The right way to create subtitles: adapt and condense

We did some subtitling work the other day for our friends at Flashframe Digital, who are working for Tim Hortons.

The iconic Canadian donut chain is running a contest called Duelling Donuts / Combat des beignes. The finalist videos – short profiles of Canadians who’ve created some awesome new donuts – were produced virtually overnight, and had to be posted on YouTube in both English and French. So of course they had to be subtitled.


This got me thinking about the right way and the wrong way to create subtitles.

A lot of corporate and educational videos are subtitled or captioned – it’s the least expensive way to create multilingual content. But it’s often done carelessly: a transcript is sent to a translation agency, which simply translates it word for word, and then the new language is cut-and-pasted into the video as subtitles, roughly timed to the original dialogue.

There’s one big problem with that: people don’t read as fast as they listen. Viewers can’t absorb as much from subtitles as they can by simply listening to the original language. In addition, many languages take up to 20% more words than English to say the same thing. So if you subtitle with a translated transcript, the screen ends up full of words that a) obscure the picture, and b) don’t actually get absorbed by the viewer.

The right way to create subtitles, whether for a feature film or for a training video, is to adapt and condense. A good subtitler can find a way to capture the essence of the dialogue in a maximum of 42 characters per line and two lines per subtitle. That person also knows how long to leave each subtitle on screen (up to 8 seconds for a long two-line subtitle, less for shorter ones), and how to break up the text into lines so the viewer can absorb it quickly and accurately. The result is a more accessible, easily understood video. Your audience will thank you.

To talk to us about subtitling your video, drop us a line.

Eric Geringas
Versioning producer. Documentary filmmaker. Factual TV director. Problem solver.