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Written by Steven Bussey
on September 20, 2023

Written language and spoken language differ in several ways. Those differences affect subtitling, a practice that has become more prevalent recently as a way to translate what the speaker is saying for those of other languages or who are deaf.

Spoken vs. Written Language

A key difference between written and spoken languages is that written language tends to be more formal and complex than spoken language. Other differences are:

  • Writing is more permanent and less easily changed. Once something is printed, or on the Web, it is out there permanently. Unless the speaker is recorded, however, they can restate their position.
  • Except in the case of formal speeches, spoken language is more impromptu. Because of that, it often includes repetitions, interruptions, and incomplete sentences. Writing is more polished.
  • Because written language is more complex, it requires punctuation. Punctuation has no equivalent in spoken language. 
  • Writing communicates across time and space for as long as the medium exists and that particular language is understood. Speech is more immediate.
  • Except with text messages, computer chats, or similar technology, writers can't receive immediate feedback to know whether their message is understood or not. Speakers do receive feedback and can clarify or answer questions as needed.
  • Written and spoken communication use different types of language. Slang and tags, for example, are more often used when speaking. 
  • Spoken language involves speaking and listening skills, while written language requires writing and reading skills.
  • The spoken language uses tone and pitch to improve understanding; written language can only use layout and punctuation.





Subtitling is turning spoken language into writing so that individuals read it and understand what is being said on the screen. Subtitles are important in engaging viewers who speak a different language in the video.  On average, about 66% of videos are actually watched to completion; however, adding subtitles increases this to 91 percent, according to one report.  Subtitles also generate 15 percent more shares on social media and improve SEO. 

Subtitling must be easy and quick to read; a subtitle is on the screen no longer than about six seconds. Timing is critical. The subtitle should appear when the person starts talking and disappear when they stop.

Each language has a limited space in which it can convey what the speaker has said with subtitles. For example, English usually has only about 70 characters (two lines) to translate the spoken word of one language into the written language of another. Ideally, the subtitles and spoken word on the screen should be so well synchronized that they don't even realize they are reading rather than hearing the spoken word. Subtitling then becomes an abridgement of what was said that conveys the meaning rather than a word-for-word translation.

The subtitle creation process requires several phases. These are:

  • Spotting, which is the process of determining how to synchronize the subtitles with the audio and adhere to duration times. 
  • Translation, which is translating and localizing from the source language within the number of allowable characters
  • Correction, which is making the text natural, punctuating it properly, and splitting the subtitles to be easily understood and not distract the viewer.
  • Simulation, in which the film is screened and modifications are made




Challenges and Managing Them

Because subtitling converts spoken text into written text within tight constraints, it has challenges that don't appear in other types of translations. 

One challenge is what to do about slang and tags. While these are very much a part of speech, they aren't typically part of written speech. They provide insight into the personality of the speaker but often don't translate well into another language. Also, the tags may take up characters that the translator could better use to convey the speaker's meaning. The subtitler will weigh the pros and cons of including slang and tags and, if they include them, will localize them for the target region.

Likewise, the translator/subtitler must balance the desire to give identity to the speaker with the need to be clear when dealing with repetitions or incomplete sentences. Sometimes, the pendulum might shift toward maintaining the integrity of the dialogue, while at other times, it might shift toward completing the sentences. For example, dialogue is key to movies. Movie dialogue subtitles would more likely include incomplete sentences than would subtitling of a training video, for example.

Punctuation presents another challenge. Since the viewer can't use tone and pitch to determine meaning, they must rely on punctuation to help them discern this. The translator and subtitler also must find other ways to awaken the same emotions through the subtitle text in the target language that the speaker did in the source language. 




Do-It-Yourself or Outsource?

Subtitling is a specialty. If the subtitles are in a different language than the spoken word, adequately creating them requires knowledge of how to subtitle and knowledge of the spoken and written languages in both the source and target countries. 

Subtitling also is time-consuming. Adding subtitles to a video takes about five times the length of the video. For example, if the video is five minutes long, adding subtitles will require 25 minutes.  The time spent doing these subtitles is time away from other activities, such as developing and executing a marketing strategy, researching a better way to make or deliver your product, producing the product or service, and selling it. Many businesses will find that outsourcing makes sense even if they have expertise in-house to produce the subtitles. Outsourcing allows executives and employees to devote more of their time to the core functions of their business.

When you partner with Andovar for your translation and subtitling needs, you'll be partnering with a team that has considerable experience in this type of work. In fact, our team members do subtitles every day. They are efficient and accurate. We have more than 140 full-time employees and 10,000 translators located all over the world. Someone who speaks the same language as your targeted audience will edit and review your subtitles. Fill out our contact form today to receive a call from an expert on our team.


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