How to Do Good Subtitles: the Golden Rules Guidelines

You want to know the right way to make good subtitles and increase the accessibility of your video ? Here is what you're looking for

November 13, 2020

As you probably know, adding captions to your videos is decisive for content accessibility

If done properly, adding subtitles guarantees your videos to be watched to 90% to completion, compared to 66% of the average video. Scaled to a larger amount, that’s a huge gain!

However, doing subtitles is more complicated than it seems. Transcribing, synchronizing, and translating many audio sequences is particularly difficult, and must comply with very specific standards.

How to Do Good Subtitles: the Golden Rules Guidelines

At Checksub, we’ve been for four years closely watching how video creators work on their subtitles. Whether manually or through automatic software, we’ll show you here the “best practice” to do good subtitles 🙂 .

How to transcribe your video correctly?

One of the most common questions about captions is to know how to do good transcriptions, from speech to text. In fact, it not only requires good listening comprehension, but also a precise method to process. Here we will detail it step by step.

How to create a subtitle file

You may already know that, but if you don’t use an automatic subtitling solution, you need first to create a subtitle file (SRT, Web VTT) that fits some basic formatting.

Here is a reminder of the temporal and textual codes of the SRT format that is supported by almost all types of video platforms:

How to Do Good Subtitles: the Golden Rules Guidelines

What you should remember about this structure is the importance of choosing the right time sequences and synchronizing them correctly with the video. This involves knowing some specific rules.

The golden rules of transcription

There are many recommendations given by official institutions such as the BBC or Channel 4 regarding word-for-word transcription. Following our own experience, here’s what you need to know:

  • When transcribing manually, use tools such as keyboard shortcuts or headphones to focus on the audio.
  • To do subtitle sequence, you should divide your sentences into two relatively equal parts like a pyramid. This roughly corresponds to 40 characters per line (CPL) for the top line and a little less for the bottom line.
  • Always keep an average of 20 to 30 characters per second (CPS). You can figure it out by yourself or use the instructions in your software.
  • A sequence should only last between 1 and 8 seconds. 1 second is the minimum for the brain to read the message. 8 seconds is more than enough to understand it.
  • Start all sequences with a capital letter and cut them logically (complete sentence, grammatical proposal…).
  • Pay attention to punctuation and especially to the spelling of words.
  • Some words may be inaudible or not understandable when listening to them. It is important to use context when reading. Homophones (even phonetics) can sometimes confuse you.
  • If parts of the word are censored or omitted, put …. or *** (like f***)
  • The meta textual indications are defined by symbols: – change of character during a dialogue, [] voice-over, commentary and noises, ♫music, () additional indications. Do not abuse these symbols.
  • You may avoid displaying a subtitle during scene changes or important actions.

Handling audio and video synchronization

Knowing how to synchronize each word sequence with the speech is perhaps the greatest difficulty. Inspired by the workflow of professional subtitlers, here is a method to achieve it efficiently:

  • You may first divide your transcription according to the sentences, and then cut these sentences one by one according to the sequences.
  • You need to define your sequences exactly when the speaker starts speaking. If speakers speak fast, you can try to remove a few words, but not the words at the beginning or at the end of the sentence.
  • Always display subtitles when the speaker’s lips are moving (important for lips reader).
  • Remember to synchronize the text with each participant’s words. In the case of a really confusing dialogue between several people, you may need to select the speech of some people over others. The important thing is to keep a continuity that makes sense.
  • Make sure to display a subtitle at the beginning of a scene and remove it at the end of the scene.
  • Watch multiple times your result to check the fluidity of your subtitles.

Subtitle translations: some advice

Although often outsourced to machine translations or to professionals services, subtitle translation is an art that requires a great deal of rigor. Here is what you need to remember when translating into any language and for any nationality:

  • Do not try to translate a sentence literally. Instead, try to find different expressions that are more understandable to the speaker’s tong.
  • There are languages like Japanese that tend to take up more space than other languages. Try to adapt their wording by creating shorter and more effective translations.
  • Take into account the differences between nationalities of the same language (e.g. us and e.g. from England).
  • Think about register and context in order to understand complicated scenes.
  • When it comes to puns and cultural references, sometimes you have to be creative!
  • Take inspiration from film subtitles that are often made by experts.

How do you customize subtitles properly?

Often neglected, positioning, size, color, font and layout are not useless details. On the contrary, they largely define the legibility and clarity of your subtitles. To choose the right settings, here are some important tips:

  • Subtitles are usually positioned in the center and at the bottom. However, sometimes they can interfere with the visibility of certain information, and you need to move them.
  • Avoid using strong colors such as red or green.
  • You should optimize the size of your subtitles according to the size of the different types of screens (on average 2% of the screen for desktop and laptop computers).
  • The most readable subtitle are white-colored with a transparent black background that adapts to all settings.
  • If you don’t necessarily want differentiating fonts, you may choose non-serif classics such as Roboto, Tiresias, Times New Roman. If you want a little more originality, here you can check a best subtitles font guide.

How to choose between encoded subtitles and open captions?

When you have made your subtitle file, you may wonder how to add your subtitles to your video. Many platforms give you the opportunity to add your subtitle file as a closed caption (CC) afterwards. But there is also the possibility to burn subtitles with specific parameters into your video. It all depends on your objective:

  • With encoded subtitles, you can entirely customize your subtitles, make them immediately available to your audience, and avoid automatic display issues. It is a safe and effective option to increase the accessibility of your content.
  • Non-encoded subtitles are a useful option available on many social networks (YouTube, Facebook…). They save you time and allows your audience to control and customize their display. But more advanced settings such as font formatting are then left out. We recommend this if you want to give your audience more control.

Automatic subtitling: save time with simple solutions

As you can see, making good subtitles is a complex and thorough task. No wonder many companies outsource this process to dedicated and experienced agencies and professionals.

However, in recent years, some fascinating automatic subtitling software has emerged on the market. With technologies such as enhanced speech recognition and translation engine, an ergonomic subtitle editor, and collaborative tools, they save you an enormous amount of time on your video production. Their unique features guarantee you a superior result compared to default solutions like YouTube.

Here we present you the added value of our automatic subtitle solution for video creators

How to Do Good Subtitles: the Golden Rules Guidelines

We have been working for 4 years on an automatic subtitling solution that brings video creators together. Over time, we provide now a tool that saves them time in all aspects of their work:

  • Advanced voice recognition and automatic translation API to analyze your video, including 128 different languages available.
  • A powerful and easy-to-use online subtitle editor
  • A collaborative platform for working with translators, clients, and other partners

The process is simple:

  • Upload your video
  • Indicate the original language and the languages you may want to obtain (there are 128 languages in all).
  • Check the result and make changes individually or with your team.
  • Export the written transcript file and do whatever you want with it. Or encode subtitles into your video

Up to you to know what will help you the most in your subtitling project. We wish good luck! 😉

How to Do Good Subtitles: the Golden Rules Guidelines
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