Below, you will find some strategies useful in translating subtitles. This article is an extension of the OTP Learning Series tutorial on how to translate in the Open Translation Project. If you wish to learn about creating transcripts (same-language captions) for TEDx talks, see this guide. If you have have translated at least 90 minutes of talks and feel you can help other translators by reviewing their work, see this guide on reviewing subtitles.
- 1 How to create good subtitles
- 1.1 Remember subtitles represent speech
- 1.2 Spelling and punctuation
- 1.3 Subtitle length and reading speed
- 1.4 Literal translation
- 1.5 Line breaks
- 1.6 Language-specific errors
- 1.7 Meaning
- 1.8 Specialized vocabulary
- 1.9 Units of measurement
- 1.10 Culture-specific items
- 1.11 Sound information
- 1.12 Title and description standards
- 1.13 Style
How to create good subtitles
Remember subtitles represent speech
Don't use translator's notes (in parentheses or otherwise). Subtitles are meant to represent speech and the speaker doesn't speak in parentheses. In very rare cases, if you really need to explain something, you can paraphrase what the speaker is saying, e.g. when they say "I work at XYZ," you can translate it as "I work at the XYZ lab," if "XYZ" is commonly known in the original language as the name of a lab.
Try not to use language used only in writing. In most languages, there are some words and phrases that are used only in writing, ones that almost no one would use in a talk, even if they were speaking formally. Do not use those in translation. Bear in mind that our style guidelines state that you should strive to emulate the speaker's style. Don't try to make your translation sound too formal if the speaker's style is not very formal in the original.
Spelling and punctuation
Install a spell checker for your browser (all the major browsers support this; you can also install spellchecking dictionaries for several languages). Be careful not to leave any spelling mistakes that the spellchecker will miss, e.g. "their are" instead of "they are." Make sure you haven't left any double spaces in your subtitles.
Read about punctuation rules for your language. Do not copy English punctuation directly. Very often, punctuation in your language will differ. Mistakes in punctuation often distract the viewer and can even change the meaning of the subtitle. Note that you can end the subtitle in a comma or a period.
Subtitle length and reading speed
In the Amara editor, you can see the reading speed (characters / second) value for every subtitle, as well as the number of characters. For languages that use the Latin script, the reading speed should not exceed 21 characters/second, and the line length should be no more than 42 characters, with 84 as the total maximum subtitle length (if a subtitle goes over 42, you need to break it into two lines). Please watch this tutorial about subtitle length and reading speed for useful examples.
Note: one subtitle can't contain more than 2 lines of text.
Subtitles with line length, subtitle length or reading-speed issues have a red exclamation mark in the editor. To see how important the reading speed is, when you are done with your translation, try watching the talk without the sound on. This will force you to focus on reading and seeing how fast or easily you can read the subtitles. Bear in mind that the subtitles we create should be useful for any kind of viewer, including people who do not know any English. It may seem easier for you to read the subtitles because you can follow the original, and watching without the sound on also helps with this. This is very important because other people do not know the text like you do, and may not read as fast as you do, so they will need more time.
Ways of ensuring good reading speeds
- Remove fluff which does not add to the meaning, for example: Err, Well, very, Anyway,...
- Remove repetitions. If something is obvious from the context then there is no need to say it.
- Break the lines/end the subtitles differently: move part of the subtitle to the next or previous subtitle that displays for a longer time but is shorter in the original. More about line-breaking here. Note: be careful not to move anything around if the item you are moving refers to something on the screen (e.g. to a slide that pops up as the subtitle appears on the screen). In such cases, you should try to keep the subtitles synchronized with what happens in the video.
- Find shorter synonyms or find a more common, thus easier to process, synonym. Simplify the syntax (e.g. "I have been told to do so by the boss" --> "The boss told me to do so").
Learn other compression strategies here.
- If compression doesn't work, extend the duration of the subtitle. Generally, you should try to synchronize the timing of the subtitles with what is being said, but in cases where compression really doesn't help, extending the duration a little is fine. If you need to, you can have the following subtitle begin a little later, to make enough time to extend the duration of the previous subtitle for a good reading speed. Of course, you can often combine the two strategies: compress the translation as much as possible, and then extend the duration if compression alone didn't completely solve the reading speed issues. Note: do not start the subtitle more than about 100ms before the equivalent bit of speech is heard, as this gives the viewer a weird sense of precognition and disconnect when they see the current subtitle doesn't match the body language of the speaker.
- You can sometimes merge two consecutive subtitles to help improve the reading speed. You should never combine the end of one sentence and the beginning of another in a single subtitle. However, if the consecutive subtitles are part of the same sentence, you can merge them to create a single subtitle with a total reading speed that does not exceed 21 characters / second. To merge subtitles, copy the text from the second subtitle, delete that subtitle, paste that text into the first subtitle, and extend the duration of the first subtitle to cover the resulting gap.
Do not translate literally. Think: Would a native speaker of my language say it like I just wrote it, or would they use a different phrase to explain the same meaning? Does it sound natural? Make sure not to mimic English word order.
Rule of thumb: If a line could be used as an answer to a question on its own, then it is good. Sometimes, you can move part of the subtitle (e.g. a dangling article at the end) to the next one. Try to make your subtitles complete units of text and meaning.
Navigate to your language in the sidebar of this page and see if there is a list of common errors available. If not, search online for a guide to the most common errors in your language. You can then create a "Useful links" OTPedia page in your language and add the resources that you have found.
Think: What does the speaker mean? Is the message clear? Do I understand? Could I explain it myself? If there is anything unclear in the original (like an idiom), never guess the meaning. Research online and ask around until you are confident that you know what the speaker meant.
Do your research. Proper names and terminology are very rarely translated in a straightforward way. The easiest way to do it is to check the term in English Wikipedia and then navigate to your language (e.g. to find the translation of "porcupine," go to the article on porcupines in English and then navigate to your language's version). You can also try the KudoZ term archive, and ask a new question if you can't find anything in the available answers. Also remember that proper names (of people or places) may not be spelled the same way in your language as they are in English (for example, Istanbul in English, but Estambul in Spanish). Finally, make sure to research unfamiliar names of people to find out what gender they are (to properly refer to them using pronouns like "he/she" and other gender-based grammatical features of your language). To learn more about searching for terms, watch this video.
Units of measurement
To convey the meaning and sense of scale, convert units to ones commonly used in your culture (e.g. miles to kilometers). Be careful not to mix up the names of numbers (like "billion" - more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_and_short_scales) and use the correct character for the decimal point (a comma or a period, depending on the rules in your language).
Jokes, names of products, companies, famous people etc. Make them easily understood for your audience by either explaining them. For example, if Mr. Smith is recognized as a businessman in the USA because of a cartoon he was in, in your translation, instead of using just the name, you may describe him as "Mr Smith, a businessman." If the speaker is using the proper name as only an example of a category of things, in your translation, you can refer to the general category only, and skip the proper name (e.g. when the speaker says "Wendy's," in some contexts it may better to translate that as "a fast food chain"). Jokes and puns should still be funny, even if you have to achieve it by changing them a bit. You don't want the audience to wonder why everyone is laughing.
Make sure that the sound information for the Deaf/hard-of-hearing, like (Applause) or (Music), is included in the translation. Look at a few other talks to see the most common way people translate those items in your language (so that there is one translation of (Applause) in all the talks, not three different synonyms). Identify off-camera speaker changes. To learn more about handling sound representation, see this guide.
Title and description standards
Each TEDx talk comes with a title and description added by the TEDx organizer, which are imported into Amara from YouTube. However, these sometimes contain too little or too much information and may not conform to the formatting standards described below. In these cases, you are expected to edit them before you submit your transcription.
Note: The language of the title and description should match the language of the talk. Do not put English titles and descriptions on non-English talks.
The standard title format uses the talk’s title, the speaker’s name and the TEDx event’s name, separated with the vertical bar (pipe) character (with a space before and after it):
On being a young entrepreneur | Christophe Van Doninck | TEDxFlanders
If the title is formatted differently, modify it to match the standard format. Do not add the event’s date to the title.
If the title is missing, it's OK to just leave the speaker's name, but consider coming up with a title on your own or contacting the organizer or speaker for a title suggestion.
The description should consist of a short overview of the talk. Remove all links to external websites (unless they represent the speaker’s organization that the talk is about). If the description also contains the speaker’s bio, you can keep it in, but the general text explaining what the TEDx program is should be left out (“In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events…”).
In TED-Ed videos, don't leave out the link to the full version of the lesson and the credit line at the bottom.
The description of TEDx talks may also contain the following disclaimer, which should be kept in and translated:
This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences.
Here, you can find model translations of this disclaimer in various languages. If you can't find your language, consult with a Language Coordinator and send the model translation that you came up with to email@example.com.
While reviewing, if the change you want to make is preferential and the original translation is just as good, you should not change it to your preference. You can contact the translator about it and explain the reasons for the change you want to suggest. If there are two things that are both correct, and you can't agree, try to agree on the best version using outside resources. This guide contains a few tricks that will help you find an authoritative translation online.