When producing video content for customers or potential clients, sometimes your audience is overseas or simply speaks a different language. If this is the case, subtitle translation is an excellent idea. The process is more complicated than slapping words on the bottom of the screen- it involves translation, revisions, and adherence to international subtitling standards to work properly. Thankfully, we have over 28 years worth of experience offering translation and subtitling services for videos.
When Should You Use Subtitles?
For the average subtitling services project, typically we follow the clients’ lead. If they send us a video that already has subtitles, we provide video subtitling translation services. However there are situations where this might not be the best choice.
An effective use of subtitles is when a person is seen speaking on-screen. It’s quite awkward and amateurish to see a person speaking one language and hear the translation in another language. Subconsciously we are trying to match the sound of the words to the movement of the speaker’s lips and it becomes frustrating and even annoying.
Most clients will agree to the use of subtitles in this situation, but at times there are those who insist on what’s called the United Nations method, whereby we hear the first few seconds of the person speaking in his or her native language and then a narrator’s voice quickly fades in as the source language is left barely audible in the background. This approach doesn’t appear to be so annoying to the viewing public.
The Importance of Subtitle Formatting and Standards
International and company standards exist for the amount of words or characters that are allotted in a line of text. The number of characters generally agreed to is 42. An average English word consists of 6 characters that includes 5 letters and a space at the end. Dividing 42 characters by 6 gives us 7 words per line of subtitle. A maximum of two lines per scene is recommended. If there are more than 2 lines of subtitles, most people would not be able to finish reading before the scene ends and the next scene begins.
Let’s analyze the use of subtitles in a English version of a 10 minute video. On average, there are 150 words spoken in normal conversation, that is a delivery not too slow and not too fast. Therefore a 10 minute video would require 1,500 words of text. Assuming that there are 6 words per line of subtitles and that the limit is two lines of subtitles per scene, a 10 minute video would require 125 scene changes.
Many people find this amount of changes difficult and tiresome to read. In addition, when someone is focusing on the subtitles, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on in the video. If one is reading the subtitles, they are missing the images on the screen. If they are looking at the images on the screen, they are not able to read the subtitles at the same time. This creates a real dilemma and most people will tune out and stop watching.
The parameters change somewhat depending on the language that’s being used for the subtitles. Character based languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean (there are others) typically use symbols rather than letters. One character might represent a whole word. For example, a 400 word English subtitle will require 2,400 characters, while the Chinese character count would be 640. This is a dramatic difference.
But we also have to consider the size of the characters compared to the size of the letters. A single Chinese character might be the size of two English letters depending on the font sizes used. There’s a considerable amount of planning that has to be considered when using subtitles.
Which is More Expensive, Voiceovers or Subtitles?
We get this question all of the time. In the long run, they are very close in cost. The ten minute voiceover which would include recording studio rental, audio engineer, professional narrator and final editing would cost around $1,000.
The audio track would be delivered to the client in either .mp3 or .wav format and would be timed to the exact length of the video. The video editor would line up the foreign language audio file with the first audio of the source, lay in the file and violà, the job is done.
Subtitles, on the other hand, would require a video editor who knows how to break the language down into the appropriate lines. The editor would most likely work alongside a native speaker of the language, either in person or remotely, to verify that the lines of text are placed correctly.
Working from a Word document or an Excel file, they would cut and paste the two lines of subtitles into 125 separate scenes. If the editor could cut and past 12 scenes per hour (5 minutes each) it would take approximately 10 hours to complete the job. The fees involved would be for the video studio rental, editor and language consultant.
The advantage of one method over the other would depend on the experience of the people involved. In most cases, the difference in fees would not be enough to choose one method over the other compared to the cost of the entire production.
A Client Subtitle Case Study
Recently we received a request from a client to translate an eight-minute video that describes the function and operation of a newly designed forklift truck that was being used in the logging business.
The machine looked like something out of World War II. It was large, ominous looking and instead of wheels and tires, it rode on heavy duty steel tracks. It didn’t have the typical two pronged forks, but instead, a device that looked like giant tongs that could lift and carry ten tree trunks at a time. It could also navigate mountainous terrain, deep, rugged valleys and cross rivers four feet deep.
Subtitles were used to describe the movement and operation of the machine, but there were also captions naming the essential components of the equipment. Our client decided to use voiceovers for the description of the machine’s operation, as we suggested, and translate the captions. In this manner the viewer could listen to the soundtrack and read the captions at the same time.
No matter which method is selected, “planning ahead” is the most important part of the job. Give us a ring or shoot us an email. At TSI, our experienced translators and project managers have the experience to ensure your video subtitles and translations are done properly.
Francis Semmens is the founder of TSI and author of all blog posts with a focus on translation for clients and translators alike.