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Production of teletext subtitles

A subtitle can refer to one of two things: textual versions of a film or television program's dialogue that appear onscreen, or an explanatory or alternate title, in addition to the main title of a work.


In films and television

In films and television subtitles are textual versions of the dialogue that appear onscreen. They are sometimes added to films when they are released in a country that speaks a different language to that used in the film. They are also used in a variety of other films when some dialogue is spoken in a foreign language; for example, in Star Trek, when the Klingon language is spoken, subtitles are often placed on the screen to enable the viewers to understand what is being said.

Subtitling constraints and limitations

Subtitling is not easy work and is performed under considerable constraints.

Formerly, subtitles were manually prepared and aligned with the start and end points of a counter mechanism. These data were then input into a special machine that would burn the subtitles onto the rolls of film to be projected in the cinema.

When a film is subtitled, the original dialogue is presented to the translator in writing, who will either manually, or using a computer synchronised with a VCR, generate the subtitles in the target language. No matter how long the original dialogue is, the translated subtitle must not exceed the length and duration of the time that is available (for example, the number of frames). There must also be enough time fo the viewer to be able to read the subtitles.

A few basic rules can be followed:

  • three seconds are needed to read a line,
  • a single subtitle showing should not exceed two lines, and
  • a line of subtitles should not exceed 37 characters.

One result of this is that subtitles often give heavily truncated versions of the original dialogue, with a consequent loss of subtlety and nuance.

Subtitles vs. dubbing

The alternative method of 'translating' films in a foreign language is dubbing, in which other actors record over the voices of the original actors in a different language. Some foreign films are made available to the public in two formats: dubbed and subtitled.

Film connoisseurs tend to prefer subtitles because they believe that it is more important to hear the tone of voice of the original actors, rather than hear a less talented actor replacing their lines — even if in many films the final soundtrack departs significantly from what was recorded at the time of shooting the scene, often because other sounds may have rendered the original voice recording unusable, such as in scenes where machinery or aircraft are employed, because the actor's voice has been replaced by one more in line with the character's or because one or more of the actors were not fluent in the production language. This form of dubbing, technically known as voiceover, is used widely also for singing scenes, even if the actor actually records his own singing parts, since good results are seldom achieved in the first take.

In general, moviegoers in countries where foreign films are rarely screened tend to dislike dubbing because of the lapses of synchronization between the words and the actors' mouths; a skilled script dubber, however, may keep the rewritten version very close to the original lip movement. Meanwhile, moviegoers in countries where many popular films are foreign-language imports tend to be more used to dubbing, and often prefer it.

Nevertheless, tradition play an important role in the formation of the audience's taste; while moviegoers in certain countries, such as Italy or Spain, where dubbing has been employed for decades now, seldom accept the use of subtitles, even in modern media such as DVDs where both dubbing and subtitling may be available, other countries with a similar local-to-import ratios in TV and film production, such as Latin American countries, have historically favored subtitles and dubbed screenings are considered childish.

Sometimes, at screenings of new or rarely screened films for which no subtitled copy has yet been produced, subtitles will be shown on a separate display below the screen. An advantage is that nothing of the film image is lost, but the disadvantage is that there is more distance between the center of the screen and the subtitles, making it difficult for the viewer to see everything at once, without moving their eyes up and down all the time.

Closed subtitles

Optionally-appearing subtitles are called "closed" subtitles. Subtitles that cannot be turned off are "open". A film or video with open subtitles that are burned indelibly into the image is deemed to be "hardsubbed".

Closed captions for the hard of hearing are related to subtitles but are quite separate, given that these captions are a transcription rather than a translation and have a different intended purpose. In British English, however, the term subtitles also applies to closed captions.

Subtitling as a practice

In several countries or regions nearly all foreign language TV programs are subtitled, instead of dubbed, notably in:


One recent controversy about the necessity of subtitles involved the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ. All the dialogue in this film was in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew instead of modern English. Gibson initially intended not to include subtitles, in the belief that the audience already knew the story, but the distributors ordered him to include them, arguing that audiences would refuse to watch a film whose dialogue was entirely untranslated.

As an additional title

In books and other works, a subtitle is an explanatory or alternate title. For example, Mary Shelley used a subtitle to give her most famous novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, an alternate title to give a hint of the theme. There are at least eight books in English that carry the subtitle Virtue Rewarded. Subtitles for plays were fashionable in the Elizabethan period, and Shakespeare parodied this vogue by giving Twelfth Night the pointless subtitle What You Will, implying that the subtitle can be whatever the audience wants it to be. In print, subtitles often appear below the title in a less prominent typeface or following the title after a colon.


See also

de:Untertitel es:Subtítulo fr:Sous-titrage nl:Ondertiteling


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