are multiple people talking, or the film cuts between people speaking, consider using the names of the people in the subtitles to identify the different speakers, e.g.,
    (John) What did you say?
    (Sarah) I think this is great

  • One method to indicate singing in a video is to have a space inserted after the beginning music icon (♪) and before the ending music icon(s), e.g., ♪ Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America ♪
  • Another method used for music captioning is using a hashtag (#) at the beginning of each line to denote lyrics, e.g., # Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America #
  • When people are seen talking, but there is no audio, caption as [no audio] or [silence].

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Punctuation

  • There are mixed views on including full stops or periods in subtitles. Film and TV productions generally do not use them, however many translators have found them useful when translating from original subtitles online and offline. Some believe that using periods at the end of sentences signals to the eye that it can go back to the image since there is no consecutive subtitle to anticipate.
  • Question marks (?) and exclamation points (!) should be used to indicate a question or emphasis respectively, positioned right after the last character of a subtitle.
  • Use a single space after commas, colons, semi-colons, mid-subtitle full stops, on both sides of dashes (but not mid-word hyphens), and before opening brackets and after closing brackets.
  • Be consistent in the use of vocabulary that can be spelled in hyphenated form, e.g., ‘mid-level’.
  • When a speaker is interrupted and another speaker finishes the sentence, the interruption should be conveyed by double hyphens (–) or a single long dash (—).
  • Use an ellipsis (…) when there is a significant pause within a caption. However, do not use an ellipsis to indicate that the sentence continues into the next caption.
  • Use quotation marks for on-screen readings from a poem, book, play, journal, or letter. Also use quotation marks and italics for off-screen readings or voice-overs.

Capitalisation

  • Always start sentences in capital letters.
  • Do not emphasize a word using all capital letters, except to indicate screaming.

Numbers
DescriptionExamples
Long numbers should usually be presented according to relevant conventions.Telephone numbers (xxx-xxxx; xxx-xxx-xxxx) or other long numbers in groups of three (10,000 / 100,000)
Always spell out all numbers from one to ten, but use numerals for all numbers over ten.“Tom wants ten balloons”. “Tom wants 54 balloons”.
Use numerals when referring to technical and athletic terms.He scored 3 goals in today’s game!
Use the numeral plus the lowercase “th,” “st,” or “nd” when a day of the month is mentioned by itself (no month is referred to).Bob went fishing on the 9th.
Indicate time of day with numerals only.“I woke up at 5:17.” or “You must arrive by 6:25 p.m.”
A decade should be captioned as “the 1980s” (not “the 1980’s”).and “the ’50s” (not “the 50’s”)
Line Breaks
item incorrectcorrect
* Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks,
ideally at clause or phrase boundaries, e.g.,
He said it would increase the
number of shareholders.
He said it would increase
the number of shareholders.
* Do not break a person’s name or title from within a line. e.g., Bob and Susan
Miller are at the movies.
Bob and Susan Miller
are at the movies.
Suzy and Professor
Barker are here.
Suzy and Professor Barker
are here.
* Do not break a line after a conjunction, e.g.,In seconds she arrived, and
he ordered a drink.
In seconds she arrived,
and he ordered a drink.
* Do not break an auxiliary verb from the word it modifies, e.g.,
Mom said I could
have gone to the movies.
Mom said I could have gone
to the movies.
Italics

Italics should be used to indicate the following:

  • A voice-over reading of a poem, book, play, journal, letter, etc. (This is also quoted material, so quotation marks are also needed.)
  • When a person is dreaming, thinking, or reminiscing.
  • When there is background audio that is essential to the plot, such as a PA system or TV.
  • Offscreen dialogue, narrator (see Exception 2 below), sound effects, or music (this includes background music).
  • The offscreen narrator when there are multiple speakers on-screen or offscreen.
  • Foreign words and phrases, unless they are in an English dictionary.
  • When a particular word is heavily emphasized in speech. e.g. You must leave!

Phonetic Words
Original NarrationCaptioned
“www dot D-C-M-P dot org”www.dcmp.org
“eight or nine hundred”800 or 900
“a thousand”a thousand
“one thousand”1000
Misc.
  • Bold and underline are not permitted in subtitling.

To find out more about our online subtitling and translation project, and join our subtitling team, please visit our Lingua project page.

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