How to make subtitles

A simple & select crash course in subtitling, also called subbing: You bring your rhythm, your knowledge of language of origin and destination language (most important), a whole swad of idioms and sayings, and patience. With routine and the right equipment 90 minutes/900 double lines of subbing can be done in two days or less. Fan subbing with only computer software takes somewhat longer. Have fun.


This is a simple & select crash course in subtitling, also called subbing: You bring your rhythm, your curiosity, your knowledge of language of origin and destination language (most important), a whole swad of idioms and sayings, and patience.

There are many different formats for subs on DVD, TV and movie screen. And while movie subs are typically centered, TV formats often differ by being alligned on the left side:

But all advice here is to be taken with a grain of salt, as all rules can be broken when absolutely necessary. But be a master first, then break the rules.

With routine, the right soft- and hardware 90 minutes/900 double lines of subbing can be done in two days or less. Fan subbing only with shareware can take somewhat longer.

Have fun.

Subtitling is easy  😉 European advice:

  • 37 characters pr. line incl. ” -” (for TV)
  • Max two lines of subs
  • A third line, eg. for an essential sign on-screen before characters begin to talk, can be on simultaneously with subs, but then longer total exposure OR no spots between sign text and the addition of subs = first sign text on-screen, then sign-text + subs, and no spot in-between.
  • Exposure time: 12 characters/second = 5-6 seconds on-screen for dbl. lines, 2-3 for single lines
  • Minimum 2-second lines, avoid 1-second lines
  • Only single-words for 1-second lines
  • Spots (the distance between subs) can be 4, 6, 8 or more frames in dialogue, but THE SAME to keep a rhythm
  • With irregular dialogue KEEP spots, which are longer than 0,5 -0,75 seconds rather than connect them to the following (follow the beat of the editing/dialogue if possible – it keeps attention on the film rather than on the subs)
  • No subs overlapping scene changes
  • If subs overlap scene changes, leave long enough to give impression of necessity, and clear screen ASAP
  • If subs “blink” at cuts, they need to come off earlier OR later, but preferably earlier
  • If cuts “blink”, subs need to come off closer to the cut OR earlier
  • Spotting evenly takes pro-software; manual spotting up against clips = find a frame “distance” to the cut that fits your own eyes, when your eyes are still fresh, ’cause after a while they seem to blink all the time, because you focus too much
  • Dialogue can begin with “- “, but is culturally based (and TV mostly)
  • Refer to your own culture’s habits, if any, but sub-position is often at left margin on TV and centered at the movies
  • Put “.” or “…” after 2nd speaker in dialogue, if  2nd speaker copntinues – and NO “-” ! Begin following 2nd speaker sub with capital letter.
  • Max. 2 sentences with full stop, semi colon, exclamation mark or question mark” in any line in two-line dialogues (more makes for longer exposure time and harder reading). Not “Wow! No!? Really? Alright!”
  • Keep recognizable words in speech in similar position to text (“En VOLVO er den bedste bil” should not be written as “The best car is a VOLVO”
  • Keep suspense if possible: don’t print clarifying text on screen together with questioning text, unless you cannot help it, because question/clarification dialogue continues right up to scene change.
  • Go for essence; examples 1. Skip 2nd person question, if question is answered in fast dialogoue, 2. skip 2nd person confirmation, if speaker continues un-interrupted, 3. keep focus on the essence of every scene, which will aid the viewer later on in the film, and dump all else, which there is no time for – otherwise… keep it.
  • You can turn questions into statements and vice versa, if it doesn’t break or brake rhythm or the story’s inner truth.
  • Be very certain, when you translate the un-translatable cultural reference to a similar cultural reference in the destination language. You will be proud, when you get it right.
  • Translate measurements to the destination norm, eg. cm to inches, unless there is no meaning inherent in the mentioning.
  • Look at the movie – sometimes standard phrases would seem to need a change of polarity, in order to convey the meaning in the destination language. Example of what not to do: “Are you alright?” Person nods: (“Yes.”) cannot be translated into the cultural equivalent of “Were you hurt?” Person nods: (“Yes.”)
  • Italics are used for voices far off screen, radio, person calling from a bridge etc. or during a song. In double lines interspace only in on-going dialogue, if it does’t fuck up readability or rhythm.
  • Subtitle lines covering up action: Move subs if necessary to elsewhere on screen, but try not to; it stifles readability and halts continuity. Employ only if action takes place for an extended time, eg. more than one to two full double lines, or choose if possible to break subs into one-lines during action.
  • Subs for signs and the like are placed under the sign.
  • Abbreviations – all normal kinds can be used.
  • Tribal speak, tech lingo and other narrow idioms are translated IF cultural emphasis equals need of understanding – but it needs longer exposure time.
  • Curses and swear words: Translate/transculturate only what is needed to describe a person and remember images of body language often un-necessitate words.
  • Look up the spelling of names and idiomatic terms, even if you believe you know how to spell them!!!
  • I Don’t Understand What Is Being Said!” Don’t despair, if you feel obliged to make “rubber subs”: Rubber subs are guesswork subtitles needed on-screen to not break/brake rhythm or story, but after 2 hours back and forth you still cannot understand, what is being said. Only two days later you might suddenly be able to, AND your moron friend may understand what is being said it right away! So, Do NOT Despair! Make “rubber” – you won’t go to hell for it!

Essential: Trust your sense of rhythm, your ears and your understanding of essence in the story that you are conveying. You are the maker here.

Subbing is NOT a transcription of the spoken script.
Subs are readable essence, meant to AID non-speakers.
Subs confer movie’s rhythm.
Subbing is an art form – as much dealing with essence as any other art form.
Subbers are LOYAL advocates of the cinematic artwork with a right to their own art and viewer beneficial style.

Good subbing is where nobody notices your work.

Examples of fansubbing – lines are translated literally or the English DVD subs are translated without regard for line lenght: