Thoughts on Subtitles

Subtitling is seriously undervalued in the South African film and television industry. 

In a country with 11 official languages, subtitling is not only used for deaf and hard-of-hearing people but also for the inclusion of the various language groups, because South Africans are not a homogeneous people, nor can everyone speak all the official and unofficial languages. English is therefore often used as the mediating language.

Some of the factors that contribute to the distinctive nature of subtitling:

  • Subtitling is different from most forms of text editing, as the medium is more dynamic.
  • Comprehension and enjoyment of normal text are enhanced for the reader by the ability, if necessary, to re-scan the article. Comprehension of a television programme, however, is typically gained only at the time of viewing.
  • Readers normally have only text to absorb. By contrast, the subtitler must take in simultaneously the action within the television image as well as the information provided by the subtitling.
  • The pace of programmes sometimes means that subtitles cannot reasonably be expected to convey the full range of information contained in the television image. However, deaf and hard-of-hearing people naturally expect to receive as much as possible of the information which is available to the general audience.

Careful and sensitive editing is needed in order to produce subtitles which will suit the intended audience, while still conveying the full meaning of the dialogue or commentary within the limitations set by the pace of the programme.

Guidelines from the ESIST

There is no one single rule for broadcast subtitling and the standards vary slightly from country to country, from one TV channel to another. But some basic rules should of course be respected, such as the standards set by the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (ESIST).

The ESIST promotes screen translation as an additional skill to the qualification of a translator and encourages the creation of innovative courses in screen translation in European higher education institutions. They have developed a dialogue between higher education teachers who offer courses in and on screen translation and persons concerned with the profession of screen translation in the television and film industries. ESIST promotes professional standards in the teaching and practice of screen translation.

  • Subtitlers must always work with a copy of the production and, if possible, a dialogue list and glossary of atypical words and special references.
  • It is the subtitler's job to spot the production and translate and write the subtitles in the (foreign) language required.
  • Translation quality must be high with due consideration of all idiomatic and cultural nuances.
  • Simple syntactic units should be used.
  • When it is necessary to condense dialogue, the text must be coherent.
  • Subtitle text must be distributed from line to line and page to page in sense blocks and/or grammatical units.
  • Ideally, each subtitle should be syntactically self-contained.
  • The language register must be appropriate and correspond to locution.
  • The language should be grammatically correct since subtitles serve as a model for literacy.
  • All important written information in the images (signs, notices, etc.) should be translated and incorporated wherever possible.
  • Given the fact that many TV viewers are hearing-impaired, "superfluous" information, such as names, off-screen interjections, etc., should also be subtitled.
  • Songs must be subtitled where relevant.
  • Obvious repetition of names and common comprehensible phrases need not always be subtitled.
  • The in and out times of subtitles must follow the speech rhythm of the dialogue, taking cuts and sound bridges into consideration.
  • Language distribution within and over subtitles must consider cuts and sound bridges; the subtitles must underline surprise or suspense and in no way undermine it.
  • The duration of all subtitles within a production must adhere to a regular viewer reading rhythm.
  • Spotting must reflect the rhythm of the film.
  • No subtitle should appear for less than one second or, with the exception of songs, stay on the screen for longer than seven seconds.
  • A minimum of four frames should be left between subtitles to allow the viewer´s eye to register the appearance of a new subtitle.
  • The number of lines in any subtitle must be limited to two.
  • Wherever two lines of unequal length are used, the upper line should preferably be shorter to keep as much of the image as free as possible and in left-justified subtitles in order to reduce unnecessary eye movement.
  • There must be a close correlation between film dialogue and subtitle content; source language and target language should be synchronised as far as possible.
  • There must be a close correlation between film dialogue and the presence of subtitles.
  • Each production should be edited by a reviser/editor.
  • The (main) subtitler should be acknowledged at the end of the film or, if the credits are at the beginning, then close to the credit for the scriptwriter.
  • The year of subtitle production and the copyright for the version should be displayed at the end of the film.

Timing and synchronisation

A fundamental function of subtitling is to reduce frustration caused to hearing-impaired viewers by being faced with silent moving mouths. Therefore, all obvious speech should have some form of subtitle accompaniment.

Eye movement research shows that hearing-impaired viewers make use of visual cues from the faces of television speakers in order to direct their gaze to the subtitle area. Therefore, subtitle appearance should coincide with speech onset and subtitle disappearance should coincide roughly with the end of the corresponding speech segment, since subtitles remaining too long on the screen are likely to be reread by the viewer.

The same rules of synchronisation should apply with off-camera speakers and even with off-screen narrators, since viewers with a certain amount of residual hearing make use of auditory cues to direct their attention to the subtitle area.

Leading and lagging

The target point for synchronisation should be at naturally occurring pauses in speech-sentence boundaries, or changes of scene. However, there are bound to be cases where this is either impractical or inapplicable.  

Shot changes

Besides the general recommendation for subtitle/speech synchronisation, there are certain other aspects of the television picture which influence subtitle timing. Subtitles that are allowed to over-run shot changes can cause considerable perceptual confusion and should be avoided. Eye-movement research shows that camera-cuts in the middle of a subtitle presentation cause the viewer to return to the beginning of a partially read subtitle and to start rereading.  In practice, it is recognised that the frequency and speed of shot changes in many programmes present serious problems for the subtitler. A subtitle should, therefore, be “anchored” over a shot change by at least one second to allow the reader time to adjust to the new picture. Shot changes normally reflect the beginning or end of speech. The subtitler should, therefore, attempt to insert a subtitle on a shot change when this is in synchrony with the speaker.

Dealing with visual edits

  1. Avoid inserting a subtitle less than one second before a visual edit and removing a subtitle less than one second after an edit.
  2. Attempt to insert a subtitle in exact synchrony with an edit.
  3. A decision to segment a single sentence into more than one subtitle, to be placed around a camera-cut, should depend on whether the sentence can be segmented naturally and on whether the resulting subtitles can be allowed sufficient display time.

Tone of voice

Where tone of voice is particularly critical to meaning, and facial expression and body language are inadequate to convey the tone, the use of “(!)” and “(?)” immediately following speech can indicate sarcasm and irony as shown below:

No, no. You’re not late (!)

Rapid dialogue techniques

All obvious speech should be accompanied by subtitle information, but under conditions of rapid dialogue, several short subtitles displayed in rapid sequence can result in staccato or ‘machine-gun’ effect. There are two possible solutions for this,  double-text and add-ons.


  1. Double-text can be used when two characters or more speak simultaneously.
  2. Add-ons should normally be preferred when two or more characters speak consecutively and time does not allow individual subtitles.

The total length of either double-text or add-on sequence should never exceed four lines.

Double text

Double text is normally used when more than two characters speak simultaneously and contradict one another.

Double-text can be an infringement of the synchronisation recommendation: the appearance of each subtitle should coincide with the beginning of the corresponding speech segment. 

Have you had lunch?
Yes.                  No.

Both people’s speech is contained within one subtitle.

Add-ons or cumulative titles

The second solution is to use “dynamic” text known as “add-ons” or “cumulative titles”. This is most effective when the two subtitles fit naturally together, for example in a question and answer sequence, or providing the punch line of a joke. In this technique the second part of the title is added on to the first part.  Thus, the appearance of the second part, or “add-on” of the title can coincide with the onset of the second utterance, while the subtitle corresponding to the first utterance remains on screen. In this way, the staccato effect is diminished while still preserving a natural relationship between speech onset and subtitle presentation.

For example, building a full subtitle in three steps:

No... No..
No... No... But that isn’t what I asked for.

A further advantage of add-ons is that they appear more natural when the two corresponding speakers are not shown in the same camera shot.

However, additional reading time is gained only if the gaze of the viewer remains on the subtitle area throughout its presentation. If the gaze of the viewer returns to other parts of the picture before the add-on appears, as can occur among unusually fast readers, the subsequent add-on can cause some perceptual confusion.

In both double text and add-ons, the second part of the text should normally appear on the line immediately beneath the first part.


Sourced from the ITC Guidance on Standards for Subtitling - February 1999

Copyright Mary Carroll and Jan Ivarsson, Endorsed by the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation in Berlin on 17 October 1998



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