Universal Subtitles: add subtitles to any video on the web

The nonprofit Participatory Culture Foundation has just launched an amazing new tool: Universal Subtitles. As the name implies, Universal Subtitles makes it ridiculously easy to add subtitles to practically any video on the web, including any HTML5 video, FLV, YouTube, Vimeo, Blip, Dailymotion (you can add subtitles to a video without having to host it yourself, and the same subtitle file can be associated with multiple copies of the video all over the net).

Why Universal Subtitles? Well, of course they're useful for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but they're also a gateway to multilingual consumption of video (as a mostly monolingual anglo, I'm extremely keen to get a chance to follow along with all the fascinating videos made all over the world). Because Universal Subtitles hosts the subtitles separate from the video, it's easy to collaborate with others to produce translations, comic remixes (this is the world's easiest Downfall remix generator!) and closed captions.

For video creators, this is a dead simple way to increase the audience for your work -- especially since there's a full-text search coming shortly. For subtitlers, the upcoming workflow management and collaboration tools will make volunteer efforts even easier to run.

Both Mozilla and Wikipedia will be including the Universal Subtitles tool for their videos -- and the tool itself is free/open source software, which means that the community can be sure that it won't be orphaned and that the tool can always be improved.

If you're a popular YouTube video creator and want to get involved in the launch effort, please get in touch with Dean at the Participatory Culture Foundation. And if you want to try it out now, have a look at the Dirk Gently video I just posted -- it's ready for your subtitles! Universal Subtitles

(Disclosure: I am proud to volunteer my services as a board member for the Participatory Culture Foundation, the charitable nonprofit that created and maintains Universal Subtitles)


  1. Weird, the Universal Subtitles content prevented the rest of BB to load. I had to block it with AdBlock.

  2. Well, it loaded on my PC, but it took some 10 seconds or something like that.
    By the way Universal Subtitles, that’s a great idea, I can help translating some english spoken videos to spanish and vice versa.
    I would like to watch those funny japanese videos with english subtitles, so I can understand what they’re saying.
    Imagine the next step:
    “Google Instant Audio Translation”.

  3. The website http://www.viki.com operates on this premise – Videos hosted at multiple sites, crowdsourced subtitles in dozens of languages. It’s really very neat, but the majority of the content on that site are Korean dramas. Good to see another effort that might become more widespread.

    1. viki.com is opening up to all kind of content now — while korean dramas were definitely the driving force, now you can see Indian, Brazilian, Japanese etc shows as well.

  4. I’m glad that your first thought was “widen your audience!” My first thought was Mystery Science Theater 3000 — make wisecracks aplenty everywhere! :))

  5. (Worked fine on Chrome.)

    I can just imagine all the fun creative types will have adding subtitled comments to videos.

  6. I’ve been wondering about this as I consider subtitling my Vimeo videos for early next year. Hoping to reach a wider audience. Awesome timing, thanks so much for the post.

  7. Hi everyone, this is Nicholas from Universal Subtitles — Cory’s post totally swamped us this morning, but we are adding more firepower right now and the lag should be gone. Sorry about that! And we have some structural changes coming soon for high load sites, so this shouldn’t be a problem in the future.

    Let us know if you are still seeing any bugs or lag in a few hours!

  8. Non-programmer here….

    Does this mean that anyone could post any subtitles they wanted to someone else’s video? As in: purposely wrong text, either for giggles or to be mean?

  9. I work as a closed captioner for the hearing impaired. The technology that is cropping up in this field is pretty amazing considering where it began. I do only live, real time captioning, so this doesn’t directly effect me. But we do have a division that does post-production captioning and things like this have some people I work with understandably concerned.

    Personally, I think it’s great. As long as there is some measure of quality and we don’t end up with infinite versions of “What’s Up Tiger Lilly” or something….actually come to think of it, that might not be so bad.

    1. Just so you know: your work benefits more than the hearing impaired. Those of us with auditory processing issues (learning disability: our ears hear but our brains have difficulty processing the sounds) also use closed captioning.

      Thank you.

      1. Thank you for saying so.

        Sometimes, it feels like I’m doing my job for people in bars and at the gym. Not that that’s a necessarily terrible thing, but it’s not really why I got into it.

  10. Not supporting Safari is their choice, but they could just support both mp4/h.264 and ogg and make life easy for people. Then it could potentially work with iOS as well, which would be a bonus. Sometimes standards do matter but, but here h.264 is part of the standard, so pushing ogg is just a nerd purity test. Choosing to push FireFox here is pretty questionable, though really html5 is questionable too, since it also cuts off users at the cost of supporting a poorly thought out and badly supported spec.

    I do have FireFox but choose not to use it. I’m sure not going to run a second browser just to see some subtitles on videos.

    The site’s dead, but I wonder what they do with IE since it doesn’t support ogg by default either. Do you tell IE users to install a plugin, tell Safari users to use a different browser? That’s just working to ensure your project fails. Of course that’s just a guess since the site’s got bigger issues for users right now…

    One thing I’d be hopeful of would be seeing if there’s a way to get to the actual text. I really don’t like watching video as much as reading for a lot of things where the video can be very superfluous compared to the text (things like lectures esp.), so it’d be cool if it could work as a screen scraper for video. Also one could maybe use this to escape having to listen to the typically pointless soundtracks. That’d be cool.

  11. The Universal Subtitles page is back up now; it was down for a while due to excessive (though very welcome) BoingBoing traffic. Their blog is also worth checking out. It’s a legitimately interesting and well-written blog, and I swear I’m not only plugging it because their most recent post links to my own blog and my NaNoWriMo-inspired “Caption 30 Videos in 30 Days” project (aka NatCapVidMo), which Universal Subtitles turned into a surprisingly quick and painless process. This is seriously a revolutionary tool, and it’s not just useful for people with hearing or audio processing disorders, as mentioned above. Even the language translation feature, though extremely cool, is only the half of it. How many people want to watch videos at work but can’t turn their speakers on and would draw suspicion if they put on their headphones? The Bored-Office-Slackers demographic is huge, and if we can get them to start supporting USubs, there’ll be no looking back.

  12. Universal Subtitles site is gone!
    Does it still exist?
    The plot thickens …
    Let me know if you have a new url.


  13. I spent several hours adding translations in four languages to a Vimeo video. Worked great until I tested the site a couple of days later. My video would not load because the Universal Subtitles site was unavailable. Considering previous comments, this seems to be a problem.

    It’s a great idea with a wonderfully simple interface but if it’s constantly going down meaning my content can’t be viewed then what’s the point. They should have a fail safe in the event that their page won’t load that will still allow the video to appear. Now it looks like I will have to create four separate videos each with their own translation to be certain my content can be viewed.

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