The Rise of Machine Translation Subtitles in China

Bridging Language Barriers with Less Human Labor

In recent years, the emergence of machine translation (MT) technology has revolutionized various industries, and one notable area of its application is in subtitling for movies, TV shows, and especially online content. China, with its vast linguistic diversity and booming entertainment industry, has taken the step of embracing MT subtitles as a powerful tool to bridge language barriers and reach a wider audience. This article explores the growing popularity of MT subtitles in China and the impact they have on the entertainment landscape.

How Machine Translation Subtitles Works

MT subtitle services, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and neural networks, typically employ a workflow that resembles that of a human translator. First, advanced algorithms identify and transcribe the spoken words in the video. The text is then translated by a built-in artificial intelligence translation engine. The machine then matches the completed subtitles to the video’s timeline and appends them to the video. Finally, the user can choose to export just the subtitle file (suffixes of .srt, .vtt, .ass) or export the video with embedded subtitles directly. Users may be able to customize subtitle styles, depending on the service provider.

The Need for Machine Translation Subtitles in China

Foreign media content has always been welcomed on the Chinese entertainment market. As globalization accelerates, the demand for content from various countries and cultures increases. The introduction of foreign content, such as films, TV shows, and documentaries, satisfies Chinese audiences’ demand for globalized entertainment, allowing them to better comprehend and experience stories and cultures from around the world. Chinese audiences desire a greater selection of these multimedia productions to enhance their entertainment choices. Traditional manual subtitling is time-consuming, expensive, and insufficient to meet the demand for the vast introduction of foreign content. Thus, the market is turning to the rising MT subtitles.

Current Machine Translation Subtitle Services in China

China currently has three main categories of MT subtitle suppliers. Streaming platforms provide Closed Captions as the first category. Before a viewer can choose to turn on these subtitles while viewing a video, the video’s publisher must grant permission. The quality of the translation is closely related to the quality of the platform’s machine translation engine. The second category of this kind of service is offered by language service providers, such as NetEase’s Sight and Xunfei Hearing Subtitles. These services are often fully functional and even support other minority languages. However, they often come at a high price. The third category consists of small applications created by enthusiasts of subtitles. Usually, these programs continue to rely on external translation engines, but they can incorporate the API keys of multiple engines into a single program.

Challenges and Limitations

While MT subtitles offer undeniable advantages, they are not without limitations. Complex idioms, cultural nuances, and context-specific references can make it difficult for machines to accurately translate. Furthermore, machine translation may not always capture the subtleties of tone and emotion, potentially affecting the viewer’s understanding and immersion in the content. For topic-jumping online content, the MT engine frequently breaks sentences incorrectly, resulting in inaccurate translation output. In addition, owing to historical factors in the translation industry, the MT quality of Chinese-English language pairs remain the most. Due to the insufficiency of databases, the quality of inter-translations between other foreign languages and Chinese is unsatisfactory. The quality is sufficient for a native Chinese speaker to grasp the general idea, but the target text is unreadable.

Future Implications

As MT technology and AI continue to evolve, we can expect further improvements in the accuracy and quality of subtitles. More developers are exploring ways to integrate machine learning with human expertise to enhance translation output and ensure culturally sensitive adaptations. Additionally, advancements in voice recognition and real-time translation may pave the way for instant machine translation subtitles during live broadcasts and events.


MT subtitles have become an indispensable tool in China’s entertainment industry, enabling diverse audiences to enjoy content across language barriers. While challenges remain, the ongoing advancements in MT technology hold promising prospects for breaking down linguistic barriers, fostering cross-cultural communication, and creating a more inclusive media environment in China and beyond.

Guest Post by Yujia Yang.