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I've searched around for an answer to this, but I can't seem to find it. Perhaps someone here can help?

I've created several M4V files through Handbrake from a DVD I own, and added them to iTunes. The episodes of the TV show appear OK, but the soft-coded subtitles I selected in Handbrake don't appear as an option when playing the episode on my iPad. But, if I open these same M4V files through VLC Player, the subtitles are there, and can be turned on and off.

If they're in the M4V file, why can't I enable these subtitles on my iPad? :(

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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

As you discovered, DVDs often store subtitles in the VobSub format, which are images, not text. QuickTime and the iOS Video app only handle SRT/3GPP format text subtitles.

Using the very handy (and free) Subler, VobSubs can be converted to SRT subtitles and packaged in an MP4/M4V. It does this using OCR, but I've found the results to be quite accurate, since the source material is pretty clean.

If you need support for non-english subtitles, you need to go here and download the proper Tesseract language file, unzip it (so you have a .traineddata file), and place it in the Contents/Resources/tessdata folder in the Subler.app bundle.

Converting from VobSub to SRT with Subler

  1. Open Subler, and create a new file.
  2. Import your existing MP4/M4V (or MKV) file (File → Import → File…).
  3. The import settings should be automatically set up properly, but make sure that the subtitle track's action is set to 3GPP Text, not Passthru.
    • Other tracks should be set to Passthru, unless you have audio in a format the MP4 container doesn't support (but this should have been taken care of by Handbrake).
  4. Click Add.
  5. Optional: Click on the subtitle track and change the Forced setting to All Samples Are Forced, if you need forced subtitles (i.e. always on, for foreign languages).
  6. Optional: Add any metadata you might want. Subler has a nice auto-search option (File → Import → Search Metadata Online…).
  7. Save the file. This should be relatively quick, since it's not transcoding any of the video or audio.
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Great answer, but you make a mistake in your first sentence. Subtitles are sometimes stored in Closed Caption format on DVD. These can be read by Handbrake with ease. Fantastic to know there's a way to deal with the common VobSub format, though. Thanks! –  Django Reinhardt Oct 5 '12 at 8:20
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Is there a Windows alternative for Subler? I want to add srt subtitles to a mp4 file, without re-encoding the whole video (like HandBrake does). –  compie Dec 30 '12 at 13:53
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I would not group SCC Closed Captions with Soft Subtitles. They are very different from one another.

SCC Closed Captions are a binary format that can only be installed at encode time.
Make a mistake and you'll have to re-encode the entire video file. Most soft subtitle tracks, OTOH, are text files, the simplest being SRT (SubRip).
There are many places on the Internet where you can obtain the SRT files for popular movies and TV shows.

You'll see this referred to as "fan-subbing." If you want/need to create your own SRT files, Jubler is a good, free choice.
QuickTime also supports SCC Closed Captions but you'll need to use Composer ($50) to install them.

For my purposes, I favor SRT/3GPP soft subtitles over SCC Closed Captions because soft subtitles look better and are much more flexible.

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After doing more research, it appears that the following is true:

There are three types of subtitles:

  • Closed Captions
  • Vobsub
  • SRT (external file)

Basically, according to this post on the Handbrake forums, only Closed Captions can be used to reliably "soft code" subtitles into M4V files for use on iOS devices. ("Soft code" meaning the subtitles can be turned off and on.)

You can only "hard code" (aka "burn in") Vobsub subtitles (I think they're actually images), and SRT files can often corrupt, meaning you only get part of a sentence.

Slightly annoying, but good to know: Go with Closed Captions when you can.

Unfortunately that also means that if you don't have CC (or an SRT file) then your iPad will not let you enable subtitles -- even if they're there -- as it doesn't support Vobsub.

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Burned in means the subtitles are added as part of the video stream, so directly in the picture. You should be able to burn in any source of subtitles, though evidently this way you can never turn the subtitles off. –  Gerry Oct 4 '12 at 13:45
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