The Three C’s of Subtitling

Subtitling is not the same as translation. Subtitling involves numerous skills and facets, and translation is just one of them. Let’s focus on the three C’s:

Note that in this article, “subtitling” refers to foreign language subtitles, meaning translation is taking place.


Subtitles must be clear – even when the speaker is not. Let’s look at an example…

A factory worker is being interviewed and asked about his daily work.

Interviewer: Tell us about the work you do here at the factory.

Worker: “First we get the stuff, we go through everything, then we put it together and get it out.”

Is that clear? Do you have any idea what this worker does? Of course not. He’s probably standing in the factory as he’s giving this interview and assumes the viewer knows what he’s referring to. As a subtitler, part of your job is to create clear, meaningful subtitles – even if that means extrapolating meaning from words unspoken.

A clear translation would look like this:

Worker: “First we receive the packages. We then sort through them and inventory them. Lastly, we repackage them and send them to the shipping department.”

This is a somewhat extreme example, but let’s face it, people often talk like this.



Subtitles must be lean. There’s no room for freeloading words and redundancies. Let’s take a look at an example… A less-than-eloquent speaker is telling us that he and his brother will go get some ice cream.

Speaker: Me and my brother, later on, he and I, we’re going to get some of that ice cream, you know. Like, there’s that shop down the road, it’s like 2 miles down the road from here, there’s that ice cream place. We’re going to get some.

I know, it hurts my head to read this, too!

As a subtitle, it would simply read: “Later, my brother and I will go to the ice cream shop two miles down the road.”



Are you familiar with the concept of “economy of words”? This is the idea of getting the most value out of every word. Let’s look at an example…

A woman is asked what she wanted to be when she was a child.

Speaker: When I was a little kid years ago, I kind of wanted to be a zookeeper at the zoo because I was just so in love with all those animals.

How can we turn these 30 words into one subtitle?

“When I was a child, I wanted to be a zookeeper because I loved animals.”


Voila! The meaning hasn’t changed but the sentence now fits in a single subtitle and it’s much easier to read. Sometimes, you may only have 2-3 seconds to say a lot! Make your subtitles count!

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