07 Jul

Subtitling in japanese

When we talk about subtitling in Japan, without a doubt, it’s an ever-growing field of translation. In the last century, a huge number of foreign movies was imported to Japan, mainly from the United States, and all of them needed to be translated and subtitled into Japanese, thus solving communication problems between the film and its audience.

Long before subtitling first arrived to Japan, all foreign movies shown would be narrated by a translator, or benshi. As for Karima Fumitoshi in her paper Subtitling in Japan, the Japanese were adopting the tradition of a storyteller, so the audience would rely on the narration of a benshi to understand a film (Gilbert and Kenneth, 2009). Back then subtitling was quite new for Japanese movie industry, and the first Japanese subtitlers learned subtitling in the United States together with american film producers.

Now, subtitling in Japanese is very different from subtitling in English, Spanish or any other widely-extended language. For its nature, being an East Asian language, Japanese has its own set of rules and specs for subtitling, which now are quite firmly established in Japan. For instance, there are very different specs for a subtitle length in characters and its duration. Unlike in English, where you can normally use up to 42 characters per line, in Japanese you can only use up to 13 characters per line. To compare the duration of a subtitle, in English it’s of 20 characters per second, while in Japanese it’s of 4 characters per second. You can also encounter different styles and positioning applied, and in Japanese subtitling you can see vertical subtitles as well as horizontally-positioned subtitles.

The main advantage in Japanese subtitling is the use of kanji, Chinese characters, which lets subtitlers express the maximum amount of meaning in the least amount of space. Sometimes, for Japanese speakers, a kanji transmits an image rather than a sound. That’s why, unlike western subtitling, Japanese subtitling is better fit for transmitting the meaning, and not simply words. This is the goal we all, translators, subtitlers and localizers are trying to achieve.


Gilbert, C.F. Fong and Kenneth, K. L. Au. Dubbing and Subtitling in a World Context. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2009

Netflix Timed Text Style Guide. Japanese SDH Timed Text Style Guide. (web) Netflix, 2016.