The Art of Quality Subtitling: Lessons From a Professional Subtitling Service

Before the rapid evolution of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, filmmakers would shoot a film and distribute it to a global audience by translating subtitles into foreign languages. Fast forward over a century later and world cinema is no longer limited by the number of available movie screens or viewing times. Online streaming platforms are releasing more titles than ever before, and a good chunk of the available content falls into the international categories. 

For viewers, watching a foreign language film or a TV program is one of the most valuable ways to learn about the world and gain insights into different customs and cultures. But with the increasing variety of languages in demand for high-quality subtitling  – how do we prioritize quality over quantity? Let’s investigate further…

Captions versus subtitles- what’s the difference? 

Broadly speaking, subtitling and captioning are similar but they aren’t the same.  A caption allows viewers to understand what is being said on the screen. The text file is rendered from a video translation of the source language. Because of this, a caption can not be switched off. A subtitle, on the other hand, provides a language alternative for the spoken dialogue. This includes other written elements that appear on the screen (letters, cell phone messages, placards, signs, etc). They can be easily turned on and off through the menu settings on your subscription service. 

Netflix usually has a choice of around 5-7 different languages – accessibility just depends on where in the world you are streaming the content from.

Quality assurance in subtitling services 

In a business where timing is everything, transcriptions and translations need to be done quickly but without jeopardizing the quality of the dialogue. With so many different releases, video lengths and frame rates, here are some of the factors you need to consider to think like a first-class subtitle translation service. 


Speech often happens at a faster pace than reading. So for synchronization, a subtitle should closely match the rhythm of the dialogue, minimizing any delays between the words spoken and the language translation. This can be done with SRT files, otherwise known as “SubRip Subtitle files.”  This file format includes information about the subtitles as well as the timings from the videos. It is one of the most commonly supported file types for text editing and automatic subtitling software. To create an SRT file, a subtitle translation company will work directly from the video file to accurately create a translation of the target language. 

Line breaks 

Each subtitle is usually made up of a single complete sentence. Typically a subtitle should be no more than two lines in length, but this can be tricky to achieve as word lengths tend to vary from language to language. As an example, in written English or Chinese, the grammatical structures take up less space but are much longer in German. For linguistic comprehension, a certified translator will be able to omit certain words or condense parts of a phrase, without changing its original intent and meaning. 

Typography & positioning 

The type of font used for the subtitle largely depends on the streaming service. However, the font needs to be large enough to view from a considerable distance and have a high enough contrast so that it stands out against the background but does not distract attention from the flow of the narrative. The video subtitles should be positioned in the lower part of the screen for ease of readability. 

Idioms and cultural expressions 

A subtitler not only speaks multiple languages but will be able to effectively jump from one language to another when translating the dialogue. They will also sense check a transcript for any words or expressions that do not translate well across cultures. As an idea, if you take the Spanish idiom a otra cosa, mariposa and translate it word for word into English i.e another thing butterfly – the figurative meaning has been lost in translation. What the idiom is trying to say is let’s start a new topic of conversation or let’s change the subject but this isn’t easily understood. To remedy this, a skilled subtitler will try and find an idiom in the target language which is the closest equivalent to the original one. 

Many viewers rely solely on the subtitles to understand the story so it’s the role of the subtitler to capture the true essence of the narrative. This not only takes a good grasp of the language in question but a mix of creativity, passion, and dedication.  A professional translation service, such as the one here at Language Department, will have a well-versed project management team examining each project to ensure that translated materials stay as faithful to the original language as possible. Contact us today to find out more about our language services.

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