Subtitling services: five challenges you’ll come across when translating subtitles

Published on November 20th, 2017

subtitling services

So, subtitling services huh. They look deceptively simple as they stretch across your screen as you watch a foreign language film. After all, what’s so difficult about translating some dialogue and then creating a subtitles file? It can’t be that hard if foreign TV, film and videogame fans are happy to create their own subtitles and upload them for free, right?

Well, if you’ve ever used any (somewhat illegal) fansubs for your entertainment pleasure, you’ll know they tend to fall far short of expectations. It’s not only translation quality that can be an issue either. In fact, there’s far more to translating subtitles effectively than the languages alone – and here are five subtitling services challenges you’ll come across on every project.


#1: Text length vs screen width

This is a challenge you’ll come across any time you have to fit translated text into a fixed space. Written text varies in length across different languages and English tends to be shorter than most. Which means text expansion is a common occurrence when you translate from English into other languages.

Text expansion in subtitling services can be an issue for many reasons when it comes to translating subtitles. First of all, you’ve got limited space to work with and you don’t want your text to be cut off by the edge of the screen. You also don’t want too much of the display taken up by text, which can be a challenge in itself if you’re dealing with viewers across multiple devices.


#2: Text length vs dialogue speed

Another issue caused by text expansion can be asking too much from your audience. When dialogue in your footage outpaces your viewers’ reading speed, you have a problem. Either your subtitles will be moving too fast for viewers to keep up with or the dialogue in your video will creep ahead of your subtitles.

The best option for this is planning ahead – something we always promote with our subtitling services. When you know you’ve got to translate your video, don’t go for fast moving dialogue that will cause problems later on. If you’re unable to plan ahead for whatever reason, then you may have to adapt your translations to reduce text space.

It’s not the ideal solution but sometimes you have to compromise to make the most of your subtitling services.


#3: Multiple speakers

This one can be really tricky for subtitles, regardless of whether you’re translating them or not. Even relatively basic conversations can be hard to keep up with when there are multiple speakers. Not only do you need to think about screen space and pacing, you have to make sure the corresponding text is visible as people are speaking and that readers can finish each subtitle before the next one appears.

That’s not always an easy task, considering we tend to talk faster than we read – and that’s before you think about any potential text expansion.

Things get even more tricky when you have to deal with fast-paced conversations, arguments or debates between half a dozen people. Again, planning your subtitling services in advance can be useful here but it’s not always an option – especially for non-scripted recordings. You might have to adapt your translations or consider switching to voiceovers if the pace is too fast to keep up with.


#4: Style

Recreating the style of a video is particularly challenging if you’re working with film, advertising or any kind of creative footage. Instructional videos can be easier in this regard but not necessarily, if you go for a friendly tone of voice or use a highly characterised speaker.

Once again, if you’ve got multiple speakers in the same video, capturing the different personalities of each participant is something else to think about. Sometimes the most obvious subtitling services translation might lose the flavour of what someone is actually saying.


#5: Font choice

Font choice is an important part of any subtitling services project. Your first priority is to make sure text is always legible for different screen sizes at a reasonable distance. A viewer on their smartphone has a much smaller display to work with but significantly closer viewing distance than someone watching a 4KHD TV.

Text size is obviously a key consideration but you’ll also find some texts are naturally larger than others. Font weighting is also important as letters that are too bold are narrowly spaced apart can make reading difficult.


As you can see, there’s lots to consider when it comes to subtitling services – more than we could fit in this article. Aside from language experts, you need subtitle specialists who understand how to work within the constraints of fitting text on screen and matching it to footage. Translation is only half the battle when it comes to subtitling for international audiences and the challenges we’ve outlined in this article give you an idea of how much work is involved.

Posted on: November 20th, 2017