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A Guide to the Translation of Subtitles

Subtitling is an art that balances precision, timing, and readability to ensure viewers around the world can enjoy video content in their own language. Whether for films, television shows, or online courses, subtitling bridges language barriers and enhances accessibility. But what goes into creating subtitles that are easy to read and follow? Here’s what you need to know:

A Guide to the Translation of Subtitles

Understanding Subtitle Length and Language Specificities

When crafting subtitles, one must consider the linguistic and alphabetic diversity of languages. Subtitles in Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, Semitic languages, Hindi, and Thai typically allow up to 42 characters per line. In contrast, logographic languages such as Chinese, Korean, and Japanese require fewer characters per line, generally up to 16, due to their visual complexity and space requirements.

Font Choices and Readability

The choice of font in subtitles is crucial for readability. Without serif fonts like Arial and Verdana are preferred for their clarity, especially on smaller screens. The distribution of characters also plays a role; proportional fonts, where each character occupies space according to its width, are generally better for subtitle readability than monospaced fonts.

Semantic Segmentation and Line Breaks

A well-structured subtitle respects the semantic units of language. Each subtitle should encompass a single semantic unit, ensuring that related phrases and sentences, like questions and answers, are kept together. To maintain clarity, it’s recommended to have less text in the upper line and to avoid splitting phrases across lines.

Temporal Constraints and Reading Speed

Subtitles must adhere to temporal constraints, remaining on screen long enough to be read comfortably but not so long that they become a distraction. The minimum duration is typically around one second, with a maximum of six seconds. The reading speed, measured in characters per second (cps) or words per minute (wpm), should ideally fall between 12-20 cps. This ensures viewers can read without rushing and have enough time to absorb the on-screen action.

The Art of Timing with Shot Changes

Subtitlers must also navigate the visual flow of the content. Subtitles should not span shot changes, as this can be disorienting for viewers. They typically start 2-4 frames after a shot change and end a few frames before the next. This seamless integration respects the editor's visual storytelling and the viewer's cognitive load.

Measuring Reading Speed

To measure the reading speed and ensure subtitles are viewer-friendly, subtitlers calculate cps or wpm. An optimal cps rate is around 12, which translates to approximately 144 wpm. This standard accounts for the average reading speed while considering that an average word is five characters long.

(12 cps x 60) / 5 = 144 wpm

Line Breaks in Subtitling

Effective subtitling not only involves the right timing and character count but also the careful construction of subtitles to preserve linguistic integrity. When a subtitle comprises two lines, the way the text is broken up can significantly impact readability and comprehension. Here are some professional tips for creating line breaks in subtitling:

Breaking Lines with Punctuation

Lines should ideally break at natural linguistic breaks, such as after punctuation marks. For instance:


Thank you for coming. I really

appreciate this.


Thank you for coming.

I really appreciate this.

This approach respects the natural flow of language, allowing viewers to process complete thoughts without interruption.

One Clause or Sentence Per Line

Subtitles are most effective when they contain a single clause or sentence per line. This clarity ensures that each line conveys a complete semantic unit:


saw Cathy on Monday and we

went there together.


saw Cathy on Monday

and we went there together.

Keeping Linguistic Units Together

Certain linguistic units should never be separated by a line break, including:

  • Article and noun: Keep these together to avoid disrupting the flow of the noun phrase.

  • Adjective and noun: They form a single idea and should be read as such.

  • Prepositional phrase: These often act as single units of meaning.

  • To infinitive: The "to" and the verb it is connected to are part of one thought.

  • Subject and verb: Separating these can confuse the reader as to who is performing the action.

  • Possessive: Like 'his bike' or 'her version,' they should remain unsplit to maintain clarity.

  • Compound: Words like 'Prime Minister' that naturally belong together should not be divided.

  • Verb phrase: The verb and its complements should stay on the same line to preserve meaning.

And importantly, avoid leaving short words like prepositions, conjunctions, or articles at the end of the line.


She’s the first Prime

Minister of this country.


She’s the first Prime Minister

of this country.

By following these rules, subtitlers can create subtitles that are easy to read and understand, ensuring that viewers have the best possible experience.

Effective subtitling is a meticulous process that involves much more than translating dialogue. It's about respecting linguistic nuances, ensuring readability, timing each subtitle precisely, and enhancing the viewer's experience. By adhering to these principles, subtitlers enable content creators to tell their stories to a global audience.

For those looking to hone their skills or for content creators seeking professional subtitling services, understanding these subtleties is the key to producing high-quality multilingual content. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned professional, mastering the essentials of subtitling is an ongoing journey in the pursuit of perfection.

As we close this exploration of subtitle, it's imperative to emphasize the meticulous attention to detail required for precision and cultural relevance. ITS Groups Translation prides itself on its commitment to these details, offering a wealth of knowledge to assist everyone involved in the process—from businesses and project managers to linguists. Our expertise ensures that the technical and linguistic aspects of subtitling are handled with care, resulting in subtitles that resonate with audiences worldwide. For guidance that goes beyond the basics and delves into the intricacies of effective subtitling, reach out to ITS Groups Translation. Let us be your partner in bridging language barriers and bringing content to life across the globe.

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