In over two dozen years of writing, I’ve faced some challenges—from ghostwriting books about organ donation and childhood sexual abuse to speechwriting for a client with no experience in public speaking. But I recently encountered a first.
My job was to approve subtitles for an entire DVD series. Fortunately, I had to review only the English subtitles—my Korean and Chinese were a bit rusty—but it was difficult because I had never reviewed subtitles, and I wasn’t familiar with editorial standards for subtitles.
So, I googled and “binged” (not to be confused with eating a lot) and had little success in finding standards or guidelines for writing subtitles. Several media companies posted information about FCC guidelines for closed captioning, but subtitle rules remained somewhat of a mystery.
Going into my assignment, I was pretty sure about a few things:
- Subtitles should reflect the actual film dialogue.
- Viewers hear more quickly than they read.
- Words should be spelled correctly.
- No more than two lines should be displayed at any time.
- Breaks should occur at natural speaking pauses, usually reflected by commas or periods in the original film script.
- Subtitlers sometimes insert nonsensical words and keep right on going. (That bit of info came from personal observation at the gym.)
But I discovered a few more general rules for subtitles during my search:
- The general rule is no more than 45 characters per line for NTSC video and 34 characters for PAL video.
- Arial is the standard font for most English subtitles.
- Subtitles are displayed for an allotted time of about 1.5 seconds per subtitle.
- Dialogue is often whittled for the main point.
- The language should be grammatically correct.
- Use center justification for film and either center justification or left justification for TV or video.
- The process uses “spotters” who note timecodes and dialogue.
- Filmmakers are considering ways to incorporate subtitles into the artistry of the film.
- Timing is all-important for the artistry of the film.
- Subtitles should reflect the rhythm of the dialogue.
- It’s difficult to find people who are good at doing subtitles. One blogger said most of the proficient subtitlers were in Europe.
- The recommended style guides include The Elements of Subtitles, by D. Bannon, and Subtitling, by Jan Ivarrson and Mary Carroll.
I’m still a bit fuzzy about a myriad of typical subtitle hurdles. How do you handle those grammar challenges that editors clean up on a daily basis? How closely should capitalization and punctuation in subtitles follow written rules of grammar? Should I just let go of hyphens and commas?
Should I relax my picky standards? Probably. But I discovered that I can prevent some of the subtitling issues if I take a few steps before the subtitler goes to work:
1. Provide an error-free copy of the final script to the subtitler.
2. Give the subtitler a style guide and list of unusual names, terms, and references.
3. Discuss expectations at the outset concerning correct grammar, language usage, silent scenes, identification of speakers, compression of dialogue, and perception of errors.
Ultimately, I wonder—do inaccurate subtitles reflect poorly on the filmmaker or do viewers dismiss them as sloppy spotters, transcribers, or subtitlers? Will misspellings and inconsistencies in capitalization prompt the viewer to look at the end product as poor quality? It seems my research has left me with lingering questions.
Will viewers look at the mistakes and respond like me? When the nonsensical words flash across the screen while I’m pedaling on the stationary bike, I laugh out loud. “Behemoth will now collapse due to gravy stress.” I also spend the next 30 minutes of my workout trying to figure out what the announcer really said when I read the subtitles “…across the ice and Samaritans and speedo you.”