posted in: Subtitling 0


Subtitling is a technique related to audiovisual content, including film, consisting of text display at the bottom of the image, when broadcasting a program, like a movie. This technique initiated by the cinema was then transposed to television, where it can affect all types of programs like the television series, documentaries, news, etc. It now applies to all audiovisual media: DVD-Video, Internet, etc.

Subtitling or dubbing?

Subtitling is, with the dubbing (which preceded), one of two ways to translate the words of a film or an audiovisual program and the inscriptions on the screen. Subtitling is to display a translation, synchronous with the dialogue, at the bottom of the screen (or sometimes, as in Japan, on the side). Cheaper than dubbing (because there are no records related expenses: studio, actors, etc.), it is dominant or only existing in countries whose languages affect a limited audience (Dutch, Finnish, Greek … ).


Subtitled translation obeys several constraints relating to the readability and understanding assumed in the viewer. It is determined by the speed of the utterance of dialogue which it corresponds and the cutting of the visual media. The two coordinate of subtitle are:

  • the time required for reading time, estimated very roughly 15 characters per second, or even more broadly, to a line for two seconds, a line and a half to three seconds, etc.
  • the maximum number of letters and spaces that can register on the screen (justification, as in typography): Today, two lines of 40 characters each for 35 mm in film, digital copies and the DVD, 36 for TV, 32 for teletext. The number of sub-titles in a feature film varies between 1000 and 1800.

At the beginning of the talkies and long time after, subtitle (also known as intertitle) was supposed to “summarize” the dialog elements essential to understanding, hence the idea that it was a “adaptation.” Thus, for example, the subtle dialogue of comedy (often because of good literary or dramatic authors) was largely lost to the outside observer, the benefit of pure information (this often instructed studios, which provided their foreign subsidiaries a precut text and pre-text).

Now the demand of sponsors and spectators (and translators) will instead trend towards the highest possible fidelity to the original in all its nuances (and often in all its specificity or technicality). Instead of (or together) to summarize, it is often more a question of eliminating what the viewer can only understand the word or phrase that doubles a gesture, echoed repetition. It is of course impossible to translate the whole of a dialogue (when this is the case, as some Hong Kong action films subtitled in English where the result is often illegible), but the trend to literalness progresses, as indeed in literary translation. Despite its limitations, the caption may be a translation closer to the original than dubbing, which changes the whole soundtrack while the subtitle merely opens the image. It is followed by one end to the other by a single person, the translator, while doubling on the plateau, the text escapes its author.

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