You might already suspect it: the first step to create effective subtitles is to know the basic rules of subtitling. This includes knowledge about syntax and line breaking rules, as well as the most common formatting choices for offscreen dialogues, songs, and onscreen text. But once you successfully master the technique, what should you keep in mind to create professional subtitles?

Mind the guidelines

When creating, translating or reviewing subtitles, as for many other types of translation, it is imperative to follow the client’s guidelines – if they exist.

Clients may provide instructions about maximum CPS value (characters per second), maximum length (number of characters per line or subtitle), minimum and maximum duration (seconds per subtitle), language, punctuation and formatting preferences (use of italics, brackets, upper case, etc.).

Consider reading speed

Even when provided with a reference for the acceptable reading speed (like a CPS threshold), it is always best to check the old-fashioned way – that is, by trying to read them while watching the video – if your subtitles are readable.

Put yourself in the target audience’s shoes, and remember that reading speed varies according to several factors, like age! If you are subtitling a product for children, for example, you should take into account the average reading speed for their specific age range.

Don’t forget the audiovisual context

Subtitles are usually displayed on the video, but they should never cover key details of the image. During their creation, they can be moved around to appear in a different place on the screen, but not all file formats will keep this formatting information. Always check with the client what their preferences are and in what format you should deliver your work.

What’s more, subtitles should always complement the audiovisual output, and this means taking into account both image and sound during the entire process. While some elements may be left out for space reasons, be careful not to introduce inconsistencies between text and visuals.

Perform quality checks

Typos, grammar mistakes, inconsistent formatting, calques, convoluted or unnatural constructions… they all hinder reading speed and fluency.

Final QA checks are therefore crucial to ensure consistency and readability. They should include a grammar spell check, a linguistic check (to avoid mistranslations, for example), a cultural check (to avoid calques and clunky sentence structures), as well as a formatting check – for both consistency and compliance with the guidelines provided.

Subtitles are a fantastic way to introduce audiovisual content to a new audience, but they need to be understandable in order to play their role effectively. Be sure to make them resonate with your target!

Are you trying to make your audiovisual project accessible to a larger audience?

I can help you create, translate or review your Italian subtitles. I work from English, French and Spanish into Italian, and I have experience with distinct types of audiovisual products, ranging from feature film to short films, corporate videos and Tanztheater performances. Get in touch!