What does it mean to translate subtitles? How do you know if you have done a good job? What are the best practices for new translators?

Preserve Meaning

The most important task in any translation work is to preserve meaning from one language to another. Direct translation or “word-for-word” translation doesn’t always work, which can result in some funny translations. Some words or phrases in the original language won’t have a matching word or phrase in your target language. Good translators find something that captures the meaning, tone, and purpose of the speaker. You might need to paraphrase or adjust your translation to better connect your audience with the subtitles.

Audience-First Focus

After you know how to translate the subtitles, the next step is to make sure that your subtitles are readable. While creating or reviewing your subtitles, take a few steps to make your translation work for the final audience. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would you be able to follow the plot of the video if it was muted? 
  • Read your subtitles out loud and pause at the line breaks. Are your line breaks natural? 
  • Can you read the whole subtitle before the next one comes? 
    • For most languages: up to 25 characters per second
    • For Japanese, Chinese, and Korean: up to 10 characters per second
  • Do your subtitles cover too much of the screen?
    • Aim for 1-3 lines per subtitle

Do Your Research

Good translators learn how to research. Accepting that research is a part of the job can give you a head-start with technical content, advertisement materials, and more. Imagine translating subtitles for a video, submitting it, and then finding out that you spelled the brand name wrong through the whole video! Doing a little research about the content that you are translating goes a long way.

Focus on Native Languages

It might be tempting to learn a new language by translating subtitles. But there is a possibility that your “practice” translation could hurt someone’s chances to understand a video. The highest quality subtitles come from people who translate into their native language or “mother tongue.” And there are easier ways to learn languages anyway! It’s best to stick with the languages that you are confident in and build your skills and experience there. 

Go the Extra Mile

After you become an expert translator, you might look for the next step. And for many, that next step is localization. If your native language has multiple regional dialects (like Parisian vs. Canadian French), then you can learn how to localize content for those regions. You can localize content by converting common measurements to make sense to your local audience: 12 vs 24 hour clock, currency, miles vs kilometers, and others.

Make the Amara Editor Work for You 

The Amara Subtitle Editor is free for all users to caption, translate, or review subtitles for online videos. And there are several tools that are great for both old and new translators

While you are translating subtitles, the original language is visible in the reference panel. This gives you an additional reference so you don’t have to rely only on the sound of the video. If the speech is unclear or there is background noise, it’s good to have a backup! 

You can also copy the timing from the original subtitles for easier synchronizations. If your translation runs a little shorter or longer than the original, you can use the merge or split features to make the right adjustments. 

We also have some quick tips on creating same-language subtitles (captions). Happy subtitling!

About the author

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I am a Product Specialist and Recruiter for Amara. I am passionate about making online content accessible to global audiences!

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