6 min read

What movies taught me about subtitles and writing

One of the fascinating things with working on a new area like video-game translation is how often ideas from others fields can be surprisingly effective, even reshaping how you look at text.

This is what happened with me after reading the Subtitling Decluttering Tips by Bianca Bold and Carolina Alfaro de Carvalho, published on the November 2012 issue of ATA.

After preparing this post, I must admit that I almost forgot about it, but some its techniques (like direct word order, coordination modulation) simply became second nature for me.

After all, even when a game isn't trying to be cinematic, it's still communicating through subtitles that you want to keep short and to the point.

I hope you will find them useful too :)

So close yet so far

Movie subtitles are mostly limited by time, as they summarize and simplify dialogues in order to reach a comfortable reading speed (usually 15 characters per second).Games usually display the script as is with longer and slower subtitles, and thus are mostly limited by space.

Let's review the original tips and see how they work in the context of video game translations.

A typical game subtitle from the Batman Arkham series

A typical game subtitle from the Batman Arkham series


(This actually appears on the latter part of the article, but I moved it here as it's the most relevant for games by far)Simpler texts are easier to read and understand at first sight, making simplifications an interesting option even for subtitles that have no particular space issues.

Direct word order - VITAL

The usual word order in most western languages is subject-verb-object and normally results in more natural, logical, and concise structures. Indirect word order and intercalations require the use of commas or other particles that lengthen the sentence.

Always recommended for movies, this technique should be used carefully with dubbed games. As dubbing and subtitles will probably share the same translation, completely changing the order of the sentence might create issues with lip synch.

• At the beginning of the year. Paul started his project• Paul started his project at the beginning of the year

• Being with him, she realized, was that mattered• She realized all that mattered was being with him

• It was not what they imagined, this complicated relationship• This complicated relationship was not what they had imagined

Coordination - VITAL

Coordinate sentences require less cognitive effort because they are usually shorter and allow for a faster perception of the relation between the two (or more) parts of a message.And this is just as true in games as it is in movies.

• Although I would like to go out, l'll stay home tonight

• I would like to go out, but l'll stay home tonight

• Since it was raining, we cancelled the hike• It was raining, so we cancelled the hike

• He persisted in spite of being exhausted• He was exhausted, yet he persisted

Modulation - VITAL

The same situation can be portrayed from various perspectives, and some might fit the message in a shorter space.

• Our flight didn't take off on schedule.• Our flight was delayed.

• Those cookies were made by us.• We made those cookies.

• It's not such a bad idea to go on vacation.• Going on vacation is a good idea.

Transposition - VITAL

Similarly, changing the word class of an element or part of speech might convey the same meaning in a more concise manner.

• Here's a picture of when I graduated.• Here's a picture of my graduation.

• Ted got by with support from his father and mother.• Ted got by with his parents' support.

Simple verbs - VITAL

Simple and compound verbs convey different styles, but it's a nuance that can be dropped if that allows to maintain the core of the message.

• Have you eaten yet?• Did you eat?

• They were finally taking control of the situation• They finally took control of the situation

Direct questions and imperative forms - USEFUL

Similarly, indirect questions and requests are a mark of politeness. A nuance that can be dropped in order to save space, while balancing the effect with a final "please".

• I'd like to know if you signed the contract.• Did you sign the contract?

• Would you mind closing the window?• Close the window, please.

High-frequency words - INTERESTING

Sometimes, movie subtitles opt for simpler, more common vocabulary for better readability.Doing so in games would be more delicate, as players tend to be very negative towards translations that appear "softened" or "dumbed down".Actually, while aiming for the clearest terminology the original register allows, sometimes it can be useful to reassure them of the opposite by deliberately matching terms of the source, for example by translating "bastard" as "bâtard / bastardo" in an English to FIS subtitle translation.

• My course embodies those topics• My course includes those topics

• All I heard was their yakety-yak• All I heard was their noisy talk

• She swathed the baby in blankets• She wrapped the baby in blankets

Using numerals - USEFUL

While it is common to spell out numbers from one to ten, numerals require much less space without losing any content.

• They have sixteen grand-kids• They have 16 grand-kids

• We celebrated our seventh anniversary• We celebrated our 7th anniversary

Abbreviations and acronyms - USEFUL

Abbreviations are usually acceptable, unless 1) the word is functioning as a noun on its own 2) the abbreviation is unfamiliar to the target audience, hindering understanding.

• We saw Doctor Smith• We saw Dr. Smith

• I live in apartment 304• I live in apt. 304

• The country's Gross Domestic Product increased 5%• The country's GDP increased 5%

• We saw the dr.• We saw the doctor

• I love your apt.• I love your apartment

• Chris doesn't speak your lang.• Chris doesn't speak your language

• We developed an OS application• We developed an open-source application


In games like in movies, dropping minor parts of the discourse is a necessary evil. After all, if space is limited, it must be used for important information.

Vocatives - USEFUL

Omitting vocatives is usually welcome after a portion of movie has been shown, when viewers have learned who is in the film.The same can apply to games, especially during cut scenes where you can rely on a defined, linear context. However, always double-check that the vocative is not an important game clue!

• Andrew, lock the door• Lock the door

• It's great to see you, sir.• It's great to see you

Hesitation, stuttering - USEFUL

Movie subtitles are not meant to replace the original material, but to convey its message effectively. Since viewers can observe the rhythm, intonation, and body language in the film, some orality markers tend be omitted.Games tend to be more conservative in this regard and orality markers should be kept if possible, although readability could be improved by reducing repetitions to three consecutive letters/words.Similarly, while movie subtitles tend to omit self-corrections, it's probably better to keep them in games.

• The truth is... hmmmmmmm... I need cash• The truth is... hmm... I need cash (GAME)• The truth is I need cash (MOVIE)

• She vi-vi-vi-vi-vi-visited her niece• She vi-vi-visited her niece (GAME)• She visited her niece (MOVIE)

• Joe is in room 705... no, wait... 706• Joe is in room 706 (MOVIE)

Onomatopoeic words - INTERESTING

Words that mimic noises can be understood by foreign language viewers, and thus can be omitted from movies in order to make room for more relevant information.Again, this is less common for games, but they can be removed if they don't fit even in simplified form.

• Tick tock tick tock.. time's running out• Tick tock, time's running out (GAME)• Time's running out (MOVIE)

• I heard the explosion: ba-da-ba-boom!• I heard the explosion: boom! (GAME)• I heard the explosion (MOVIE)

Redundancies and repetitions - USEFUL

Often used for emphasis, they should leave precedence to the core of the message if space is too tight.Redundant structures, commonly used in spoken language, are removed as a rule from movie subtitles, but can be limited in games too.

• The problem is... is that we're out of supplies.• The problem is... we're out of supplies (GAME)• The problem is we're out of supplies (MOVIE)

• I told you! I told you it wouldn't work!• I told you it wouldn't work!

• Maria saw what he did. She's sure because she saw it.• Maria is sure because she saw what he did.

Background speeches - INTERESTING

With concomitant background and foreground speeches, like in crowded scenes or when someone speaks while a television is on, movies tend to prioritize most relevant information, which is usually the most audible utterance.This isn't really viable for video games, where translators are just meant to adapt the script they are given, but it might be a useful edit to suggest to developers.

Succinct replies - INTERESTING

In movies, utterances such as "OK"/"Yes"/"No" are sometimes grasped from the context or body language and can be omitted.A risky proposition for games, that are commonly translated with temporary footage or no video at all. An extreme measure that is probably better left to developers and testers.