3 reasons multilingual subtitles are trickier than you think

Published on January 18th, 2019

multilingual subtitles

When it comes to translating video content, subtitles are the most common way of delivering content in multiple languages. Aside from being the most cost-effective video translation method, they are also highly flexible and incredibly easy to create.

Actually, that last point is not true at all, because subtitles can be deceptively difficult.

The idea that subtitles are easy is a big misconception and this is the theme of today’s article. Here are three reasons why creating multilingual subtitles is probably trickier than you think.

#1: Screens are only so big

It does not matter what device people are viewing your content on, there is only so much on-screen space to work with. This means you are limited to how much text can appear on the screen at any given time and this can be particularly tricky in a number of scenarios:

  • When people talk quickly
  • When multiple people are speaking at the same time
  • For particularly long sentences
  • When any individual word is particularly long

This problem is often emphasised when you translate multilingual subtitles (especially from English) because words are often longer in other languages, which can wreak havoc with subtitles.

This phenomenon is known as text expansion.

It is not only physical space you need to think about either, but also viewing distance, because small text can appear large to someone viewing a smartphone screen close up, compared to someone watching on a wide-screen TV from across the other side of the room.

#2: People can only read so quickly

Another problem you have got is the reading ability of your audience. People can only read so quickly, which means each subtitle needs to remain on the screen for a certain period of time – generally a longer period of time for longer sentences.

The problem is, your video may not wait around for viewers to catch up and you may find your characters start their next sentence before people have finished reading the previous one. Humans tend to read more slowly than we talk and this emphasises all of the problems listed in the previous section.

This can get worse still if you have text expansion making your multilingual subtitles even longer.

#3: Translation itself is a tricky business

If you have ever watched a subtitled film or played a subtitled game and thought to yourself that sounds a little weird, you have probably experienced an example of how tough translation itself can be. The fact is we all use a lot of creative, colloquial and varied language and these can be very difficult to translate effectively.

Imagine a slang term used in one language; there may not be a direct equivalent in another. Which means you have to choose between a slang term that has a similar meaning or one that is more suitable in the same context, because you probably cannot do both.

This can be particularly problematic when a specific word, phrase or sentence is important to your content but the direct translation does not really work in your chosen language.

Creating multilingual subtitles is a more technical process than most people understand and we have outlined a few tricky problems in this article. Aside from quality translation, you also need a good localisation team that knows how to adapt subtitles for the screen and multilingual viewers.

Be sure to get in touch with our subtitle engineers if you have any questions about your next multilingual video project.

Posted on: January 18th, 2019