11 Professional Subtitle Formatting Tips for Translation

April 27, 2021by Alex Owen-Hill
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Subtitle formatting can be a minefield. The wrong formatting could jeopardize all of that hard work, time, and budget that you put into creating and translating your subtitles.

The problem is that every video project is different. Subtitles that would be perfect for one particular video can be unsuitable for another video.

How can you ensure that you are formatting your subtitles properly for your specific video project?

Here are 11 professional subtitle formatting tips when you’re working with translation:

1. Plan your formatting upfront with your provider

When a new client comes to us with a video project, they often want to get started on the translation straight away.

Timescales can be pretty tight in video projects due to all the extra engineering involved at every stage. By the time people involve their translation providers, it’s not uncommon for their video projects to be behind schedule.

Even when you’re in a rush, it makes a huge difference when you plan your subtitle formatting upfront with your translation provider.

A bit of early planning just makes everything run more smoothly.

2. Burned in subtitles or separate files?

A fundamental question that you will need to answer early on is whether you want your subtitles to be burned into the video or you only need a separate file…

  • Burned in subtitles are rendered into the video file itself. This allows you to control exactly how the subtitles will appear on screen, but it also means the viewer can’t turn them off. To create this, your provider will need to receive the final video file in the same quality as you want the localized video to be delivered.
  • A subtitle file (usually in SRT format) is a simple text file that the translator can translate. You have less control over how the subtitles appear but the viewer can also turn them off. To create this, your provider will need the subtitle file and a low-quality video rendering to match timings.

3. Choose underneath or overlapping

Do you want your subtitles to be displayed over the video image or sit underneath?

Some videos already have black lines above and beneath the image, a practice known as “letterboxing.” If this is the case with your video, you will have an option to place the subtitles underneath the video, which keeps them out of the way. You can also choose to add letterboxing to a video if you want to ensure the subtitles don’t interfere with the image.

The alternative is for the subtitles to overlap with the video image. This is the most common option but it does mean that you have to pay attention to how the text interacts with the image.

4. Pick a suitable font size for readability

When selecting the size for your subtitle font, there is a balance to be made between readability and visual appeal. Your subtitles should be big enough to read but not too big that they get in the way of your video content.

You need to make your font size choices upfront as they will affect the translation step. Bigger text will lead to fewer words on the screen, which impacts the formatting and timing of each subtitle.

5. Select a suitable font for subtitles

Times New Roman may be a fine font for your printed report, but it might not be a good option for your specific subtitle project.

Certain fonts are just better suited to subtitling than others. Also, some fonts will work well in particular languages and less well in others.

Some properties to think about when selecting your font are:

  • Readability
  • Appearance
  • Distinctiveness of each letter
  • Uniformity of letters
  • Spacing

6. Be aware of the background

The background of your video will affect the readability of your subtitles. Given that video images often change constantly, this is something you need to pay particular attention to.

For example, consider the situation that you are using white subtitles. During a section of your video, a person wearing a white shirt comes on screen. Suddenly, your white subtitles disappear into their shirt and become unreadable.

7. If in doubt, add outlines, shadows, or boxing

If you have a lot of different colors in your video or you are unsure how the subtitles will be affected by the background, it can be a good idea to opt for one or more of the following formatting options:

  • Outlines — A thin border is placed around each of your font letters and provides some differentiation with the background.
  • Shadows — A shadow is placed just behind the text, giving the impression that the font is floating in front of the video and providing more differentiation.
  • Boxing — This provides the most differentiation by placing a colored box around all of the text.

8. Check the subtitle color contrast

There is a science behind choosing the right color for your subtitles.

You can find out quickly and easily if a particular pairing of font color and background color will be readable by using a tool like this one from WebAIM. This tests color pairings and matches them with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Although this won’t prove your color pairing will be readable in all of the situations that your video will be shown, it’s a good start.

9. Pay attention to on-screen text

The subtitles aren’t the only text that you need to pay attention to when localizing video. On-screen text can affect the localization in at least two ways…

Firstly, on-screen text can affect the readability of subtitles. If the text overlaps the subtitles, both will become difficult or impossible to read. Even if they don’t overlap, viewers may need extra time to read both the subtitles and the on-screen text.

Secondly, on-screen text also needs to be translated. This is an additional step in the localization process and needs to be arranged with your provider upfront.

10. Opt for longer subtitles

The timing of your subtitles is a key factor and will vary depending on the nature of your video and the target audience. For example, BBC user experience experts recommend that videos aimed at children are displayed much slower than those aimed at adults.

Whatever your audience, our project managers recommend that you add more words to each subtitle and keep them on screen for longer. We’ve found this is easier for people to read than having many short subtitles flashing on the screen.

11. Make sure to do the final QA step

When you are creating a video, it can be tempting to try to get it out of the door as quickly as possible. This is especially common if the release date has already been pushed back due to delays earlier in the process.

We highly recommend you take a little bit of extra time to do a final Quality Assurance (QA) step before you release your video to the world.

There are so many moving parts in a video project, especially when that video is being translated. The final QA step can make a huge difference and gives you peace of mind that the video is exactly how you want it to be in all your languages.

Of course, subtitling is only one part of a successful video localization project.

For more tips on how to improve your video localization process in other ways, download a copy of our eBook Video Localization Best Practices.

Download a copy of the eBook by clicking this button:

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Alex Owen-Hill

Alex Owen-Hill helps passion-led companies to communicate more effectively and authentically with their audiences. He has over 10 years of experience in targeted content writing for specialist audiences in a wide range of topics, including science, robotics, presentation skills, storytelling, and language learning. Through his business, CreateClarifyArticulate he empowers companies to communicate with more impact in their presentations and online content.

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