Dealing with awkward subtitle problems in Handbrake

I know very little about Handbrake; this is just some notes on what I personally do to reduce my confusion about why subtitles aren’t being ripped properly and manually fixing that, but I almost certainly can’t answer any questions about issues you might be having! This is just here in the hope that it might be useful to someone…

I’ve been on a long-running project to rip some of our DVDs to network attached storage, so that playing them is a much more pleasant experience: we can then easily play any of our DVDs around the flat without suffering cute-but-unusable DVD menus, condescending anti-piracy warnings or trashy trailers. With some DVDs that are already quite poor quality I’ll just image the disk and copy the ISO to the NAS, but in most cases I use Handbrake to transcode just the titles I want from the DVD using a codec with rather better compression than MPEG-2. There’s inevitably a loss of quality doing this transcoding, of course, but in most cases I don’t mind.

DVD Subtitles

One slightly vexing issue that sometimes comes up when doing this is what to do about the subtitle tracks on the DVD. For plenty of films or TV shows there aren’t any points at which you’d expect a subtitle to be shown, so you don’t need to worry about them. However, plenty of our DVDs do have brief sections in foreign languages, for example, that you’d expect to be subtitled.

There are various choices about how you can handle these when ripping, but I prefer what’s really the option that loses most information: “burning in” any subtitles that are there for the purposes of translating foreign language sections into English or are added for comic effect. “Burning in” these images from a subtitle track means that you’re overlaying the images before the source video is transcoded, so you can’t remove those subtitles or switch them to other languages afterwards. Obviously lots of people prefer not to burn in the subtitles for that reason, but I tend to do this because it means I’m not subject to the vagaries of how different video players handle subtitles, and these rips are only for my own personal use anyway.

As well as “burning in” subtitles, another concept you might need to know about is of “forced subtitles”. Any subtitles in a given subtitle track might be marked as “forced” – this is used to tell the DVD player to display these even if the person hasn’t chosen to see all subtitles from a particular subtitle track – the intended use of this is exactly for brief sections of foreign languages in films, as I understand it.

In most cases, what works fine in Handbrake for what I want to do is to use the “Foreign Audio Search” option in the “Subtitle List” tab, selecting “Burned In” and then guessing whether to tick the “Forced Subtitles Only” box or not – generally I’ll leave that unchecked, unless when I look at the list of available subtitles (under “Add”) there’s only one English language subtitle track, in which case it’s probably forcing subtitles for any foreign language sections that are subtitled. This option should look through all the subtitle tracks for ones that appear less than 10% of the time, look for forced subtitles, and make a sensible choice about what to use: the Handbrake documentation explains this.

However, there are various ways this can go wrong – the “Foreign Audio Search” option sometimes makes the wrong choice in peculiar ways – e.g. I’ve seen it pick the right track when you’re just ripping one chapter from a title, but the wrong one when you’ve selected all the chapters (!). Also, there’s just very little consistency in how DVD producers choose whether to mark subtitles as forced.

When it goes wrong, here’s the method I use to manually pick the right subtitle track to burn in – essentially this is to do the “Foreign Audio Search” scan on just one chapter that I know both has audio that should and should not be subtitled, look through the “Activity Log” to see the results of that scan, and then manually select the right subtitle track based on that.


To step through that in more detail, here’s what I’d do:

  • Select from the “Subtitle List” tab the “Foreign Audio Search” option, and add that to the subtitles list. It doesn’t matter what options you choose, since we’re just adding this to get the results of the search into the activity log.
  • Find a chapter in the title you want to rip that has some audio you’d want to have subtitles for, and some that you don’t want to be subtitled. (You can select multiple chapters to achieve this if you want – the point of just choosing a small number of chapters is only to make the scan quicker.) I’d normally do this by (a) knowing a bit of the film with such audio and (b) finding that in bit of the film in Totem, which conveniently shows the title and chapter number in the window title.
  • Select just those chapters to rip,  add them to the queue
  • Start encoding
  • Open the activity log window
  • Once the “subtitle scan” pass has completed (it should be the first thing that Handbrake does) scroll up in the activity log to find the lines that look something like this:

[13:35:12] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 87 hits (0 forced)
[13:35:12] Subtitle track 1 (id 0x21bd) ‘English’: 89 hits (0 forced)
[13:35:12] Subtitle track 2 (id 0x22bd) ‘English’: 6 hits (0 forced)

  • That means that subtitle track 2 is the right one, because there are subtitles for only some of the audio – the other two probably have subtitles for every line of dialogue, even if it’s in English. So, now we want to set up Handrake to rip the complete title but with that subtitle track added manually:
  • Remove the “Foreign Audio Search” option from the subtitle list.
  • Click “Add”  in the subtitle list tab, and select subtitle track 3 (n.b. not 2, since the graphical user interface (GUI) for Handbrake numbers subtitle tracks starting at 1, not 0.) Make sure you don’t select “Forced Subtitles Only” since the subtitles on that track aren’t forced (see “0 forced” in the output above).  (I would also select “Burn in” whenever adding a subtitle track manually like this, for the reasons discussed above – but you might well have different views about that.)
  • Then select all the chapters of the title, add the title to the queue and rip it as normal.

As other examples of things you might see in that list of “hits” in the results of the foreign audio search pass, consider the following:

[16:57:06] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 77 hits (0 forced)
[16:57:06] Subtitle track 1 (id 0x21bd) ‘English’: 78 hits (0 forced)
[16:57:06] Subtitle track 14 (id 0x2ebd) ‘English’: 8 hits (8 forced)

In this example, it happens that the subtitles are “forced”, but it’s still clear that track 14 (0-based) is the one which just has the subtitles for the foreign language section, so I’d add track 15 (14 +1) manually in the GUI as above – and in this case it doesn’t matter whether you selected “Forced Subtitles Only” or not, since all of the subtitles on that track appear to be forced.

As a final example, you might see output like this:

[18:23:55] Subtitle track 0 (id 0x20bd) ‘English’: 92 hits (11 forced)

In that example there’s a single English subtitle track, which marks some subtitles as “forced” to indicate that those are for foreign language audio. In that case, in the GUI I would manually add subtitle track 1 (0 + 1) but would have to select the “Force Subtitles Only” option to avoid getting subtitles for everything.







12 responses to “Dealing with awkward subtitle problems in Handbrake”

  1. Subtitle Lover Avatar
    Subtitle Lover

    I’d like It can translate/convert a video/audio file into subtitle in less than a minute for any language.

  2. Hank Avatar

    Thanks for the info. A well written and informative post!

  3. NinjaTurtle Avatar

    Sorry but advising people to default to a foreign audio search is not very good advice. You get varying results across different sections of movie because the audio is literally being processed in an attempt to detect a foreign language. The order that subtitles are listed on the DVD or original video file is going to be the order that it’s presented in handbrake. If you want to burn it in, just select that track and burn it in. You think you’re being clever with the foreign audio search but it’s actually the cause of your confusion.

  4. Me Avatar

    I think this post is completely useless. I used “Subtitle Edit” (free, open source) to OCR the Bluray subtitles into SRT, then I added that to significantly reduce the subtitle size -AND- get rid of the subtitle text “squishing”.

    Apparently bluray players don’t read text files, they overlap on top of the movie a transparent box with text inside of it.

    Lastly, I used nixtoolgui to delete the old subtitles from the mkv file, and add in the SRT subtitle data from subtitle edit. This is definitely a failing with handbreak, they could add a automatic OCR program for subtitles… But they don’t consider that a “bug” for widescreen content that gets clipped by Handbreak.

  5. daveclark966 Avatar

    another alternative:use Avdshare Video Converter to Add or remove all kinds of subtitles, like SRT, SSA/ASS, and IDX/SUB to or from MKV, MP4, WMV, MOV, ASF, FLV, AVI, MPEG, etc.

  6. EV Avatar

    This is all great if you have intimate knowledge of the movie youre working with. knowing where and when all the possible foreign language bits are so that you can pick and choose the parts you want to be sure about having burned in subtitles… I did this for star wars movies after I noticed the subtitles for aliens talking weren’t there… I always assumed they were just in the movie but, my rips weren’t showing them till I screwed with this. Again though, these were movies I’m VERY familiar with and I knew what scenes and chapters to jump around to and check my work. is there a “best” option for when you dont? If I just want to be sure non english audio is subtitled and burned in without burning in the E N T I R E sub track, is there a rock solid choice for that?

  7. TJPacific Avatar

    Very helpful post, so thank you. I’ve been wrestling with the exact issues you describe, going from ISO files to MKV (H.265) with Handbrake. I’ve tested several such tools, and Handbrake is the only one that gives me good control over the output. Lots of manual fiddling, but I’m learning there are reasons.

    The two overall issues:

    1) DVD and BluRay sub-titling vary from disk to disk, with different standards for the two formats. (The Wikipedia read on this is a somewhat eye-popping.)

    2) Handbrake documentation is terse and sparse. They don’t get into the weeds about 1) above, just give pretty general guidance and say “experiment”.

    Inspecting the scan results like you suggest is another handy tool in the toolbox. It’s REALLY a drag to do a 4-hour conversion to MKV, only to find that you have occasional German sub-titles burned in because you checked off “Forced only” the wrong way. If there was a whole book about this (there isn’t), I’d buy it.

  8. steen bechgaard jensen Avatar
    steen bechgaard jensen

    I’m a newbie (using Linux just 4 years) with video projects using brasero for ISO files from cd/dvd, makemkv for mkv files from blu-rays and finaly making mp4 files from either mkv, iso or dvd’s (can’t rip from blu-rays on handbrake) I still can’t Hard brun the subtitle language of my choice. Please help, Running Ubuntu 20.04 Lts, latest handbrake.

  9. James I Timmerman Avatar
    James I Timmerman

    I cant get the subtitles to display on two lines.
    Is that a function of the sty file or handled somehow in handbrake?

    1. Michael Litty Avatar
      Michael Litty

      Try inserting a \N where you want the line break. I use Aegisub to edit my captions and that’s what I have to do to split a line within a caption. For example, “This is the first line of my caption.\NThis is the second line.” would display like…
      This is the first line of my caption.
      This is the second line.

  10. Marcel Kofler Avatar
    Marcel Kofler

    Run into some issues while adding subtitles in HandBrake? Try the easy and optimal alternative – Joyoshare Video Joiner. It can work as a video editor, giving a subtitle tool to merge various types of subtitle files with any video without any hassle.

  11. KevinP Avatar

    Thanks for this painstaking post, but, unfortunately, the results vary wildly for me.

    I’m trying to make backups of some classic Italian movies which have English language subtitles (which I’ve tested and can see working using VLC, etc). To ‘save’ the subtitles, I’ve tried half a dozen different options: clicking on both ‘forced only’ and ‘burned’ for each of the languages available works for some DVDs but not others. Clicking on only one language (English letterbox), forced and burned, works for others. Yet again some DVDs entirely fail (no burned-in or menu-selectable subs no matter what combination of options I try. There’s clearly some confusion when it comes to what these menu options mean: in not one single case did choosing ‘burned’ result in the subs being burned onto the image permanently; instead it simply gives me the opportunity to turn on and off subs by selecting them from the appropriate menu in VLC. Handbrake, though it is excellent in many respects, stinks when it comes to a logical approach to what should be a (relatively) straightforward matter.

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