Subtitling videos: best practices and useful tips

17 April 2023

Video is a very popular format, especially on social media. Thanks to the – often unpredictable – algorithms of social media, videos can go viral and generate millions of global views in a matter of hours. Additionally, as a format, video offers the best of both worlds as it can be used as entertainment as well as a powerful marketing tool to help companies generate leads.

In other words: it’s impossible to imagine a world without video. But did you know that subtitles can take your videos to a whole new level? 

In this blog post, we’ll cover:

  • why you should add subtitles to your videos

  • some subtitling best practices

  • additional useful subtitling tips

watching a video on phone

Why should you add subtitles to your videos?

Adding subtitles to your videos creates immense additional value. They help attract consumers and increase viewing time.
Below, we’ve gathered 4 reasons why you should add subtitles to all your videos from now on. 

1. A better understanding

Adding subtitles to your videos makes your video content accessible to more people. Think of people who are hearing-impaired or non-native speakers. They will be able to understand and consume your content way better.

Additionally, subtitles make it easier to use your videos on an international level. 

2. More engagement

Subtitles draw attention and keep people engaged for longer, which positively impacts your video statistics. For example, a study by Facebook showed that videos with subtitles are shared more often than videos without. Also, adding subtitles to videos increased the average viewing time by 12%.

3. A greater reach

Most people watch videos on their phones and do so without audio. For example, 85% of Facebook users watch videos with the sound off

Public transport, toilets and waiting rooms are the three most popular places to watch videos. By adding subtitles to your videos, you can attract a lot of new viewers. 

4. Better online visibility

Subtitles with an SRT or VTT format can be referenced and analysed by Google. This has to do with SEO, a marketing term you might be familiar with. When talking about videos, we talk about VSEO (video search engine optimisation). Using VSEO, you can improve the ranking of your videos in search engines and on video distribution platforms. 

How do you write subtitles?

Adding subtitles to a video is more complicated than it seems: it goes beyond transcribing the spoken text. Subtitling involves rewriting and adapting dialogues, as well as making them ‘readable’

Is it necessary to write down every word you hear in the video? Should you adopt grammatical errors? And what if one of the speakers uses a certain – you know – stop word?

Below, we share some subtitling best practices

Editorial best practices

  • Grammar and spelling 

Subtitles need to match a video’s content but don’t necessarily need to match perfectly with what’s being said. When writing subtitles, feel free to correct grammatical errors. Also, make sure there are no spelling mistakes. 

  • Style

The biggest challenge in subtitling is converting spoken into written language without making the text feel unnatural. Respect the spoken character, but steer away from using a telegram or text message style. Also, avoid using too many language tics and interjections. Try to find a good balance!  

  • Punctuation 

Punctuation is essential to keep the subtitles understandable. Start all your sentences with a capital letter. You don’t need to use dots to mark the end of every sentence. A better practice is to use dots to conclude ideas. When words need to be censored or left out, add ‘...’ or ‘***’ to replace them.

Exclamation and question marks are important to make a message easier to understand. Commas, colons and semicolons are also useful as they can be used to emphasise ideas.

  • Sounds and design

Use brackets to mark sounds (a smile, a sigh or an outdoor sound). If you have to subtitle other elements, use these symbols:

– person switch in a dialogue 
[ ] voice-over, commentary 
♫ music

Technical best practices 

The aim of subtitles is to help viewers understand the message of a video while watching the action on screen. Subtitles have to support the message, not hinder it.

To achieve this, you have to take into account the following technical elements. 

  • Duration

Every piece of text that is shown on the screen should be visible between 1 and 8 seconds. This is because the human brain needs at least 1 second to read a message and a maximum of 8 seconds to fully process a message.

Wait until a new frame/picture is shown to show the next subtitles.

  • Length

The maximum length for subtitles is 2 on-screen lines. Also, make sure that the subtitles don’t block important visual elements.

The ideal on-screen line/subtitle length is about 40 characters. Try to keep this in mind when writing subtitles. 

  • Synchronisation 

It’s common practice to show a subtitle right before the corresponding line is spoken. If multiple people are talking at the same time, you can choose to leave certain words and sentences out. The most important thing is to make sure that the message or story remains logical and clear.

You can also leave out some words or summarise a message if people are talking too fast. Do make sure to show the subtitles on-screen when the speakers’ lips are moving.

  • Censorship

A subtitle that spans two lines needs to be divided over both lines in a natural way. Don’t separate an article or adjective from a noun, don’t place a relative pronoun at the end of a line, etc. Also avoid using a hyphen to split up a word, as a hyphen is also used to indicate a dialogue. If possible, wait until a new frame/picture is shown to show the next subtitle.

Using subtitles to translate

The rules mentioned above also apply to subtitle translations. However, when translating subtitles, you also face another challenge: creating a translation that is tailored to your target audience.

Below, we’ve collected a few useful tips to help you translate subtitles perfectly:

Switching from one language to another 

Translating subtitles word for word is rarely the way to go. Instead, try to connect sentences to make sure that they are easy to understand and match the technical requirements. 

In some languages, more words are needed to correctly translate ideas. Translations from English to French are a perfect example of this. Therefore, feel free to adapt wordings and phrasings in order to keep the subtitles short and relevant.  

Translating the untranslatable

When translating subtitles you also need to take into account cultural differences. Elements such as wordplay, humour and cultural references are often untranslatable. However, by being creative, you can overcome this hurdle.

The most important thing is to make sure that your subtitles are practical and clear. Even if this means sacrificing nuance, subtlety or references. 

Another cultural reality

Take into account the context in which the speakers find themselves (geographical, social or ideological) to better put their reactions into words. Look for similar examples, expressions, references, etc. to translate their statements. 

Do you need to translate a difficult part? Then always keep in mind the speaking style and context. Use the images/frames of the video as a reference point to lighten up the subtitles. Also, know that you don’t have to translate everything the video shows! Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

Create captivating content

Want to create inspiring videos with subtitles to match? Then don’t hesitate to contact our specialists.

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