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What are good subtitles?

9 August 2023  
Illustration. Boy draws an arrow from the center of a board.

We produce subtitles for every video that Scribit.Pro makes accessible and WCAG-proof. This subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing ensures that web video is also accessible to people with an auditory and/or cognitive disability. Occasionally we also provide video content with translation subtitles, or with a combination of both types of subtitles.

But what makes subtitles good subtitles? And why is subtitling not always suitable for the deaf and hard of hearing? Which aspects ensure that people with a hearing impairment, or others who need support, can benefit from subtitling? The answers to these and more questions are covered in this blog.

Subtitling is a textual representation of the spoken (and sometimes sung) text in an audiovisual production. 'Regular' subtitling, also known as translating subtitling, assumes that the viewer can hear the audio, but does not know the spoken language or does not know it well enough. This subtitling therefore offers a translation of what is being spoken about. But for people who can't hear the audio well or at all, these subtitles don't provide enough information to fully follow the production. A deaf or hard-of-hearing viewer has no knowledge of background noise or (atmospheric) music. That person cannot hear who is speaking and how they sound.

That is why all auditory information from a production is included in subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing. When speakers are not on screen, but are speaking, they are named in the subtitles. Sometimes the tone of voice or volume of voice can determine the meaning of what someone is saying. In these cases, the intonation of the relevant monologue or dialogue is also explained. When someone shouts, it has a different effect than when the same thing is said in a whisper. Sometimes a word or phrase comes out sputtering, or stuttering, or shivering. Or is the person in the video crying, laughing or sighing. This is all important auditory information that the deaf or hard of hearing viewer would miss without mention.

Ambient sounds can also provide a lot of information and specific background sounds are indispensable for a full understanding of a production. Think of footsteps in an exciting feature film, chants or fighter jets flying overhead in a news video, or sounds such as a telephone ringing, a slamming door or an alarm. Music is also often used to create atmosphere. Music is mentioned and interpreted in subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, preferably with a reference to the genre, the instrument and/or the intended atmosphere (e.g. 'PIANO MUSIC'). When a sung text is decisive or important for the story, the lyrics should also be included in the subtitles.

When a subtitle contains all the above aspects, it is accessible and useful for the deaf and hard of hearing. By including all auditory information in subtitles, the viewer with a hearing impairment can fully experience or better understand a production.

For both forms of subtitling, however, not only deaf and hard of hearing people benefit from this form of support. For example, subtitling can also help people with cognitive disabilities to understand or experience an audiovisual production. But also viewers with brain injury, reading or learning problems or autism, or foreign speakers, such as refugees. At specific times, subtitled videos can be a solution for each of us, for example in public transport or in places such as the gym, lecture hall, an office or waiting room.

A subtitle, of any kind, is successful when it does not stand out. It should not distract from the rest of the image. And it should feel like a natural part of the video. A subtitle is a tool and should support the viewer. Both translating subtitling and subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing are there to help the viewer to better understand an audiovisual production or to experience it as fully as possible. It should clarify things and should never distract or cause confusion. It should therefore never stand out, certainly not in a negative sense.

Above all, it is of course important that subtitles are error-free,  pleasantly readable and understandable Dutch. All that is discussed in a production, must be displayed properly and clearly in the subtitles. The reading speed is also an important aspect. A subtitle should certainly not appear too briefly, because every type of reader must have the time to read the text. This can sometimes be a challenge when speakers speak quickly, several speakers are speaking at once, the editing is very tight or a lot of information is given in a short time. It may then be necessary to shorten or reword the spoken text. At the same time, a subtitle should not appear on screen for too long. When a subtitle is shown for longer than seven seconds, it will stand out again and we have just seen why that is undesirable. The subtitler makes sure that sentences within a subtitle block are not too long, because this is not pleasant to read and is visually unattractive. Reading longer sentences takes the viewer more time than short sentences that together contain the same amount of information. A long sentence within a subtitle block is therefore better divided over two lines, instead of over one line. Breaks in sentences take place as much as possible at natural pauses in a sentence. This means that subordinate clauses and word groups, where possible, are placed together on one line. It is desirable that the top line is shorter in length than the bottom line, as with a pyramid model. This again, because of the aesthetic effect: it is visually more attractive, because it feels more natural. But it also simply reads more pleasantly.

Want to know in detail what makes good subtitling? Visit the Scribit.Pro Academy and discover in our online learning environment how to create accessible subtitles that can be of use and tremendous value to people with disabilities.

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