Subtitling services: Will auto-generated subtitles ever be good enough?

Published on June 27th, 2018

With tools like YouTube’s automatic captioning, it’s easier than ever to upload video content for a global audience without taking on the burden of translating your footage. The question is: how good are these subtitling service tools when it really comes down to it and will they ever be good enough to replace a team of professional translators and subtitlers?

As things stand, automatic translation falls short on way too many fronts to be the only tool in your video translation workflow, but who’s to say the technology won’t improve enough to translate videos from start to finish? Let’s take a look at the challenges the technology needs to overcome to auto-generate subtitles without the need for human intervention.


First, the automatic translation challenges

The first task of auto-generating subtitles is overcoming the challenges of automatic translation (aka: machine translation). In a recent blog post, we explained why brands need to stop waiting for AI to solve their translation problems. Despite all the hype around artificial intelligence, it can only mimic translations that have already been completed and use these to attempt new translations.

Even after another 50 years of the technology improving, this is all it will ever be able to do, unless the science-fiction version of free-thinking machines are created at some point in the future. The current crop of AI technology will never be able to achieve this because it’s simply a set of algorithms that rely on previous data to do everything.

So it looks unlikely that automatic translation will ever be able to handle the following problems:

  • Understanding context
  • Language nuances
  • Grammatical accuracy, exceptions, etc.
  • Dealing with creative content
  • Dealing with content that can’t be translated directly, e.g. idioms

These are the most important challenges of translating content and humans are the only known species capable of solving these problems. None of our technology is anywhere close to dealing with these issues.


The role of transcription in subtitling services

To give you an idea of how far away automatic translation is from being able to replace humans, let’s take a step back and look at a much simpler task. After all, not all subtitling service projects need to be translated into foreign languages; you might simply need English subtitles for your video to make it accessible to hard-of-hearing viewers and people who can’t or don’t want to listen to audio for whatever reason.

The first stage of subtitling services for video content is to transcribe all the audio in your footage and create a text file that can be used to make your subtitles. This file will also be used to translate your audio into other languages, if needed, but let’s focus on the transcription process for now.

For auto-generated subtitling services to work, technology needs to transcribe audio content accurately, in real-time – and the best transcription platforms available today still can’t pull this off. None of the challenges involved in translating content apply here; we’re simply talking about interpreting spoken words in the same language and replicating them in text.

The reality is, this is no simple task and the best software platforms are years away from achieving this. In fact, we still have no idea whether technology will ever be able to handle this role without human intervention although it’s thousands of times more likely than translation technology overtaking human translators.


The fact that technology such as auto-generated subtitles can’t be trusted to handle projects on its own doesn’t mean it’s useless – not by a long stretch. Professional subtitlers and translators use automatic subtitling tools and translation software on a daily basis to complete projects faster and add an extra layer of protection against errors. It’s always easier to spot errors in other people’s (or machine’s) work so using auto-generated subtitles as the first stage of transcription can be useful in the right environment.

If you have any questions about how to use auto-generated subtitles and why you shouldn’t rely on it as an all-in-one tool, please get in touch with our subtitle experts today.

Posted on: June 27th, 2018