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Translation of subtitles: do you know the rules?

In this article we'll talk about the rules in translating subtitles for movies and TV series!

Read this article in: Deutsch, English, Español, Português, Ελληνικά, Русский, العربية, हिन्दी, 中文

Estimated reading time:2minutes

How does the translation of subtitles for movies and TV series work? You certainly already noticed at some point that the spoken word of a movie's character doesn't always match the subtitle. But why?

It isn't really important to translate sentences word for word. For example, if you translate the English expression "piece of cake" into other languages literally, people would not understand what you want to say.

Obviously, not every joke or expression in one language is funny or makes sense in another language. Therefore, it is very important that the translator transmits the message instead of translating something literally that would make no sense.



A good translation guarantees a good understanding of the scene, and sometimes you'll need to change expressions, for which there are rules you need to follow! Context is crucial for understanding. But that does not happen by itself, there are technical details that make a difference for good translation of subtitles:

The Space

  • Subtitles should never exceed two lines. Each line shouldn't contain more than 37 characters. The number of characters per line differs depending on the alphabet applied:
    • 34 - 36 characters for the Greek or Arab alphabet;
    • 35 characters in the Bulgarian, Macedonian and Russian alphabet;
    • 14 - 16 characters in the Chinese alphabet;
    • 12 - 14 characters in the Japanese and Korean alphabet;
  • The text is centered and the line above is always the shorter one, to less disturb the image.
  • The most used font for subtitles is Arial with 32 pixel. You also see Tahoma and Verdana a lot.
  • Italic is used for spoken words or to emphasize a word or title.

The Time

  • Duration of subtitles: they should appear when a character starts talking and should disappear when he or she stops.
  • Synchronous: the precision of subtitles is crucial so that the viewer can clearly distinguish who is saying what.
  • Change of scene: a subtitle should disappear when the scene changes and a new one starts. So every cut works as a limit for your subtitles.
  • Pause in between subtitles: there should be a short break between subtitles, so that the viewer can recognize that a new overlay is being displayed.
  • Reading time: is a problem with fast speakers. In this case you should shorten the spoken word to convey the information in the short period of time.
  • Six-Seconds-Rule: should be respected. It states that the viewer needs six seconds to read a line with 37 characters. This is your maximum insertion time, but it should at least be displayed for one second.
  • Time codes: generates time codes for each film sequence, making it easier to find certain sequences later in the movie or TV series. 

We at alugha can help you with translating your subtitles, dubbing, hosting or marketing of your videos! We have a team of native language speakers! We can turn your videos multilingual, simply write us an e-mail or create your own free account now!

I hope you enjoyed this article. Next week we will dig deeper into this topic and talk about punctuation in subtitles!

Wilgen and the alugha team!


#everyone‘s language

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