Whenever we read a book written by a foreign writer, we tend to think “What a great writer, he/she writes so well”, without realising that, although the writer is undoubtedly great in the book’s original language, what we are actually reading is the work of the translator, who translated the book into our language.

   In the same way, when we watch a foreign movie with subtitles, we enjoy the movie but never actually realise that we are able to understand and enjoy it thanks to the fact that someone has translated the dialogue for us.


   Although underestimated, subtitling is a peculiar and very interesting form of translation, regulated by its own very specific rules.

   For those of you who are curious about the process that makes it possible for us to understand and appreciate a foreign movie effortlessly, without even realising that we are reading lines in the meanwhile, here is a brief introduction to what subtitling means and how it is done.


   Subtitling is a type of Audio-visual translation (AVT), characterised by its own techniques, rules and restrictions. Its most peculiar restriction is the one of time and space, which strongly distinguishes subtitling from other types of translation, even within the AVT sector.

   A subtitle is made of two lines, containing a maximum of 70 characters – therefore a maximum of 35 characters per line (character meant as any letter, symbol or space).

   For what concerns time, the duration of a subtitle ranges from one to six seconds. Moreover, it must be considered that our average reading speed is about three words per second. This means that, even though the time span of one subtitle might allow it to contain many words, it is still advisable to summarise the content as much as possible and keep the lines short, otherwise the spectator will not be able to read it all.


   Another very important criteria to be considered is the synchronisation of the subtitles with the audio-visual file. The subtitle must match the exact time of beginning and end of the dialogue translated – the subtitle should start and end exactly when the speaking character’s lips start and stop moving, as well as when the audio starts and ends. For this reason, when a movie’s audio and video are not perfectly synchronised, it is then very difficult to create good quality subtitles.

   Moreover, the subtitles should match the time of beginning and end of a scene. It is quite unpleasant when one scene has changed, but the subtitle is still on the screen throughout the following scene.

   Last, but not least, the subtitles should mimic the natural development of oral dialogues, which means respecting grammar rules and punctuation. For example, a subtitle made of two lines should never be cut between a noun and a verb, or between a noun and its adjective.

   For what concerns punctuation, the line should be broken only after punctuation marks, such as commas (if there’s a comma in a broken line, this should appear at the end of the first line and not, for example, at the beginning of the second line). However, commas should never appear at the end of a subtitle, only full stops are accepted. If a subtitle continues in the following scene, then three dots (…) should be used to indicate this. Also, when two people are speaking within the same subtitle, short hyphens (-) should be used to indicate who is saying what.

   Overall, the result should be as fluid and natural as possible, so that the spectator does not even realise that he/she is reading lines while watching the movie.

   Although all these rules and restrictions may seem overwhelming at first, there are many good programs, which make subtitling much easier in every single aspect of the process.

   I personally recommend Aegisub, a free software which has all the necessary tools to make high-quality subtitles and is very easy to use – perfect for beginners.


By Adelina Zarnescu


Di Pasquale G. (2013), Introduzione al sottotitolaggio, Libro autoprodotto (ebook)


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