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By OXO Innovation
January 25, 2022

Ask the Expert: Everything You Need to Know About Subtitling

Subtitling is a field of translation that has a lot of specific terminology, tools and technical requirements around it. To demystify the process for our clients and for aspiring subtitlers, we asked OXO’s Subtitling Lead, José Torres, all our questions about the technical aspects of audiovisual translation. Here’s what he had to say.

What is the difference between subtitling, captioning, dubbing and audiovisual translation?

Both subtitling and captioning are text versions of the spoken media content (television, movie, presentation, etc.). The difference between them is, captions are in the language of the video, and subtitles are translations for those who don’t speak the original language. Captions are very useful for the hard of hearing, and they’re also increasingly popular for digital ads and social media videos, as many people watch these with their sound off. 

Dubbing consists of replacing the original audio dialogue with a translated version that is lip-synched and mixed with the soundtrack. This is a more expensive and time-consuming solution than subtitling because you have to not only transcribe and translate the dialogue, but also hire voice actors to record it and an audio engineer to mix it. Plus the translation has to be adapted to make sure it’s as close as possible to the number of syllables and the lip movements of the actors so that it can be lip synched. That said, if you have the budget, dubbing is a great solution for viewers who might find subtitles distracting. Whether viewers prefer to watch a video with subtitles or dubbing depends a lot on the culture they’re from.

If you don’t have the budget for dubbing but don’t think your audience will respond well to subtitles, a good in-between solution is voice-over, which doesn’t require lip synching as the narrator is not on camera. 

Audiovisual translation is an umbrella term that means any translation of audiovisual media. It includes both subtitling and dubbing, as well as the translation of on-screen text.

What are subtitling standards? How do you choose which standard to follow?

Subtitling standards are a set of guidelines that subtitlers follow for things like minimum/maximum duration, gap, character limitations, line limitation, positioning, file format, etc., as well as the type of instructions you would find in a regular style guide, like when to use italics or how to spell certain words. Each project can have different subtitling standards, depending on the specific requirements of that project. Nowadays, the most popular standards come from the big companies in the industry, like Netflix and Amazon.

What are the main subtitle file formats and what’s the difference between them?

SubRip (.srt) – This is the most popular format because it’s supported in most of the basic media players. Typically it doesn’t allow positioning or special characters.

WebVTT (.vtt) – Designed to add subtitles/captions to HTML5 pages. Supported in most video platforms. Allows positioning, special characters, text formatting.

SubStation Alpha/Advanced SubStation Alpha (.ssa/.ass) – Widely used by anime fans to do their own subtitling because of its more advanced graphic and textual features. Widely used in lyrics for karaoke videos.

Scenarist Closed Captions (.scc) – Popular format for broadcast closed captions. It used to be the standard transmission format for closed captions in North America.

Timed Text Markup Language (.ttml similar to .dfxp) – Standard for XML captions developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Designed to incorporate all functionality of existing formats.

EBU-STL (.stl) – Similar to .scc in the sense that it is used for PAL broadcasts in Europe.

iTunes Timed Text (.itt) – Apple’s format, which is a subset of TTML. Widely used in Final Cut.

What training does a professional subtitler typically have?

A professional subtitler typically has training in transcription and translation. Both are necessary to deliver the final product from the source language to the target language. Many universities offer courses in translation and audiovisual translation, although it’s not necessary to have a degree to become a good subtitler–you can also learn through experience and practice. In terms of learning to use specific subtitling software, most employers will provide training on this, and the software providers themselves usually offer training material. 

What is the best subtitling software?

There are many subtitling/captioning editors available. It’s the subtitler’s decision which one to  use, based on their preference and the project criteria. Some of the most popular options are MacCaption & Caption Maker, EZ Titles, WinCaps Q4, Subtitle NEXT, Subtitle Edit, Subtitle Workshop, CaptionHub, OONA, and Amara.

Depending on the subtitler needs, there are proprietary and free editors. The best free editor is Subtitle Edit because of all the subtitle formats it can handle, and it is an open-source project that it’s always up-to-date.

Some of the proprietary tools offer monthly solutions (EZ Titles, WinCAPs Q4, Subtitle NEXT) if you don’t have the budget to buy a whole license.

There are also cloud-based tools (OONA, CaptionHub, Amara) to work on subtitles/captions, which offer features such as automatic transcription, automatic time coding, and machine translation that may facilitate the work of subtitlers.

If you are a beginner, a good choice would be starting with the best free editor available, Subtitle Edit.

What does it mean for subtitles to be “hardcoded”?

Hardcoded or open subtitles/captions are always in view. They’re also called burnt-in subtitles because they are part of the video—the viewer can’t choose to switch languages or turn them off. In contrast to open captions, closed captions can be turned on or off by the viewer. One of the benefits of hardcoding is that it doesn’t require any extra plugins or files, meaning you can display a video with hardcoded subtitles or captions on any platform or device. For example, some social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram only allow hardcoded subtitles and captions.

Are there specific considerations for subtitles in languages that read from right to left (RTL) or use a different alphabet/script?

Specific considerations for subtitling RTL languages—like Arabic subtitling—are mainly related to alignment and positioning. Letters could not display as they should. Other alphabets/scripts that are LTR can follow the regular subtitling standards.

RTL formatting is somewhat behind when it comes to updates in subtitling tools. And this is because out of all the languages spoken in the world, only a few use RTL formatting. From this point of view, most subtitling editors accommodate LTR formatting because it is broadly used and more straightforward to subtitle.

Got more questions?

If you have a subtitling question that isn’t answered here or you want to learn more about OXO’s professional subtitling services, get in touch with us. We’d love to tell you more about it.

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