Ah, Americans. All of them love watching dubbed shows, right? After all, there’s nothing quite like the flavor of a down-home accent to make the foreign more familiar, right? But, believe it or not, this trend is changing in favor of more authenticity and diversity. Like it or not, the world of English subtitles is here to stay, my friend.

The success of hit foreign-language shows like Dark on Netflix is just the beginning. All over the world, the dominance of foreign-language productions is opening the playing field up for more foreign-language productions. And it’s not just TV shows, oh no; video games, movies, animated features, and even social media videos are hitting the multi-language button. But does this mean an inevitable turn towards English subtitles? Yes, and no. While dubbing will probably dominate the prime-time for years to come, subs have their place and their use.

Today, we’ll learn about English subtitles, their uses, benefits, and pros and cons vs. dubs. Moreover, we’ll learn about how and where to hire high-quality subbers that know their stuff. Hey, with the market oversaturated with “talent,” it’s not that easy to sort the wheat from the chaff. I’m sure you’ll come across many vendors that look OK from the outside, but can’t quite deliver. I’ll give you a few pointers to keep you on the right track and avoid any nasty surprises.

All right, let’s get a move on! Time’s a-wastin’!

What Are Subtitles and Captions?

The terms are used interchangeably, but they’re not always the same. Captions are mere transcriptions and on-screen text displays of what the characters are saying, synced to the original audio. Sometimes they might also include information about music and sounds to help people with hearing disabilities follow the action. But that’s just not everything when it comes to English subtitles.

In “Subtitling Jobs: Where to Find ‘Em?” I wrote:

But, subtitles are often part of the world of audiovisual translation. Let’s say you’re watching a TV show in Danish, but you only speak English. If your cable or streaming provider has done their homework, you’ll have the option to switch on subtitles in your language. These subtitles actually have a few advantages over a total dub effort.

  • They preserve the original cultural identity of the product.
  • They’re easy, cheap, and quick to produce. You could conceivably have a full episode of a show subtitled in less than a day.

So, English subtitles are, basically, captions translated into your native language. But what are the limitations of English subtitles as a form of audiovisual translation? What are the constraints and pitfalls of taking this route?

What Makes a Good Translation?

Subtitles have to actually take into account several factors. Often, translators have to concern themselves only with maintaining faithfulness to the original, and making sense in the target language. This is a process known as localization, where idiomatic phrases, slang, and culturally appropriate phrases are translated into culture-appropriate versions. This is the bare minimum that’s required for English subtitles.

You see, literal translation has many dangers. A translator worth their salt is not a robot or a calculator; the whole idea behind their profession is to bridge the gap between cultures in a manner that’s organic and meaningful. Therefore — even though they’re not technically striving to — there’s a certain factor of creativity and problem-solving inherent in a translator’s job. While they have to be incredibly proficient readers in the source language, they have to be even better writers in the target one.

A translator’s job is about interpreting as much as just translating. A perfectly meaningful phrase in Spanish may sound absolutely bonkers in English. If you’ve got experience reading English subtitles, you’ve probably come across more than your share of clunky, out-of-place phrases. Let’s take a look at what one such literal translation may look like:


PEPE: Él me dio el gusto.

Bad Translation: 

PEPE: He gave me the taste.

See what I mean? There’s a perfectly good translation possible there that conveys the meaning without translating word-for-word. To wit:

PEPE: He indulged me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this crop up in English subtitles. To an audience who doesn’t know better, it may get a pass. But, to a translator, it’s pretty much a cardinal sin.

english subtitles

Other Limitations of English Subtitles

Well technically it’s not just about English subtitles, but subtitles per se. Now that we’ve established that subbers need to be great translators, what else is making their job difficult? In “Swimming Through the Sea of Subtitling Services,” I noted this very important information:

This is a form of translation is also constrained by time and space. With a maximum limit of 70 characters, subtitles are known as a subordinate translation. That means that achieving a perfect translation may sometimes come second to displaying readable amounts of text. Subtitles can appear from one to six seconds on screen, depending on the total word count. The average reading speed is 3 words per second; that means that 2 lines and 70 characters allow for a maximum of 12 words.

So, this adds a little bit more difficulty to the equation. But that’s not all. Great English subtitles have to:

  • Be Unintrusive

Ever seen subtitles that take up half of your screen? Yeah, me too, and trust me, nobody likes it except maybe Mr. Magoo. Subtitles are a necessary evil, not the main course, so it’s always important to keep them short, to the point, and covering as little of the original image as possible.

  • Be Clear at All Times

What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve ever tried to read white subtitles against a white background, you know what I mean. I mean, sure, typography (font), lettering, size, and space are very important. But if you don’t also factor in color, then you’re going to run into issues once in a while. It’s amazing to see how many great subtitling experiences can be ruined by something so simple. I’ve even seen movies in theaters — with supposedly professional English subtitles — where this happened!

If your subtitler is not good enough to put in a black box for contrast where it counts, they’re not doing their job right. They should always be mindful of legibility first and foremost.

  • Take Into Account Scene Changes and Transitions

This is one of the secret banes of subtitlers. While sometimes it’s impossible to not maintain subtitles between shot transitions, it’s not always advisable. Essentially, you’re asking the viewer to maintain their focus between two things, and that’s a tall order for non-caffeinated, everyday people. Therefore, good English subtitles will factor in shot changes in order to avoid disorienting the viewer too much. If necessary, the subtitler will make the subs appear a tad after the characters start speaking in order to avoid making the audience get whiplash.

What do English Subtitles Entail?

Subtitlers have to follow a process, as does everyone else. If they don’t, then they’re probably not doing their job right. Hey, that’s all well and good for amateurs, but if you’re ever thinking about hiring a pro, better make sure that they’re doing things by the book.

The process to get great English subtitles is as follows:

  • Spotting

Where does the audio go in and out? After making a note of that, they also have to keep in mind scene and shot transitions to avoid invasiveness. Less is more, and timing is everything.

  • Translation

This is where we come to the real meat of the issue. As I wrote above, this is much more than just throwing words at the wall until something sticks. A great translator will attempt to do a thorough localization job along with their translation. The end result should read as if it’s being uttered by native characters. You don’t want to take viewers away from the experience, and the more you mess up this part, the more that’ll happen. This also means taking special attention to culturally sensitive issues; what flies in a very liberal society may not be appropriate in another.

  • Proofreading and Correction

No one gets it right the first time, no matter how good they are. Regardless of the quality of the first draft of English subtitles, there will be changes. Moreover, this stage is not just about proofreading, but about timing issues and other minute adjustments. A perfect translation may be overlong, or not be readable for the average person. Is it back to the drawing board? Not quite, but it’s guaranteed that the subtitler will have to rework some parts. That’s as much a fact of life as death and taxes (unless you’ve got your money in a tax haven).

  • Simulation

Are we living inside of a hologram? Is this the real life? Who knew subtitling would be such a philosophical profession. Well, it ain’t. This part of the process just means running tests to see whether the final product reads and flows correctly. Kind of underwhelming, yeah, but we’re talking about English subtitles, not quantum physics at MIT, bucko.

So, Where do I Find Great Subtitlers?

I’m not going to give you the runaround. Sure, you can try freelancing platforms to your heart’s content, and there’s some world-class talent in there. But if it’s quality and comfort you’re after, just throw your lot in with the folks at Bunny Studio. It’s easy, it’s quick, and the platform is populated with talented, vetted freelancers that receive QA oversight and guidance for every project. We’ve tried to leave nothing to chance so you can have the best user experience possible.

Trust me, we’ve got the best team of subtitles around so you can get excellent, native-level English subtitles that are perfectly synced every single time. Give us a try, say “Wow” at the results, and don’t work with another platform ever again. When you put it that way, it’s pretty easy, huh?