Learning how to add subtitles to a movie is an important aspect in making content travel throughout countries and languages. It’s important to understand that there are two broad aspects to this process. For one, there’s the obvious technological aspect. Apart from that, however, there are some tips and tricks to bear in mind to make sure the subtitles are the best they can be.

How to Add Subtitles to a Movie Without Compromising Content?

First of all, let’s try to understand a simple fact: Adding subtitles is not as simple as it sounds. The process seems fairly easy. There’s a movie in one language that needs to be made available to an audience in another language. There are several alternatives here:

Dubbing and Subtitles

Surely, it’s possible to completely dub the movie. Dubbing, as we know, replaces the voices of the actors completely. The process is quite lengthy. First, the team must take the original script and completely translate it. Then, they must assemble a team of talent.

With such voice actors, they must then create all the speaking parts again. This way, the end result is a movie that is spoken in the necessary language.

Subtitles and Closed Captioning

Adding subtitles to a movie is much simpler than dubbing. It’s also evidently less costly. The process is cheaper, without the need to hire additional talent.

Closed captioning, on the other hand, is quite a different thing. This is usually a complete transcription of the dialogue, as well as the sound effects, musical cues, and other audio information. They’re very useful for people who may be deaf. Alternatively, closed captioning is useful when the sound of the movie has to be muted.

When learning how to add subtitles to a movie, we should remember that these are usually reserved for the dialogue. In the case of captions, the process is a bit longer. Here, we must not only translate a script or the script’s dialogue. In the case of captions there is the need to transcribe many things.

The Basic Process of How to Add Subtitles to a Movie

The Script

The essential material when we try to figure out how to add subtitles to a movie is the script. When attempting to create great subtitles we need to use a first-rate translator to translate the script.

This first step is extremely crucial. There are, of course, several alternatives. The first one is to simply translate the whole script. As we know, a script is made up of several things, including action descriptions, dialogue, etc. Consider the following extract from the opening minutes of Seinfeld, Season 5, Episode 22, ‘The Opposite’:

* We see a sad-looking George staring out at the ocean. Then cut to the office of Mr. Lippman, where Elaine and Mr. Lippman are toasting in champagne.

Mr. Lippman: To your promotion.

Elaine: Oh, thank you! (They drink) Oh, thank you, Mr. Lippman, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. I mean, of course I deserve it.

Mr. Lippman: Well, you’re really on your way now.

* Elaine screams with joy and Mr. Lippman coughs violently.

Elaine: You really oughtta do something about that cold.

* Cut to Monk’s

Note that there are several things that make up the sequence including dialogues, action description, and even a bit of editing instructions. When figuring out how to add subtitles to a movie or television show, there are some things we can do here. It’s possible to translate all of the items of the script or to go directly for the dialogue. Ideally, a translator will translate the script from start to finish. This is usually the wisest alternative as the translator really has to get a sense of the whole thing.

how to add subtitles to a movie

The Challenges of Translation

Now that we’re analyzing the translation of the script, we really should take a minute to solve a few of the problems of translation. Things are not as simple and when attempting to translate a script and figure out how to add subtitles to a movie or television show, some things may go wrong.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of translation is maintaining (1) precision and (2) naturalness. This tension has often been expressed as one between fidelity and transparency. Evidently, it’s more pronounced or less so, depending on what’s being translated. A legal translation of a contract, for instance, will seek precision above all else even if the translation does not sound very beautiful. On the contrary, a translation of a screenplay, for example, will have to be precise, of course, but tremendous efforts must be made to make it sound great and natural for an audience.

When figuring out how to add subtitles to a movie or television show we have to strive to create a great translation. This will mean that we’ll be looking to create a script translation which sounds more natural and keeps a certain aesthetic and perhaps strays from literal precision. Let’s try to examine this a bit more.

Translate Aesthetically and Not Literally

Let’s consider the issue of precision vs naturalness in translation a bit more. Consider the following extract from Season 3, Episode 5, ‘The Library’:


JERRY: Yes, I called before. I got his notice in the mail.

LIBRARIAN: Oh, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, Uh, this case has been turned over to our library investigation officer Mr. Bookman.

KRAMER: Bookman? The library investigator’s name is actually, Bookman?

LIBRARIAN: It’s true.

KRAMER: That’s amazing. That’s like an ice cream man named, Cone.

LIBRARIAN: Lt. Bookman has been working here for 25 years so I think he’s heard all the jokes.

This is a difficult passage to translate and be included in subtitles. When learning how to add subtitles to a movie or television show we’ll inevitably encounter sections such as this one.

Evidently, the humor in this passage relies on the wordplay with the name “Bookman” and the irony of this person working at a library. If we were to translate this into Spanish, trying to create subtitles, we’d be in a bit of a bind. The humor must be preserved but we’ll notice we may not do so literally.

We can’t really translate this word literally into Spanish, since there is no real name like “Hombredelibros” or something like that. We can’t really leave the name in English, because a Spanish-speaking audience will not understand the humor. The answer is to translate aesthetically, and not quite literally. We could translate “Mr. Bookman” as “Señor Libreros”. This word “Libreros” means literally “Booksellers”. Although it’s not quite the same as “Bookman” it can work. It’s also a plausible last name in many Spanish-speaking countries. The comedy is preserved and a good subtitle can be created.

To Localize or Not to Localize, that is the question

When we try to figure out how to add subtitles to a movie, the issue of localization is important. Localizing content basically means making that content (usually a translation) accessible to the audience in a particular place.

Imagine that we’re translating the Seinfeld scripts mentioned earlier for a Spanish audience. Localizing means creating translations that are pleasing for each individual audience. For instance, creating subtitles for a Peruvian audience, a Colombian audience, etc. Since this is very complicated and costly, the best alternative is to translate and create subtitles in a neutral form of the language, in this case, Spanish.

Assets of a Great Translator and Subtitle Creator 

Bilingualism vs. Translation

It’s simply not enough for someone to be bilingual in, say, English and Spanish. The first challenge is finding a translator trained and experienced in Spanish translation, and not just a bilingual person.

There are some things a bilingual person may do, to prove their ability to take on a translation project. Education and training are useful. There are also a number of certifications that may be acquired, to prove a proficiency in translation. These vary, depending on the country of residence of the aspiring translator. Finally, experience will teach a translator the subtleties of the craft and permit tacking more difficult projects later on.

Cultural Knowledge

A good translator must not only be bilingual, but also bi-cultural. A big part of a successful translation means understanding the differences between the two languages and cultures being translated. A poor cultural understanding may be very problematic.

Conclusions on How to Add Subtitles to a Movie

When all’s said and done, there are some things to remember. As we were able to glean throughout this article, translating a script may be tricky. There is a balancing act between precision and naturalness, but there is definitely a predilection towards naturalness in this particular case.

Indeed, the best policy when translating scripts to create subtitles, is to try to be literally precise, first and foremost. At times, however, such focus on literal precision may be problematic because the intent of the original writing is lost. This is why this precision must be sprinkled with naturalness, so to speak, to the degree that it becomes necessary. The objective must always be to make the original writing and the original writer’s intent understood by the audience.

In this sense, when figuring out how to add subtitles to a movie, the key question to ask ourselves is: Is this being understood by the audience? Or is an emphasis on literal precision detracting from such understanding? At the end of the day, if there must be a choice between literal precision and being understood, we must confidently choose the latter.

How to Add Subtitles to a Movie: A Simple Blueprint!

Let’s try to wrap things up by offering a simple blueprint to create subtitles:

  1. The first intuition in a translator creating subtitles must be to translate precisely and literally.
  2. This literal precision, however, must be scrutinized by asking: Does it transmit the original expression? Is the intent of the original writer coming through? If the translation, albeit literal, doesn’t convey the meaning of the original writing, then we must keep going.
  3. Here, we must ask ourselves, what is the least amount of change we can do to the phrase or dialogue to make it transmit meaning? We must try that.
  4. If we’re still not close to the meaning intended, then it’s necessary to use a bit more creativity to achieve that meaning and naturalness. The idea is to look for an equivalent expression, even if it’s different from the original. Transmitting meaning is the key, even if we have to stray from literal precision.
  5. In some cases, some words will be impossible to translate, either literally or aesthetically. In this case, it’ll be best to leave the word as is.

The Bunny Studio Way

A great bet when figuring out how to add subtitles to a movie or other content is to have an expert help out. Bunny Studio has a roster of talent who can translate a script or transcribe audiovisual content and then create subtitles. Comprehensive closed captioning is also possible and much more, depending on the needs of the project.

Simply go to the Bunny Studio website, click on ‘Chat With Us’ and write us. The Bunny Studio staff will immediately assist you and the process can begin!