What are forced subtitles in video translation?

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We’ve been getting a lot of questions about forced subtitles from our video translation clients. Aside from what they are, clients want to know how to produce them, whether they need special treatment or deliverables, and whether they require any special localization, especially for DVD, Blu-ray and streaming deliveries. We have good news – forced subs aren’t terribly tricky, and in some cases can even be useful for video localization projects.

This post will look in depth at forced subtitles and what they mean for video translation services.

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What are they exactly?

The term “forced subtitles” has been around for a while, and it refers to subtitling that must be provided in a show just to make it comprehensible. Forced subs are generally provided for:

  • Movie or show dialogue in a foreign language in an English-language movie or show. A good example is the NBC show Heroes, which featured Hiro, a Japanese-speaking character – all of his Japanese-language dialogue is subtitled. Or Alba, Jane’s grandmother in the CW show Jane the Virgin – she only speaks Spanish, so her dialogue is subtitled, often for comic effect. Or, for that matter, all the characters on Star Trek who speak Klingon, an alien language invented just for the series and movies.
  • Foreign-language written content – for example, a newspaper in a foreign language, signage (like a STOP sign in foreign country), or any other material that’s relevant to the plot, and which an English speaker would not comprehend.

Of course, some movies don’t translate this content, especially if the audience is meant to see it from a character’s point-of-view – in particular if that character doesn’t know the foreign language.

Are on-screen titles forced subs?

On-screen titles often get confused with forced subs because any English-language OST effectively become foreign-language written content when their corresponding show gets translated, especially when they are necessary to understand the plot of a movie. Perhaps the most famous example is the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” title and opening scroll from the Star Wars movies. If you’re watching Star Wars in Spanish, you must have translations to these titles, whether they’re replaced on-screen, or added as part of the subtitle track – if the latter, those translations are effectively forced subs.


You can read more about ways to replace OST in our previous blog post, 3 Ways to Localize On-Screen Titles.

How do you produce forced subs?

This is where they get tricky. For most of film history, forced subs have been burned in to the film negative with a hot metal plate, in the same way that all other subs and titles were. If a character in a Hollywood movie spoke a language other than English, part of post-production was burning the forced subs to picture. Localization would generally burn a completely different set of subs onto the picture, so that it was common to see localized subs (also called “narrative subtitles”) over forced subs already in the image.

Broadcast systems in the 70’s developed captions that could be on a separate track – one that could be turned on and off, or toggled. Soon, broadcasts could also support multiple tracks. DVD and Blu-ray authoring revolutionized home media by being able to support dozens of subtitle tracks, as well as multiple foreign-language voice-over audio tracks. Streaming sites, likewise, adopted these conventions, so that Hulu and Netflix support multiple audio and subtitle tracks, while YouTube, Vimeo and Wistia support only the latter. Today, most DVD, BRD and streaming systems also support a separate track for forced subs – it’s usually exactly like the localized subs tracks, except that it’s set to play automatically.

In fact, because it’s so convenient to have the forced subs as a separate track, some production companies are now delivering them that way, especially for interstitials, identifiers, or even for some credits. This isn’t possible for all elements, of course. For example, if a STOP sign is featured prominently in a shot as part of the narrative, it’ll need to be translated as a forced subtitle, but it can’t be part of the English-language forced subs track.

What do you need to do localize them?

Nothing terribly special – usually forced subs are translated into target language with rest of dialogue. In some cases, they don’t get touched at all. For example, the forced subs in Heroes wouldn’t have to be localized for Japan, since Hiro is speaking Japanese already. In that case, they could be removed completely – no Japanese subtitling needed for that section. Same thing with Alba’s scenes in Jane the Virgin – no Spanish subtitles for her dialogue either.

The great thing about moving towards placing forced subs in a separate track is that this track can then be translated directly into the target language – though after conversion to a translatable format and integration with the narrative subs. This process is manageable as part of a subtitles localization workflow – and one with which JBI Studios has experience. Generally this process doesn’t require much more work or additional project time, but it does need to be planned out thoroughly during the prep stage to avoid issues later in the production.

Have a question or concern, or not sure how to deal with forced subs in your project? Don’t hesitate to contact us directly.