The Art of Subtitling: 10 challenges an audiovisual translation team must face

Today, communication through audiovisual media is stronger than ever. The average person spends 84 minutes each day watching online videos, and the number is expected to increase and hit 100 minutes by 2021. To keep up with the latest work opportunities, many translators have chosen to break into this yet-very-young translation field, without being truly prepared. In this article, we’ll cover the main challenges a translation team must face when handling multimedia localization projects.

An acquaintance has recently mentioned that he was thinking about sitting for the entrance examination for an important international company looking for subtitlers. I told him that I thought it was a great idea, but that I was unaware that he had any experience with audiovisual translation. Without hesitating, he said that it would be his first attempt but that he thought it’d be fun. Needless to say, he did not pass the examination. 

Like my colleague, many translators underestimate the level of specialization required for this type of work. What is worse, many unprepared companies fail to acknowledge the risk of working with unqualified teams. To help raise awareness about the nuances and technicalities of this field of specialty, we’ve put together a list of the top issues subtitling experts must deal with every day.

#1 Inter-linguistic and Inter-semiotic translation

Inter-linguistic translation refers to the act of translating a message from one language into another, while inter-semiotic translation implies the transference between different sign systems or media. For example, there could be visual marks, such as looks or gestures, that may add actual meaning to the speech. Audiovisual translators actually do both, since they must read through a message composed of spoken language, sounds and image, and convey everything in written form. 

#2 Space restrictions

The translation must not cover more screen space than necessary. Because of this, there are set limits regarding the number of characters per line and location on the screen. The client usually provides these requirements as part of a style guide. This instruction should specify the maximum number of lines per subtitle and the maximum number of characters per line. 

#3 Time restrictions

The translation must appear on the screen around the same time as the actual utterance. Here is where one of the essential subtitling parameters comes into play: reading speed. No matter how good a translation may be, it is useless if the public can’t read fast enough to understand it, right?

Depending on the language and the reading capabilities of the audience, these parameters may vary. Nevertheless, this is also usually specified in the client’s style guide. 

#4 Creative synthesis

Having so many restrictions, this kind of translation often results in the inability to translate the entirety of the original text. Audiovisual translators must then prioritize information and learn what to cut and what to add so as to give the viewers as much access to the soundtrack as possible, without overwhelming them by rushing their reading. The key to a successful outcome lies in developing creative synthesis skills that would allow the professional to convey the meaning concisely while staying faithful to each speaker’s style of speech, register, background, and quirks that add flavor to the text. 

#5 Exposed translation

The viewers will be constantly exposed to the source language through the audio. As a result, they will be aware at all times that they are reading a translation. This kind of awareness is not there when someone reads a book, for example. If on top of this, we consider that the public most likely is not aware of the technical aspects of this type of work, we’ll be able to understand why it is so common to hear complaints about subtitles, but not about translations of any other kind. For this reason, the perceived “invisibility” of the subtitle is the top goal of an audiovisual translator.

#6 Reading flow conservation

Each subtitle line must contain the longest unit of meaning possible. That means that translators must avoid splitting articles or adjectives from their respective nouns, or leaving isolated prepositions in a separate line, etc. Once again, the purpose of this is to naturalize subtitle reading and make the translation imperceptible.

#7 Audiovisual rhythm conservation

Each scene in a TV show or movie has been meticulously planned by many people to achieve the perfect rhythm. If we can make subtitles merge naturally into the audiovisual rhythm, we can help the public forget they are facing a translation and our work will become invisible.

#8 Cut sync

Translators must avoid creating subtitles that trespass shot or scene changes. This is one of the most time-consuming technical aspects for the translator, as the speech actually goes across these cuts all the time, but it is crucial to guarantee subtitle invisibility.

#9 Contemporary culture

There are many types of texts that pose challenges related to informal language and contemporary culture, but such difficulties are even greater in the oral language. For example, audiovisual translators may have to subtitle a song while trying to keep its humor, rhyme, and making sure it matches what’s being shown on screen.

#10 Technical issues

Audiovisual translation is intrinsically linked to technology. Unlike other fields of expertise, where technology becomes just an added value, in this case, it is a mandatory requirement. There are commonly format and audio problems to sort out, among many others. For this reason, translators and Project Managers need to be constantly in touch in order to avoid running into errors when it’s already too late.


Audiovisual translation poses an exciting challenge, and it’s encouraging to see that there are so many colleagues looking to engage in it, but its intricacies must not be underestimated. To get the best translation possible for their viewers, customers must also understand this and avoid hiring unqualified linguists. As Donald Kendall once said: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

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