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A Guide to Writing Subtitles

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A Guide to Writing Subtitles

A subtitle is a textual version of what is said onscreen; often used in foreign movies to translate languages or in science fiction films to translate a lost or imaginary language to real language.

To begin, the subtitler should have the film on media (VHS, DVD, etc.), a copy of the production and, if possible, a copy of the dialogue list.

Everything in the film should be subtitled. Even road signs, billboards, and anything else written on-screen that is relevant to the story and will help the viewer understand the plot.

The translated subtitle must not exceed the length and duration of the time that is available (for example, the number of frames). This means that subtitling could involve a good amount of paraphrasing.

The basic format of the subtitle should follow the following:

• three seconds are needed to read a line,

• a single subtitle showing should not exceed two lines, and

• a line of subtitles should not exceed 37 characters.

Translating/paraphrasing/summarizing the text to fit in the parameters and restrictions of subtitles can be one of the most important and difficult aspects of writing subtitles.

The goal of the subtitles is not to translate word for word. Instead, it is to make the viewer understand the plot and what is being said in order to understand the film. The subtitler must be faithful to the sense of the content, which in most cases is very difficult because we have a limit of 2 lines per single subtitle and 37 characters per line. The key is to remember that the subtitler must summarize and paraphrase the words of the film in such a way that the viewer will still understand the plot, and comedic/dramatic/etc. value of the scene.

The subtitler should give the most accurate translation and interpretation of the original text into the target language in the fewest number of words possible. The subtitler should know and decide what to deliver to the audience in order to carry out and insure understanding of the plot and of the main points. It is ok to leave out some content as long as it will not prove particularly important or relevant to the plot later on.

Translating jokes can be rather difficult and tricky. Jokes that are funny in one language often don’t make sense in other languages, especially things like plays on words, puns, etc. The best thing to do in a situation like this would be to brainstorm and find a similar joke of similar comedic value to place in the subtitle that renders the same comedic atmosphere or feeling.

The general rule of thumb is to not use words not listed in the dictionary when writing subtitles. Part of the role of the subtitle is to serve as a model for literacy, and therefore they should be grammatically correct.

The format and consistency of the subtitles is very important.

A subtitler must use consistency when writing subtitles. It would be difficult for the viewer and unnecessarily confusing for them to see differences in things like numbers, measurements, names, nicknames, etc. For example, if the subtitler chooses to use numerical numbers, then he/she should not change to written letters during the course of the film.

Some consider italics are not necessary, but usually subtitles use italics for: off-camera speech, text being read, the TV, the radio, songs, book or movie titles, and foreign words.

Line division and placements are crucial to the appearance of the film to the viewer, as well as the ease of viewing for the viewer.

Whenever two lines of unequal length are used, the upper line should preferably be shorter to keep as much of the image free as

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