Note: This blog post was originally written in Japanese for our Japanese website. We used our machine translation platform Translation Designer to translate it and post-edit the content in English. The original Japanese post can be found here.

With the widespread availability of various video streaming and video sharing services today, many people have more opportunities to watch movies and TV drama series at home. Do you prefer subtitles or dubbed versions? They can sometimes be different, even for the same footage. Also, even for the same movie, subtitles may be a little different between the theatrical and DVD versions. Why and how do these differences occur? In this post, we will discuss these differences in subtitle translation with examples.

Differences in translation

The goal of the translation is an important consideration when creating translations for your content. Depending on the goal, translation project managers decide on how to approach the translation and select information.

For example, in addition to subtitle translation, there are other translations of text types such as information type (IT documents or legal documents), expression type (literary translation), and effect type (advertisement). Subtitle translations that include audio and video are classified as an audio media type.2, 4 Depending on the goal of the translation — meaning what you want to communicate (purpose) and who you want to communicate with (viewers, readers, and targets) — translation companies choose the text type that best suits your needs, and sometimes even make edits such as cuts to the original footage itself.

Regardless of the text type, more specific translation goals can help define a clearer translation direction. So, the final translation is created based on each of these objectives and the strategies that result from them.

What is subtitle translation?

Subtitle translation is a type of audiovisual translation, which also includes dubbing and voice-over.6 It is also sometimes called "visual translation" in Japanese.4 In recent years, subtitle translation has not only been for movies and TV dramas, but also been for business use, such as eLearning, seminars, and marketing videos. We have been expanding our subtitle translation services too.

*Voice-over: A technique in which the original foreign language is left in the audio at a low volume and the translated language is layered on top.

One of the major characteristics of subtitle translation into Japanese is the character limit of four characters per second. For subtitle translation for businesses, we use a standard of four characters per second but also accommodate specific technical terms and try to adjust to our customers' specifications. The standard is that each line can contain a maximum of 13 characters and no more than two lines at a time. For videos for business use, we limit the number of lines to two, with a maximum of 20 characters per line.

Furthermore, subtitle translation combines multiple pieces of information such as the original audio, sound, and video and is sometimes described as “vulnerable translation.”4 One of the reasons why subtitle translation is said to be prone to criticism is the character limit mentioned above. In addition, when the original audio is in English, it tends to be more easily criticized compared to other languages, since there are many viewers who are able to understand the original language to a certain extent.4

In this way, it can be said that subtitle translation has certain constraints, such as the number of characters and the amount of information, compared to other types of translation.4 Below are some examples of distinctive choices made in subtitling translation production.

Selecting a translation

While choosing the right words is necessary in any translation, a distinctive feature of subtitle translation is that it takes into account audiovisual information such as the situation conveyed by the video and tone of voice. As an example, with reference to the Weblio English example sentence search, we came up with two Japanese translations for the original sentence "Thank you," as shown in the table below.

  • Example of Japanese subtitle for "Thank you."
Situation of the sceneInterpretationJapanese subtitle #1Japanese subtitle #2
"Thank you" as a response when someone does something for you.Appreciationありがとう恩に着る
"Thank you" as a response to sarcasm.Sarcasmどうもまあね
"Thank you" as a response when your subordinate handed in the work he or she was asked to do.Recognitionお疲れ様ご苦労

Probably either one of these Japanese translations is not particularly good. However, even though it is the same scene and the same interpretation, you can see that these expressions give different impressions. In particular, translations like the example in #2 will only be made when there is a clear reason or instruction. While keeping in mind the guiding principles of the translation, such as its purpose and direction, the choice of how to translate is made taking into account the story, context, and audiovisual information.

Selecting where to break a line

In this post, we introduced some tips on how to make coordination work for translation projects more efficient with a bit of ingenuity. There is no end in sight when it comes to efficiency, and circumstances and technology change every day. It's important to always keep your ears open to the latest developments and keep on coming up with new ideas.

Like the number of characters, the choice of where to break lines is also a characteristic of subtitle translation. Let's look at the following example.

  • Example of the difference in impression depending on whether or not there is a line break.
    Situation: The first word spoken when the boss enters the conference room.
    Condition: The original English is spoken for about 5 seconds.
Original English AudioJapanese subtitle #1
(1 line)
Japanese subtitle #2
(2 lines)
Good morning, everyone. Shall we start today's meeting?みなさん おはようございます 会議を始めますみなさん おはようございます 会議を始めます

Japanese subtitle #1, which is displayed in a single line, meet our character limit for business use and is expected to be short enough to be read within the time limit. However, wouldn't it be easier to read if it was broken down into multiple lines like #2? When deciding where to break a line, emphasis is placed on meaningful breaks. Additionally, the translation may be edited to comply with rules such as the number of seconds or characters. There are many other ways to translate subtitles, so if you have any questions about your project feel free to contact us.

New approaches to audiovisual translation

In 2010, there were more subtitled versions than dubbed versions of foreign films screened in Japan.3 However, for the mystery film "Shutter Island," which was released in April 2010, a Japanese "super dubbed" version was produced. According to the Japanese database "Information, Knowledge & Opinion imidas (2011)," a compilation of current affairs terminology, this was a new attempt at a dubbed version that was "produced with an emphasis on making the Japanese sound natural, avoiding the discrepancies with subtitles and translation-like phrasing that were common in previous Japanese dubbing."

The production of this Japanese "super dubbed" version came about due to the fact that few teenagers watch foreign films with subtitles, and there was feedback that the subtitles were too fast to read through. (Toyo Keizai Online, Osaka, 2010) However, with the current changes in the viewing environment brought by the use of video distribution services, which allow viewers to freely control the playback speed and pausing, the appropriateness of character limits and the way they have become customary will probably be reconsidered.


In this post, we have discussed the reasons for differences in subtitle translation and some examples of their causes. To summarize, 1) the goal of the translation is important, 2) various strategies and information choices are made in the process of producing a translation, and 3) although subtitle translation currently faces its own unique constraints, there is the potential for it to continue to develop in the future rather than remaining in its current form. The above three points are the takeaways of this post.

Kawamura's translation services

Do you have any of the following requests regarding video localization services?

  • "We have a large amount of video content that needs to be translated."
  • "We want to request only the transcription work for subtitles."
  • "We want to request only the translation work for subtitles or audio files because we can do the rest."
  • "We want to optimize the quality, cost and turnaround time according to each project."

Kawamura International provides not only video translation but also all other related tasks that are necessary including transcribing audio to text and putting subtitles onto your video. We take care of all localization needs for your business.

Our team will propose the best solution according to your request and priorities such as lowering the cost, speeding up the turnaround time, and handling various file formats. Please feel free to reach out to us!


  1. Naoki Osaka, "The arrival of 'Japanese super dubbed versions' could put a stop to the trend of people turning away from foreign films?", Toyo Keizai Online, April 20, 2010,
  2. Mino Saito, "Text Types of Translation," Kumiko Torikai (ed.), Easy-to-Understand Translation and Interpretation Studies, 3rd ed. (Minerva Shobo, 2015), 124-125.
  3. Yuko Shinohara, "How do film subtitles meet audience expectations?", Interpretation and Translation Studies (2012): 12, 209-228,
  4. Yuko Shinohara, "Standardization of English Subtitling for Japanese Films: From the Perspective of the Production Process" [Doctoral Dissertation, Rikkyo University Graduate School], Rikkyo University Academic Repository (2016),
  5. "Japanese Super Dubbed Version," Information, Knowledge & Opinion imidas, Shueisha/Toppan Printing, February 2011, last accessed June 24, 2022,
  6. Kayoko Takeda, "Audiovisual Translation," Kumiko Torikai (ed.), Easy-to-Understand Translation and Interpretation Studies, 3rd ed. (Minerva Shobo, 2015), 82-83.