Is there such a thing as bad subtitles?

Is there such a thing as bad subtitles?
Photo taken by Xav Marseille

Are video subtitles necessary? Is there such a thing as bad subtitles? 

 At Stagetext we get asked these two questions a lot, so I thought I would try and give the answers here and the reasoning. 

Stagetext works across a wide range of formats. From pre-recorded webinars, videos for your social media or website, through to feature length films, and videos in your physical spaces, and we can confidently say that subtitles are essential and how you do them matters.  

Let’s explore these questions together. Oliver, our expert in digital subtitles, brings his wealth of experience in the virtual realm to shed light on why quality subtitles matter.  

Are subtitles essential? 

Subtitles should be approached as an integral part of your set up, akin to your camera and microphone. Just as you invest in top-notch equipment to ensure your visuals and audio are crystal clear, the same should be applied to your subtitles because you want people to understand every part of your video content.  

Neglecting subtitles means potentially excluding 12 million individuals in the UK who are deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing, people who are neurodivergent, or for whom English is not a first language – or the casual viewer who are simply trying to listen to your content in a noisy environment. Our research has found that more than 50% of the UK public use subtitles so they are an essential component in communicating your message. 

Will any old subtitles do? 

Subtitles should be approached with the same level of care as other production elements like camera quality and lighting. Just as you wouldn’t settle for subpar filming conditions or video quality, why compromise on the quality of subtitles? Every aspect of filmmaking and content making including sound, lighting, and camera work, is meticulously considered, the inclusion of subtitles should be no exception. Plus you need your subtilties to be accessible for everyone.

What are accessible subtitles? 

While many videos feature subtitles (whether films, documentaries or on social media), not many are fully accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing viewers. It’s important to understand the purpose of subtitles, know what makes subtitles difficult or easy to read, and how to evaluate if a subtitle is fulfilling its purpose. Additional information is key to give an equal experience.

Avoiding spoilers and enhancing comedic timing 

Imagine watching a thriller or mystery only to have the suspense ruined by a premature subtitle reveal. Similarly, poorly timed subtitles can deflate the humour of a joke, robbing viewers of the full comedic experience. There’s nothing worse than laughing at a joke ahead of the actor or comedian saying the line – or waiting ages for the subtitles to come up – long after the joke’s been delivered. Quality subtitles should enhance, not detract from, the viewing experience. 

Subtitling music with nuance 

There’s a lot more to subtitling than just typing up what people are saying. Deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing people, deserve access to every part of your video, and that includes music. Subtitling extends beyond transcribing dialogue; it encompasses conveying the essence of music. Rather than directly interpreting the mood of the music using labels like [HAPPY POP MUSIC], strive for descriptions that enable viewers to interpret the auditory experience themselves. Inclusivity means empowering viewers to engage with content on their terms, free from predefined interpretations. 

So, to bring you back to the question, will any old subtitles do? Is there such a thing as bad subtitles? No, and yes, respectively. Technically speaking, you can commission any old subtitles and upload them to your video, but they won’t be accessible, inclusive, or useful. If you want to reach more people, and be accessible, you need to have good accessible subtitles, created by knowledgeable experts and informed by deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing people.  

At Stagetext, we’re all about making sure your videos have the best subtitles possible. Ready to get started? Going to do them yourself? Check out our handy Digital Subtitling Guidelines for free.

If you need help with your subtitles, get in touch to find out how we can support you, using the form below.

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