Subtitling is Communication

by May 17, 2023

When subtitles are needed for a video in a different language, we can talk about audio-visual translation or subtitles. The term audio-visual emphasizes what video is: sound and image. The term subtitling is narrower and focuses on making speech or other audio material into screen text. Subtitling does not necessarily include translation, it can also be intralingual: what is said in English is written in formal English text. Regardless of the choice of term, it’s a question of interpreting the spoken utterance into written form. Since speech and written text are different ways of conveying information, subtitling cannot be said to be a simple task.                      

Differences between speech and writing

Speech and writing are different forms of communication. Firstly, there are no pauses in speech. The listener imagines that there are pauses between words, but in reality, there are none. This is best illustrated when you hear a language that is already unknown to you: an endless stream of sounds seemingly comes out of the speaker’s mouth without any pauses. The listener himself puts the pauses in place if he understands the language in question. Only when you’re already familiar with the words can you tell them apart (the speaker himself ostensibly pauses his speech only when taking oxygen, if at all.)

In written text, on the other hand, there are spaces separating words from each other, because otherwise the text would be hard to understand. The text must also take spelling into account: for example, commas, compound words and capitalization. It is especially important for a subtitler to know the spelling rules, as subtitles are nowadays the most common thing being read in everyday life. If the subtitles are made without re-editing, spelling mistakes may be passed on to the reader elsewhere.

Speech is often impulsive and unplanned, intermittent, jumping, even unclear (as thoughts usually are), even if it is a conversation. Writing, on the other hand, is planned, more time is spent on it and usually has an idea, a beginning and an end. The unstructured and unplanned nature of speech is the great challenge of subtitling: How can you get the incoherent and jarring ball of thought-vomit that the speaker has poured out of his mouth to be formulated into text so that the reader of the subtitles would understand what it was all about?

Example of turning speech into text

The following example illustrates the difference between speech and text. In one of the videos, the person who spoke said this:

“The fact that the support group was free, so it was for me, you didn’t… If it hadn’t been free, there would have been one more obstacle, which is why I wouldn’t necessarily have applied for it… It didn’t come as a surprise to me, I don’t know at all, and maybe I somehow assumed it wouldn’t cost anything.”

I formed the following subtitle replicas from his words:

“If the support group had been paid,
I wouldn’t necessarily have applied there.

It came as a surprise to me that the support group was also free of charge.”

The example also sheds light on other differences between speech and text: the line is more concise, clearer, more correct in language, has less repetition and expresses whole thoughts. However, I don’t feel like I’ve left anything essential out of it, which is also a very important feature of subtitles. In order to understand subtitles, you can read more about it  on our website.























Translated from the Finnish blog post by Simon Isaksson.