Best Practices for Online Subtitling

by Seelan Palay September 16, 2017
A list of best practices for online subtitling, collated by EngageMedia's Lingua Coordinator.

Online Subtitling TipsTiming

  • Subtitles should appear and disappear exactly when the words are spoken. However, ensure captions appear on-screen long enough to be read.
  • There should be two lines of text on screen at most.
  • Set the minimum time of display to 1.5 seconds for very short dialogs (such as an answer to a question, "Okay"). These minimums do not apply in some cases with rapid dialogs.
  • It's best to consider whether the audience will be able to read through your subtitles while still following the events in the video.
  • If a lyric is repeated, create a gap between end of first lyric, and start of second repeated lyric. This ensures that there is a 'blink' on and off visually between each line to indicate to the viewer that the lyric is sung twice.
  • Use a separate subtitle for each sentence of dialog. Avoid ending a sentence and begin a new sentence on the same line, unless the second sentence is very short in length.

Meaning

  • When translating from a different language, translate meaning and not just words, making sure to get the point across to the audience.
  • Quotes by public figures should be captioned verbatim (word-for-word) whenever possible.
  • Retain words like “but”, “so”, or “too”, as they are essential for expressing meaning.
  • Ensure that all actual words are captioned, regardless of language, dialect, or slang.

Sound

  • When speech is inaudible, put up a label explaining the cause. e.g. (traffic drowns speech)
  • Show sound effect captions in lowercase italics enclosed in brackets. e.g. (dog barking) (child screaming)
  • If there are multiple people talking, or the film cuts between people speaking, consider using the names of the people in the subtitles to identify the different speakers. e.g.

(John) What did you say?
(Sarah) I think this is great

  • One method to indicate singing in a video is to have a space inserted after the beginning music icon (♪) and before the ending music icon(s). e.g. ♪ Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America
  • Another method used for music captioning is using a hashtag (#) at the beginning of each line to denote lyrics. e.g. # Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America #
  • When people are seen talking, but there is no audio, caption as [no audio] or [silence].

Punctuation

  • There are mixed views on including full stops / periods in subtitles. Film and TV productions generally do not use them, however many translators have found them useful when translating from original subtitles online and offline. Some believe that using periods at the end of sentences signals to the eye that it can go back to the image since there is no consecutive subtitle to anticipate.
  • Question marks (?) and exclamation points (!) should be used to indicate a question or emphasis respectively, positioned right after the last character of a subtitle.
  • Use a single space after commas, colons, semi-colons and mid-subtitle full-stops, on both sides of dashes (but not mid-word hyphens), before opening brackets and after closing brackets.
  • Be consistent in the use of vocabulary that can be spelled in hyphenated form. eg. 'mid-level'.
  • When a speaker is interrupted and another speaker finishes the sentence, the interruption should be conveyed by double hyphens or a single long dash.
  • Use an ellipsis (...) when there is a significant pause within a caption. However, do not use an ellipsis to indicate that the sentence continues into the next caption.
  • Use quotation marks for on-screen readings from a poem, book, play, journal, or letter. Also use quotation marks and italics for offscreen readings or voice-overs.

Capitalization

  • Always start sentences in capital letters.
  • Do not emphasize a word using all capital letters except to indicate screaming.

Numbers

  • Long numbers should usually be presented according to relevant conventions, eg telephone numbers (xxx-xxxx; xxx-xxx-xxxx) or other long numbers in groups of three (10,000 / 100,000).
  • Always spell out all numbers from one to ten, but use numerals for all numbers over ten. e.g. "Tom wants ten balloons". "Tom wants 54 balloons".
  • Use numerals when referring to technical and athletic terms. e.g. He scored 3 goals in today’s game!
  • Use the numeral plus the lowercase “th,” “st,” or “nd” when a day of the month is mentioned by itself (no month is referred to). e.g. Bob went fishing on the 9th.
  • Indicate time of day with numerals only. e.g. “ I awoke at 5:17. ” or “You must arrive by 6:25 p.m. ”
  • A decade should be captioned as “the 1980s” (not “the 1980’s”) and “the ’50s” (not “the 50’s”).

Line Breaks

  • Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks, ideally at clause or phrase boundaries. e.g.

Incorrect
He said it would increase the
number of shareholders.

Correct
He said it would increase
the number of shareholders.

  • Do not break a person’s name or title from within a line. e.g.

Incorrect
Bob and Susan
Miller are at the movies.

Correct
Bob and Susan Smythe
are at the movies.

Incorrect
Suzy and Professor
Barker are here.

Correct
Suzy and Professor Barker
are here.

  • Do not break a line after a conjunction. e.g:

Incorrect
In seconds she arrived, and
he ordered a drink.

Correct
In seconds she arrived,
and he ordered a drink.

  • Do not break an auxiliary verb from the word it modifies. Example:

Incorrect
Mom said I could
have gone to the movies.

Correct
Mom said I could have gone
to the movies.

Italics

Italics should be used to indicate the following:

  • A voice-over reading of a poem, book, play, journal, letter, etc. (This is also quoted material, so quotation marks are also needed.)
  • When a person is dreaming, thinking, or reminiscing.
  • When there is background audio that is essential to the plot, such as a PA system or TV.
  • Offscreen dialogue, narrator (see Exception 2 below), sound effects, or music (this includes background music).
  • The offscreen narrator when there are multiple speakers on-screen or offscreen.
  • Foreign words and phrases, unless they are in an English dictionary.
  • When a particular word is heavily emphasized in speech. e.g. You must leave!

Phonetic Words

  • When a word is spoken phonetically, caption it the way it is commonly written. e.g.

Original Narration
“www dot D-C-M-P dot org”
“eight or nine hundred”
“a thousand"
“one thousand”

Captioned
www.dcmp.org
800 or 900
a thousand
1000

Misc.

  • Bold and underline are not permitted in subtitling.

To find our more about our online subtitling and translation project, and join our subtitling team, please visit our Lingua project page.

Claude Almansi
Claude Almansi says:
February 18, 2013

Thank you, Seelan: this info is most useful. I just wonder about "Full stops / periods are generally not to be included in subtitles." Is it not a convention for subtitling songs? When people speak, why shouldn't the end of a sentence be marked by a full stop?

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
February 18, 2013

Hi Claude, I'm glad you found it useful. I've seen mixed recommendations and examples on the issue of using full stops / periods, but the general sense I'm getting is that they are not used. Do you think I should rephrase that point?

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
February 19, 2013

Dear readers, after some feedback, I've amended the part on including full stops / periods in subtitling.

Dawn Jones
Dawn Jones says:
February 20, 2013

There is no musical note symbol on your keyboard. It is a bit fiddly to do. For music captioning on broadcast TV a hashtag is used at the beginning of each line to denote lyrics

# Like this,
# and again at the end of the sentence at the end of the lyrics/song #

Surely this is much easier? It's an accepted standard on UK TV. I accept it might be different in different countries.

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
February 26, 2013

Hi Dawn, thank you for that recommendation. You're right that it's a little complicated to get the musical note ASCII code on a computer. I'll update that section of the article with your recommendation.

Thu Ya Aung
Thu Ya Aung says:
February 26, 2013

Thanks so much, Seelan. That is greatly useful.

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
February 26, 2013

Sure Aung, I'm very glad to help.

terjemahan
terjemahan says:
March 07, 2013

Hi Seelan, great stuff. I think this page should be subtitled into a few languages!

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
March 19, 2013

Thank you terjemahan. It would be great if this page was translated into more languages. Perhaps we can look into the Indonesian version to start.

Cactus
Cactus says:
April 29, 2013

I'm impressed. You've really raeisd the bar with that.

Dave
Dave says:
November 21, 2013

Very useful, thank you Seelan. One question: for a shot containing important writing, such as graffiti, does one use quotation marks in the subtitle, i.e. "Danger: High Voltage"?

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
November 22, 2013

Hi Dave, quotation marks are usually used for quoted text such as a voice-over reading of lines from a book. Writing such as graffiti are usually displayed with brackets, i.e. (Danger: High Voltage).

Luke
Luke says:
December 10, 2014

Nice article. But I can't help but point out your flat-out incorrect use of "hashtag." # is simply a hash (or pound, or number sign).

Anon
Anon says:
February 04, 2015

Hi. Thanks for your article.

The use of the word "however" is a little confusing in the second sentence:

"Use quotation marks for on-screen readings from a poem, book, play, journal, or letter. However, use quotation marks and italics for offscreen readings or voice-overs."

Do you mean "also use" or should it read "however do NOT use"?

Seelan Palay
Seelan Palay says:
February 06, 2015

Hi there, thank you for highlighting that. We have amended the sentence and removed the word, "However".

Robin
Robin says:
June 25, 2015

Thanks for this. A question: when a quotation continues over several lines, should quotation marks be put in only at the beginning and end of the quotation, or repeated in every line ? In French subtitling, at least, it seems that opening quotes only are used for every new line within the quotation, then closing ones only at the end of the quotation. Can someone advise?

jw
jw says:
February 28, 2017

Hello, did you find the answer to your question? I was searching for the same

Laurie
Laurie says:
July 03, 2015

Hi. I just found out about this site, and i think it will really help me a lot. I'm training for video captioning and subtitling and i'm having a hard time regarding the musical symbol ♪. If i'm opening in divxland subtitler, it is showing ♪. I hope you could help me with this. Thank you so much.

Laurie
Laurie says:
July 03, 2015

Hi. I just found out about this site, and i think it will really help me a lot. I'm training for video captioning and subtitling and i'm having a hard time regarding the musical symbol ♪. If i'm opening in divxland subtitler, it is showing ♪. I hope you could help me with this. Thank you so much.

James D'Angelo
James D'Angelo says:
August 02, 2016

Hi, I'm not sure you still check out the comments on here, but I wanted to ask if there was any convention on uses of brackets. I like to use square brackets to indicate sounds like [birds chirping] instead of using parenthesis. I haven't yet had the need for captioning two separate speakers, but if I did I'd probably also use square brackets. So is there any convention about this? Does it really matter?

Mike
Mike says:
August 31, 2016

Question: You have said to use italics with "Offscreen dialogue, narrator (see Exception 2 below)," but I don't see Exception 2. Would you please explain?
Very helpful website. Thank you.

Mike
Mike says:
August 31, 2016

Question: You have said to use italics with "Offscreen dialogue, narrator (see Exception 2 below)," but I don't see Exception 2. Would you please explain?
Very helpful website. Thank you.

Dave
Dave says:
October 08, 2016

Very helpful, thank you

Dean Lee
Dean Lee says:
November 11, 2016

How do you propose we treat the written word (shown on the screen, such as a title/subtitle) and spoken word that appear at the same time?

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