What you need to know about toggling for subtitles video translation

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Captioning and subtitling is now expected for video content produced in the United States, whether to make it available to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, or to non-English speakers. This is in large part because streaming video platforms support captions and subtitles, including full toggling. We’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about this feature – specifically, what toggling is, whether it’s generally available for all subtitles and captions options, and what customers need to do to make sure they include toggling as part of their video translation project.

This post will list the three things you need to know about toggling for subtitles localization.

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What is toggling?

The word “toggle” traditionally refers to a switch with two positions, usually on and off. Most light switches are toggles, for example. In the context of subtitles, toggling simply refers to being able to turn the subtitles or captions on or off – that is to say, to have them display or disappear with the click of a button.

Isn’t toggling standard for captions & subtitles?

It is nearly-universal now for subtitles, but this wasn’t always the case. Before the advent of broadcast captions, subtitles toggling wasn’t available on films. Why? Subtitles were burned in physically onto the film strips themselves – that is to say, film labs would take a heated metal seal containing the subtitle text, and apply it to the actual frames of celluloid, burning off the emulsion completely. The white light from the projector would pass through completely, rendering the text burn-outs white. Once this process was done, there was no going back – the subtitles were “burned in,” to use the term of art. Even though lasers replaced the seals later on, this process remained largely unchanged until the advent of video. So much so that today we still use the phrase “burned in” to refer to adding subtitles to a video as part of the image itself.

Closed captioning changed that. Broadcast captions developed a system in which the captions were a track on the broadcast stream, which could be turned on and off. The first users could get a set-top box that decoded and displayed the captions provided with major television broadcasts. This model – where captions are a signal attached to a video, rather than a part of the image itself – is now common in video distribution. Not only do these formats support toggling, but they also support multiple subtitle tracks, so that users can select their subtitle language from a list of several. This is a very effective way to provide subtitle translation services in various languages, since it allows for multiple languages on the same film or video.


For more information on the difference between text-based and burned-in subtitles, and for video examples of each, read our previous post, Video Translation 101: Burned-in vs. Text for Subtitles Delivery.

What you need to know

Despite the wide-spread support for toggling in most video delivery platforms, there are a few things you must know.

1. Toggling is available in almost all DVD, Blu-ray and online streaming platforms.

If you’re delivering your subtitled and captioned videos in one of these formats, you’re ensured toggling. DVD and Blu-ray formats support multiple tracks of subtitles and captions, as well as dubbing. Same with most online streaming platforms, including YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, as well as most channel apps. For more information, see our previous post, What online streaming (Netflix, Hulu) means for subtitles & captions. You can see some of the options in the screen capture that follows.


Keep in mind that these platforms may require different captions and subtitles deliverables. They may also have specific content requirements. Make sure you know your final delivery platform (or platforms, if multiple ones) before you engage a subtitle language translator, to ensure proper deliverables.

2. Toggling is unavailable for most stand-alone video files.

Most video formats claim that they support embedded captioning or subtitling. However, most of them don’t support it well, or don’t support most languages. If your final deliverable is a video file with captions or subtitles embedded, keep in mind that this will severely limit your video format options, raise costs, and possibly create issues if you’re translating into multiple languages. This is an OK option for English and Spanish subtitles, for example, but not so much for Japanese subtitles, Chinese subtitles, Russian subtitles, Arabic subtitles – or really any other non-Latin or right-to-left language.

The most reliable way to add captions and subtitles to a stand-alone video file is to burn them in.

3. On-screen titles translations can’t be toggled on and off.

On-screen titles are replaced in the source video image, so that effectively they’re burned in to the picture. This means that they can’t be toggled on and off, effectively. If your subtitles video localization project also includes on-screen titles replacement, keep in mind that you’ll need to create multiple versions of your video, or figure out a work-around with your subtitles services provider. JBI Studios is happy to help you with these kinds of solutions.

If you’re not sure of your final deliverable, let your subtitle service provider know

As we’ve discussed, toggling is usually implemented at the level of the video platform, and not in the video format itself. This presents a problem for some localization projects, in which clients aren’t sure of which delivery platform will be used, or want to make sure that their content can be used for any platforms later on. In these cases, it’s good to let the multimedia localization studio know – they can prepare multiple deliverables, or even one that is generic enough that it can be easily converted to multiple different formats later on. Either way, communicating your needs to your subtitles vendor as clearly as possible is the key to getting deliverables that meet your budget, timeline and project specifications.