Subtitling for Cinema: A Brief History

“Every film is a foreign film. Foreign to some audience somewhere around the world. It is through subtitles…that an audience can experience different languages and cultures. And behind every foreign film that brings a culture to a viewer is a subtitler”. Sandeep Garcha (Narrator). ‘The Invisible Subtitler’ 1

With the arrival of the 120th anniversary of the first appearance of text accompanying the projected moving image, this article will trace the evolution, and occasionally amusing history, of Audio-Visual Translation (AVT) for cinema. From hand-written or printed inserts between frames (commonly termed ‘intertitles’) to optical projection, hot-metal presses and chemical processing, to laser subtitling and digital encoding – this is a story about inventors and inventions, innovators, eccentrics and entrepreneurs and what the future may hold for AVT in general, but first there is an historical question to be addressed.

Every story starts somewhere…

Which came first: Intertitles or Subtitles?

To this day there is still disagreement in Academia about when the terms ‘intertitles’ and ‘subtitles’ first appeared, although the origin of the former may be more recent than many would suppose. In the 2013 edition of Film History: An International Journal 2, Professor André Gaudreault states that the Roberts dictionary traces the French ‘intertitre’ back to 1955, whilst Oxford Dictionaries claim that the English ‘intertitle’ originates in the 1930s. As if to muddy the waters still further, the hyphenated term ‘sub-titles’ dates from 1826, in its literary context, although there is evidence to suggest that as ‘subtitles’ it was always the default term for what are generally called intertitles 3. So whilst it seems that the question asked above may never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, this much is clear – ‘intertitles’ is a retronym (as is ‘silent movies’), but for the sake of simple continuity and to avoid further confusion, it will be used hereafter when referring to the inserted title cards of the ‘silent movie’ era.

The First Intertitles Appear

Auguste and Louis Lumière, Georges Méliès; Thomas Edison – these are just a few of the famous names that usually spring to mind when thinking about early film making, whilst those who created and developed intertitling still remain largely unknown outside of the world of the professional silent film cineaste. For example: the former stage magician and illusionist, Méliès’ first film viewer (a variation of the Edison Kinetoscope 4) was manufactured by the British innovator and visionary film maker, Robert W. Paul 5 who, in April 1896 and almost by accident, developed a reverse-cranking mechanism, which allowed for multiple exposures of the same film stock. Paul included this ingenious new device in his ‘Cinematograph Camera No.1’ and it soon proved its worth with regard to on-screen titling.

However, did Paul also invent intertitles? This question is still a matter of debate among scholars of early cinema, as the British born, American cartoonist and film maker, James Stuart Blackton 6 may have been experimenting with similar titling in 1897, a full year before Paul became the first officially recorded film maker to use intertitles 7. Unfortunately, there is scant physical evidence surviving from this era with which to prove the case either way. Nevertheless, in 1898 Paul exhibited Our New General Servant 8, an intertitled light drama, just a few minutes in length and with only four scenes, in which a woman discovers her husband kissing the housemaid then promptly dismisses the maid. Imagine that same scenario today – the wife would likely dismiss the husband instead and the maid would undoubtedly sue for sexual harassment. How times, and attitudes, have changed!

Robert W. Paul (left) and James Stuart Blackton (right). Which one invented intertitles?

As the 20th Century dawned, experiments in titling continued. The year 1900 saw another British film maker, the wonderfully eccentric Cecil M. Hepworth 9 present his intriguingly entitled comedic short film, How it Feels to Be Run Over 10, in which the camera operator does indeed appear to be run over by one of those newfangled horseless carriages; a deft touch of in-camera trickery on the part of Hepworth, which Méliès would have undoubtedly appreciated. The film ends with a curious hand written title sequence that reads simply ‘!!! Oh! Mother will be pleased’, which hints at Hepworth’s rather bizarre sense of humour, as does the following quote from Hepworth: “There was nothing of courage in what I did. It was always just a lark for me…I was suckled on amyl acetate and reared on celluloid” 11

Cecil M. Hepworth and those curious end titles.

One year later and Paul’s reverse-cranking mechanism was put to effective use in his 1901 production of Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, 12integrating the word ‘Scrooge’ into the opening shot and a similar technique was employed by Hepworth for his 1903 film Alice in Wonderland 13. The same year, in America, the Edison backed, Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin 14 (frequently misidentified as the world’s first intertitled film) was released and in 1907, Porter’s College Chums 15 featured a truly imaginative use of what, in the modern world, could be termed ‘verbal texting’ during a telephone conversation in which a young woman berates her fiancé after seeing him with another woman.

The opening title shots for Paul’s ‘Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost’ (1901) and Hepworth’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1903)
Edwin S. Porter and his ‘verbal texting’ in ‘College Chums’ (1907).

Without fanfare or pomp, intertitles gradually increased their presence and the following decade was a time of near constant innovation; one that lead to titling overall becoming ever more elaborate in its design and use of text. Expository and dialogue intertitles became the norm – the first explaining plot points, the second illustrating the actors’ lines. Opening title sequences began to list the names of the production companies and by 1911, also credit the director and stars of the film; and with musical accompaniment – piano, organ, string quartet, even a full orchestra at times, ‘going to the movies’ took a step closer to the modern day experience.

Translation and The Rise of Subtitles

With new production companies appearing in America and Europe, the inevitable question of translation for export markets arose. Intertitles presented no obstacle as they could be easily removed, translated then filmed and reinserted, whilst sometimes the translation issue was resolved by having actors re-voicing or ‘live dubbing’ the dialogue from behind the screen. In France and Japan especially, foreign films, i.e. mostly American, would be shown with an accompanying on-stage interpretive commentator – the Bonimenteur 16 in France and the Benshi 17 in Japan. The interlocutor explained the story and translated the intertitles, interpreted the on-screen action and in Japan in particular, imaginatively voiced the actors’ silent dialogue.

The Bonimenteur c1912 and a modern day Benshi, sometimes referred to as ‘Neo’ Benshi.

However, from as early as 1909 attempts had been made to complement silent films with what a modern day audience would recognise as subtitles. The first known experiments 18 included using a sciopticon (similar to a magic lantern) to project text onto the screen; a method that relied on the projectionist displaying glass slides precisely in time with the actors’ silent dialogue, whilst trying not to scorch his fingers! A similar approach had printed text on a contiguous film strip, dubbed ‘linetitles’ in Denmark 19, although once again this relied on absolute synchronisation, but as if to compound the problem still further, the projected text (slide or film strip) was often indistinct and difficult to read.

One truly novel idea for illuminating on-screen dialogue, which doesn’t quite fit into the category of either Intertitling or Subtitling, was devised by the former leader of the (American) Jewish Congress turned playwright, Abraham S. Schomer 20, who, in 1915 (following a series of successful plays) gave up his New York law practice to write for motion pictures. Valiantly attempting to break away from the obvious limitations of intertitling, he wrote, directed and co-produced The Chamber Mystery 21, released in 1920, which combined intertitles with in-frame word balloons added in post-production. Sadly for Schomer, those comic book add-ons failed to capture the imagination of the viewing public and his film is largely overlooked in the wider history of cinema; the irony being that modern day computer generated text can be programmed to appear anywhere on-screen and even track a character’s movements, so perhaps Schomer was actually less of a misguided eccentric and more a misunderstood visionary.

Two frames from Schomer’s ‘The Chamber Mystery’ showing his use of word balloons. Black hair and teeth?

Around the time that Schomer was experimenting with his word balloons, a young, aspiring concert violinist, Herman G. Weinberg 22 was rearranging symphonic scores of German silent films for the string quartet at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in Manhattan. Being fluent in German, he also started to translate the first talking pictures from Germany, which lead him into a new career that would eventually span 60 years, during which he subtitled over 300 films and wrote extensively about cinema. In an interview with Weinberg, about his days as a subtitler, he commented:

“At first we tried the technique used for silent pictures. Every few minutes there would be a full-screen title…But that didn’t work because there were always a few people who could understand German, and they would laugh at the spoken jokes in the film. Everyone else got annoyed because they thought they were missing something”. 23

Herman G. Weinberg c1960 and a Moviola editor c1924.

Later, after acquiring a Moviola (a machine that allowed an editor to view the film whilst editing), Weinberg cautiously tested its potential for displaying text within the moving images, at the bottom of the screen, noting the audience “Didn’t drop their heads, they merely dropped their eyes” 24. Unfortunately, whilst Weinberg had noticed the natural, unconscious reaction of the audience, this same realisation would inevitably become the basis for ideological abuse within certain authoritarian regimes to come, for an audience largely unfamiliar with a foreign language tends to accept the ‘translation’ skills of the subtitler without question.

On a lighter note, an amusing tale is told 25 about Weinberg’s dry wit and his ingenious approach to circumventing censorship. Deliberating over how to translate a particularly offensive comment in a French film and knowing that the accurate translation would never be passed by the American censors, Weinberg, like Schomer before him, found inspiration in the comic book approach to swearing and his solution was – “XZ%!X”. Needless to say, but his ‘translation’ passed without comment.

Stepping back a few years to 1924, the German film producer Wilhelm Prager 26 released a sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty 27), which featured a combination of intertitles and on-screen titles to add commentary and name the competing athletes. Although not a new idea at the time, this nevertheless indicated a prevailing move away from solely relying on intertitling. Prager would go on to re-edit a controversial, unfinished Italian made documentary of the 1928 Olympic games, entitled La IX Olimpiade di Amsterdam 28, but operating under budgetary constraints, Prager deferred to his previous method – creating both an Italian intertitled version and a Dutch version with intertitles and on-screen titling.

Stills from Wilhelm Prager’s Dutch re-edit of the 1928 Olympic Games Documentary, with both intertitles and on screen titling.

With Weinberg’s Moviola trials, Prager’s on-screen titles and the 1927 release of Warner Brothers’ (semi) talking picture The Jazz Singer 29– creating an instant media sensation at its premiere and thrilling the viewing public – the writing was finally on the wall for intertitles.

The Advancement of Subtitling

As Hollywood’s talking pictures began to dominate the world cinematic stage, this new phenomenon gave a much needed impetus to the improvement of subtitling for foreign markets. Building on the techniques used for Prager’s documentaries and American films such as the 1925 Clara Bow star vehicle The Plastic Age 30, an optical process was developed, in which single subtitled frames were held in position whilst the film negative and the positive print strip were fed forward and exposed at the same time. The result was an improvement in the legibility of subtitles and on the 26th of January 1929, The Jazz Singer, with French subtitles, opened in Paris, followed by a Danish subtitled release of The Singing Fool, in Copenhagen on the 17th of August 1929 31. The public’s response was, however, less than enthusiastic at first, with the subtitles being considered ‘annoying’ by some 32.

Meanwhile, in the land of the rising sun, two masters of Japanese subtitling, Shimizu Shunji and Tamaru Yukihiko 33 were experimenting with subtitles projected to the side of the screen. Whilst Shimizu is generally credited with inaugurating subtitling proper in Japan, it was Tamaru who created the subtitles for Josef Von Sternberg’s 1930 film, Morocco 34 (released in Japan in 1931), the first Hollywood film subtitled for a domestic Japanese audience, although Tamaru didn’t bother to translate any of Deitrich’s songs in the film. A widely held opinion among native Japanese subtitlers at the time, expressed here by Shunji’s contemporary, Okaeda Shinji 35, was that “The less words a film has the better”(sic) 36, so presumably that opinion also applied to foreign songs! Tamaru introduced Shimizu to Paramount Pictures, which engaged him to prepare subtitled American newsreels for distribution across Japan during the 1930s and ’40s, until American films were eventually banned in Japan with the outbreak of World War 2. Post-war, Shimizu went on to mentor the renowned and occasionally controversial subtitler, Natsuka Toda 37;later sacked 38 by Stanley Kubrick following her reductionist, toned down translation of his profanity laden 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

Posters for ‘The Jazz Singer’ French release, 1929 and Tamaru Yukihiko’s Japanese subtitled version of ‘Morocco’ released in 1931.
Two stills from the anti-war documentary Peking 1938, made by the prominent left-wing director Fumio Kamei, showing Japanese subtitles displayed to the side of the screen. In the first frame, as Kamei (on the left) speaks, his subtitles appear to the right of the screen and in the second frame as the old man (on the right) speaks his subtitles appear to the left of the screen.

Whilst Hollywood extended its hold over the film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s ‘Golden Age’, in Europe during that same period advances in subtitling techniques were developed in Norway, Sweden, Hungary and France 39. It was the Norwegian/Swedish film laboratories Filmtekst in Oslo, Ideal Film in Stockholm and the Paris based Titra-Film 40 that monopolised the subtitling market from 1933, the latter maintaining its prominent position right up to the modern day – and it all started in 1930 when a Norwegian inventor named Leif Eriksen patented a mechanical method for stamping text directly onto the film strip. Quoting (with permission) from the Swedish writer and lecturer, Jan Ivarrson’s article ‘A Short Technical History Of Subtitles In Europe’ 41,

[Eriksen began by] ‘…first moistening the emulsion layer to soften it. The titles were typeset, printed on paper and photographed to produce very small letterpress type plates for each subtitle (the height of each letter being only about 0.8 mm)…’, [which would then be pressed into the emulsion layer to create the desired subtitle].

Then, in 1932, a chemical process was simultaneously patented by the Hungarian and Norwegian inventors, R. Hruška (in Budapest) and Oscar I. Ertnæs (in Oslo), using heated printing plates pressed against the emulsion side of a wax or paraffin coated, finished film copy. The coating melted and exposed the emulsion beneath. The film was then washed with bleach to dissolve the exposed emulsion, producing legible white letters when projected onto a screen, although the edges were slightly uneven owing to variations in the overall process 42.

Three years later a thermal process was patented by another Hungarian, O. Turchányi, ‘… whereby the plates were heated to a sufficiently high temperature to melt away the emulsion on the film without the need for a softening bath’, but there was an inherent problem with this process, as with Eriksen’s earlier approach – both were difficult to control and the resultant subtitles were not always legible. During the late 1940s, in Britain, the Rank Organisation 43 briefly experimented with subtitles etched onto glass plates that were displayed, via a projector, at the bottom left hand corner of the cinema screen, although it was an improved version of Turchányi’s process, and the earlier chemical processes of Hruška and Ertnæs, that continued to be used in Europe and also remained the dominant subtitling process across parts of Asia and South America even into the late 1990s 44.

On her website 45, the French subtitler, Maï Boiron describes her duties during the days of chemical subtitling in the early 1990s. “Using a microscope, I’d proofread each tiny zinc plate used to etch the subtitles onto the film, frame-by-frame”. A task that required a very steady eye! Boiron would later join Titra-Film in Paris, which, along with the Laser Vidéo Titres’ (LVT) entrepreneur, Denis Auboyer 46 had been developing laser etched subtitling since the mid-1980s. However, there were early problems during testing of the new technology, with the laser burning through both the emulsion and the film and yet, with adjustment, the ‘burn’ turned out to be an advantage. Quoting Monsieur Auboyer:

“It is like if you have a cigarette and a piece of white paper. You make a hole in the paper with the cigarette and around it there is a black circle. This is what we have around the subtitles, so you can see them even when the background is white.” 47

Denis Auboyer

Auboyer’s calling card was LVT’s subtitling of Clint Eastwood’s Bird for the 1988 Cannes film festival, stating “While this was not our first film, we consider it one of the most important for our reputation” 48 and thus the old methods of manual typesetting, chemicals baths and hot-plates finally became redundant in the European market. Hollywood adopted the same laser process and by the 1990s laser titling became the industry standard, with subtitling for domestic American cinema audiences predominantly done by companies in Los Angeles and London; now known in the professional world of titling as the L.A.-London axis.

The Titra-Film (now TitraTVS) logo and a subtitler coding a subtitle file.

Subtitling for Digital Cinema

The development of new technology is ceaseless, as the story so far has shown and whilst Maï Boiron was proofreading those tiny zinc plates, a revolution was underway in America. 1992 saw the first public demonstration of digital cinema 49, with further public demonstrations in 1998, 1999 and 2000 50; and in 2001 the European Digital Cinema Forum (EDCF) 51was established to discuss the progression of digital technology and in particular, high quality subtitling.

“Subtitles are usually the last thought on anyone’s mind when planning a media package for mass distribution…The need for accurate, intelligent and compelling storytelling is of paramount importance…[but]…the off-putting feature of subtitling is the cost. There is an outside service premium that cannot be avoided; an expertise that cannot be replicated by the likes of online translator sites”. Mazin Al-Jumaili. Head of Operations. Visiontext and lobbyist for EDCF 52.

Two years later, on the 3rd of November 2003, Texas Instruments released its ‘Subtitle Specification (XML Format) for DLP Cinema Projection Technology53 and over the next ten years, twenty digital subtitling format patents were applied for in America, Europe and Japan 54. By 2010 the Digital Cinema Naming Convention (DCNC) 55 was developing coding for digital cinema film packages to identify, amongst other aspects, the subtitling element. An example is as follows:


What looks like a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers to the average person can be deciphered at a glance by the receiving projectionist. A full explanation of the DCNC coding can be found in publicly available documentation 56, but for the purpose of this article only the entry ‘FR-EN‘ (bold added for emphasis) is directly relevant as this indicates that the sample film is in French (FR) with English subtitles (EN).

Traditional bulky analogue film (left), a modern digital projector (centre) and a complete digital film package on a hard drive (right).

There are two methods for including subtitles with a digital film. The first has ‘open’ subtitles, which are coded into the digital format and so cannot be removed or switched off. The second has ‘closed’ subtitles, which are included as a separate file so have to be selected via the computer software and then the digital projector automatically synchronises the subtitles with the film. The latter method is a little like a super hi-tech version of the old sciopticon, except far more efficient and with no danger of scorched fingers!

That’s (not) all Folks!

With the recent developmental interest in Augmented Reality (AR), perhaps it’s not surprising that, sooner or later, someone, somewhere would take a look at a simple pair of glasses and think “That gives me an idea!” and sure enough, in 2009 at the Sony Consumer Electronics Show 57, the actor Tom Hanks demonstrated Sony’s prototype for subtitle glasses. By 2012 the glasses were undergoing widespread testing in cinemas across America and Europe, whilst in Japan the Seiko Epson Corporation had been developing a similar product during 2011 58. Although the latter’s end goal is the AR market, its first subtitling trials were conducted in partnership with the Japanese New National Theatre Foundation in 2014. Both inventions use Wi-Fi to receive a signal from the theatre’s server and then display the subtitles on the inner surface of the lenses.

Tom Hanks demonstrating Sony’s subtitle glasses. The glasses and receiver (top right) and Epson’s subtitle glasses (bottom right).

Meanwhile, in Britain during 2013 and 2014, the ex-teacher turned inventor, Jack Ezra was developing what he described as an ‘Off-Screen Cinema Subtitle System’ 59 for the deaf and hard of hearing. In comparison to Sony and Epson’s products (expensive, easily damaged if dropped and [allegedly] uncomfortable when worn for long periods) Ezra’s system is unique and considerably cheaper.

“Our system places a special ‘inconspicuous’ display along the bottom of the movie screen, which looks blank. This way it does not distract the general audience…For those who want to see the subtitles, they simply slip on a…lightweight, pair of glasses, which enables the viewer to read subtitles on our display, which shows large, clear captions in sync to the movie” Jack Ezra. 3D Experience 60.

Jack Ezra’s subtitling system for cinema and his lightweight subtitle glasses.

Whether it’s Sony’s, Epson’s or Ezra’s system that eventually prevails, only time will tell, but there is a delicious irony to this tale. In the early days of cinema, silent films were ‘democratic’ insofar as they could be enjoyed by the hearing and the hearing impaired alike, for intertitles didn’t discriminate between the two. With the advent of talking pictures, the hearing impaired were largely marginalised; cut-off from a source of entertainment they once enjoyed. Early subtitling was sporadic and undisciplined with no industry guidelines as to what should or shouldn’t be translated, so, especially in the case of Japanese subtitling, some scenes were left partially translated, or not translated at all 61. Now, with the development of systems to aid the hearing impaired, this return-to-the-roots approach may well herald the future of subtitling for everyone. How times, and subtitles, have changed.

For the moment though, when next watching the latest Korean action movie or French romantic comedy at the cinema, spare a thought for those early inventors, innovators, eccentrics and entrepreneurs who laid the foundation for the technology now used to display those crisp, white letters at the bottom of the screen. After all, where would foreign film translation be without them?

Je ne comprend pas!

Works Cited

  1. The Invisible Subtitler‘. Arc Pictures. 2013.
  2. ‘Film History: An International Journal’. Vol.23. Issue 1-2. Pp 81-94.
  3. The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry. Anthony Slide. Routledge. 2014
  5. Barnes, John. History of Victorian Cinema. The Beginnings of Cinema in England. London: David & Charles. 1976. Also see:
  6. Also see: and
  7. The British Film Catalogue. 1895-1970. London. David & Charles. ISBN 0-715305572-4 also see:
  9. Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the Dawn. London. Phoenix House. 1951. Also see: and:
  10. Short Film.
  11. Penguin Film Review. 8th of April 1948.
  12. Short Film.
  15. Also see:
  16. (French language forum)
  17. The Benshi Tradition.
  18. Chee Fun Fong, Gilbert, Kenneth K.L. Au. Dubbing and Subtitling in a World Context. Chinese University Press. 2009. ISBN 9629963666
  19. Gottlieb, Henrik. Screen Translation: Eight Studies in subtitling, dubbing and voice over. Centre for Translation Studies. Department of English. University of Copenhagen. 2005
  22. Also see:
  23. An interview with Herman G. Weinberg. ‘A Wee corner of Showbiz’. The Emporia Gazette. Emporia. Kansas. Saturday 6th August. 1960. p 2.
  24. Weinberg, Herman G. A Manhattan Odyssey: A Memoir. New York:Anthology Film Archives, 1982. p108
  28. See: ‘Words on images: the Olympic moment (1928) July 2, 2012’ entry.
  31. Ivarrson, Jan.
  32. Nornes, Abé Mark. For an Abusive Subtitling.
  34. Also see:
  35. Nornes, Abé Mark. For an Abusive Subtitling.p21
  36. ibid. P5. Footnote 15
  37. Also see:
  38. Natsuka sacked by Kubrick. Nornes, Abe Mark (2007). Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 216-217
  39. Ivarrson, Jan.
  40. French language site
  41. Ivarrson, Jan.
  42. ibid
  44. Ivarrson, Jan.
  46. Also see:
  47. ibid
  48. ibid
  50. ibid
  52. p18
  54. European Patent Office. Applicant: Thomson Licensing 92130 Issy-Les-Moulieaux (FR).Patent Application EP 2 938 087 A1. pp.7-8.
  60. Also see:
  61. Nornes, Abé Mark. For an Abusive Subtitling. p.25 ‘The Champ’

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  1. Snell

    Excellent and very accurate article on the history of subtitling.

    • Amyus

      Snell. Thank you for your glowing praise. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the surface (there was so much I had to leave out). As you can see from my reference list, there is a world of information out there.

  2. Bright

    Let us give thanks to subbers, especially those that translate foreign languages to local languages!

    • Amyus

      Bright. As an amateur subtitler I couldn’t agree with you more. Subtitlers really are the unsung heroes of post-production and yet we rarely even know their names.

  3. Ara

    Very interesting indeed. I am from Italy, I watch everything I can. and I have to admit that subtitles help me a lot! I love documentaries, but unfortunately very few have subtitles…why?

    • Amyus

      Ara. Hello to Italy from the UK! Perhaps the reason why documentaries aren’t subtitled as often as mainstream cinema films and TV programmes/series is simply down to popularity and budgetary constraints. You picked up on a subject I hadn’t considered so it could be worth investigating. Thanks for the suggestion.:)

  4. Aleen

    I had a brief encounter with subtitling for many years back. It’s a tricky business-cross-lingual and cultural translation with serious space and time constraints. It’s a testament to these people’s hard work that you can understand anything at all.

    What I mainly enjoy is seeing subtitles for speakers of the same language, but from different regions or cultures. You get this a lot with French, especially subtitles of Québécois productions done for distribution in Europe, becuase Quebecers have a whole other slang/vocabulary, and often utterly incomprehensible accents. It’s fun to see how French subtitlers try to come up with local equivalents for “crise du tabernacle!” or “j’ai fait d’mon best d’avoir du fun avec mon chum” or “j’ai les dents du font qui baignent!”

  5. Amyus

    Aleen. Excellent point with regard to translating Québécois slang into ‘French’ French! As an amateur subtitler I have to admit one of my bugbears is poor quality fansubbing in which the ‘translator’ can’t even be bothered to attempt a translation. I recently downloaded a poor fan sub (from a certain well known site) for the Korean drama film ‘1987. When The Day Comes’, in which, for reasons I still can’t fathom, those lines that the subber couldn’t translate into English were machine translated into Malay! That damned G**gle translate has a lot to answer for!

  6. Great article, I never even considered how storied the history of subtitling in film must be. Its one of those things a lot of people take for granted, so thanks for drawing attention to an under appreciated and necessary enterprise!

    • Amyus

      alexbolano92. Thank you for your positive feedback. There is more to come.

  7. Allie Dawson

    Great analysis! I confess, I never understood the widespread distaste for subtitles. Maybe I read fast, but I never found them distracting. Besides, if modern actors insist upon mumbling their lines, for home viewing at least, subtitles are going to be a necessity.

    • Amyus

      Allie Dawson. Thank you. Yes, I, like you, have never had a problem with subtitles, but then I grew up watching subtitled films so became used to reading and watching at the same time. I find it amusing that some youngsters these days will complain about subtitling and yet happily watch TV programmes with near-constant scrolling text along the bottom of the screen and an image littered with screen idents, promos for ‘what’s on next’ and who knows what else. Regarding your point about mumbling actors, I confess one reason why I started subtitling is because my mother is very nearly deaf and has problems with on-screen mumblers so I’ve decided to teach myself how to create SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing)…and she is my guinea pig! Thanks again for your comments.

  8. Meek

    I’m a Brazilian subtitler and appreciate everything with this post.

    • Amyus

      Meek. Hi to Brazil and thanks for your feedback. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in Brazil if a viewer finds mistakes with subtitling in a film transmitted on TV, he/she can complain to the authorities and will then receive a corrected version of that film free as compensation. Sounds like a great idea to me!

  9. Aura

    Bad subtitles are just as bad as bad actors or bad original scripts. And people do not realise that good subtitles are just as important. What a shame! I hate bad subtitles. They ruin my enjoyment.

    • Amyus

      Aura. I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the problems is ‘outsourcing’ of subtitling, which means no control over who creates the subtitles or how they do so. I, for one, can’t stand machine translation, even when it’s (almost) accurate as it lacks the soul and flavour of the human touch. There’s a rhythm to human speech and a decent subtitler will always work within that rhythm to create subtitles that flow naturally. Bad subtitlers just hammer out any old nonsense, frequently littered with anachronisms and American slang (no offence intended towards native born Americans) that has no place in the subtitling. I recently watched a Korean drama series and in one scene, one prosecutor was asking another if he would like to join him for dinner. As we know, Koreans have a very formal way of addressing each other professionally, but the idiotic fansubber had translated the interaction as: ‘Hey dude, wanna go get a burger’. I was so frustrated I almost threw my boot at the screen!

  10. Fisk

    Great post. I am not hard of hearing, but I do put subtitles on anyways incase i can’t make out whats happening as our tv has quite a low volume.

    • Amyus

      Fisk. Thanks your your comments. Yes, it does seem that the use of subtitles is becoming more frequent. You mentioned your TV having a low volume; I thought about how whenever we see a TV on in a public arena (stations, airports, cafes etc) they always display the subs to counter the surrounding noise. Subs are part of our everyday life, more so than many people would realise.

      • Amyus

        Typo – thanks for your comments, not thanks your your comments. Ugh, I need another coffee!

  11. Rachele

    In Spain, there’s a tradition of dubbing all the foreign films into Spanish. It dates back to the dictatorship of Franco, that in 1940 stablished that all movies should be dubbed into Spanish.

    Then the dictatorship ended and some cinemas chose not to dub the movies and run them in their original languages with subtitles. Nowadays, these are the only cinemas that I know of that offer any kind of accessibility services.

    • Amyus

      Rachelle. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I am aware of the Franco-era tradition of dubbing, in fact I made a subtle hint about similar in my article. I didn’t follow-up on that because I was focusing solely on subtitling and wanted to avoid becoming ensnared by the ‘Which is best: Dub or Sub’ debate. For ideological reasons, dubbing has been used by several authoritarian regimes across the years. Actually, that in itself, could make for a fascinating article – fancy giving it a go? Cheers 🙂

  12. kikk

    The film industry is forever devising new ways to capitalise on technological advancements.

    • Amyus

      kikk. Nice one. I see you read between the lines where I included Sony’s use of Tom Hanks to endorse its subtitle glasses. Well spotted.

  13. Chet

    What would consuming film be without subtitles. We use the subtitles in English all the time due in part to words being slurred, in part to regional accents being difficult to follow and principally due to poor hearing.

    • Amyus

      Chet. Excellent points indeed. SDH in particular is on the increase and I’m sure that soon it will be common place and widely accepted as the norm. I thought Jack Ezra’s off-screen idea was brilliant.

  14. Pugh

    Nice post. While subititling may be an art and a profession, increasingly this art is undergoing another evolution.

    • Amyus

      Pugh. Thanks for the praise. Yes, subtitling is indeed undergoing a revolution even as we speak (or write). Language evolves and so too must those who translate and subtitle, but I doubt machine translation will ever be able to truly ‘understand’ human colloquialisms, idioms and ever changing street slang.

  15. Zada

    It is a shame that the law does not require all published videos to have subtitles. It would help tremendously the public, and costs very little.

    • Amyus

      Zada. In principle I agree with you. The only downside I can see to it though is the danger of certain governments establishing officially recognised subtitling that could be open to ideological abuse, albeit subtly. The odd turn of phrase or nuance can alter the meaning of a sentence, sometimes without the viewer even noticing and so influence a viewer’s opinion about a particular subject. As to the cost – well it does actually cost a fair bit to employ a professional subtitler, which is fair enough as professionals are just that – professionals; and they’re more than just a translator. I’d recommend watching ‘The Invisible Subtitler’ on You Tube for the inside track. A very good and informative documentary. You may also be interested to hear that last year a Dutch court ruled fansubtitling to be illegal (see:, ruling that it’s a copyright infringement. In my opinion this is typical jack-boot thinking from the authorities. A better approach would have been to offer fansubbers the chance to work legally for Dutch TV or similar and so create more jobs.

  16. SaraiMW

    Wow! I had not really thought about the history of this! Really interesting, thanks for sharing.

    • Amyus

      SaraiMW. You’re welcome and thanks for the feedback. I bet you’ll never look at a subtitled film in the same way again! 🙂

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