The Subtitler: A Job Description

The subtitler is responsible for subtitling the transcribed audio version of any audio-visual material which needs subtitles to be displayed on a visual medium. The subtitles can be either intralingual (transcribed text then turned into subtitles) or interlingual (transcribed text then translated before being turned into subtitles) and either created in advance, or partially prepared or fully created in real-time in the case of a non-recording.

Before work on a subtitling solution actually starts, one must carefully identify and analyse ‘the three main pillars of subtitling’, which determine the success or failure of the created solution – audience, purpose, and context.

No subtitling solution is equally adequate to any two target audiences with different auditory levels. Hence this calls for a tailor made solution to either:

  • The hearing;
  • The deaf using an oral language as their mother tongue;
  • The Deaf belonging to linguistic minority groups that use a sign language as their first language; or
  • The hard of hearing having residual hearing and can therefore share the experience of sound and of the world of hearers to different degrees.

With one of the above audiences in mind, setting a purpose provides a context, and vice-versa. Just like the sign language interpreter (SLI), the subtitler uses the tailor-made subtitles to bridge the gap between any of the target audiences and any speaker one can think of, hence the infinite situations in which they can be used.

Subtitles as an educational means imprint on our minds a classroom environment; and as an entertaining means, a cinema, a living room or a bedroom desk, where one or more people are watching a movie, a program, or a music video respectively; just to mention a few.

The resulting benefits are immeasurable; subtitles in any context are excellent and have the potential to help educate and improve the children’s ability to learn and read, helping them improve other skills whilst developing new ones. However, they are equally useful to people of various ages all with a different story.

The subtitler has to reflect and complement all this through the actual subtitles and the way they are presented, paying special attention to the different reading speeds, the editing levels of the transcribed text and the different ways in which each of the above audiences relate to sound (speech, sound effects and music), whilst being constrained by the available time and space.

Some of the questions a subtitler must ask when working on the subtitles are: Is it better to present the subtitles…

  • with this particular number of CPL (characters per line) or with that number of CPL?
  • on one line or two lines?
  • joined together as one subtitle, left as they are, or split into two or more?
  • at this particular time, slightly before, or slightly after?
  • for this amount of seconds or for that amount of seconds?
  • flashing in and flashing out, or floating in and floating out?
  • in a sans-serif font or another?
  • using bold, italics and/or underlined or not?
  • in a smaller or a larger font size?
  • in a colour instead of another?
  • with or without a background, and in what colour?
  • identifying speakers using a particular colour or using a special marker?
  • identifying music using musical instruments, the song and the singer/band, or by giving a description of the melody?
  • reduced to fit the time and space constraints, leave them as they are, or even possibly fit more information if the time and space allow it?
  • for some even more extra seconds to enhance readability or will that hinder coherence with the audio-visual elements?

Upon completion, the subtitles are then finalised and delivered to the end user, helping him/her achieving his/her goals. Should any subtitles be needed for any kind of audio-visual material, one can send an e-mail to Reuben De Gabriele on

Reuben De Gabriele, a graduate in Master of Arts in Translation and Terminology Studies, has subtitled season 1 of the Maltese TV drama Strada Stretta and is currently working on season 2. Updates as to when the subtitled episodes are online will be posted on the Facebook pages of A Silent World and Deaf People Association – Malta.

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