Movie subtitling – the age-old practice

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The origins of movie subtitling can be traced back to title cards, which were first used in 1903. The first movies back in the 1890s were silent movies, and in 1903, title cards were introduced in lieu of spoken dialogue. These title cards were placed between scenes to convey the message of the movie. To accommodate foreign markets, the title cards were simply translated and slotted in the same places. These cards contained simple keywords to set the upcoming scene, e.g. “Hot day” for a beach setting.

Sound or spoken dialogue was only introduced in the 1920s, and this replaced title cards. Studios were then faced with the task of catering for foreign audiences. While dubbing was used, it proved too costly and time consuming. Studios then decided to reintroduce the practice of “title cards”. Instead of placing the title cards in between scenes, the text was simply translated and placed at the bottom of the screen and referred to as “subtitles”. Movie subtitling is generally about one tenth the cost of dubbing. Despite the vast changes in technology over the last 90 years, this age-old practice is still very much intact.

Subtitling of movies in its current form

A large number of current movie subtitling projects at Wonder Words are for “foreign” films. Movies are generally translated from one European language to another. The age-old practice is still very much intact, but the quality has certainly improved with the help of technology. The days when you watched a movie only to find that the scene has already changed while you were still reading the subtitles have long passed. Wonder Words uses a subtitle editing programme to adjust the time codes to cater for languages that typically are longer (uses more words). As an example, English translated into French is typically about 15% longer than the original text. If the time codes are not adjusted to cater for this difference, watching this movie will be a very frustrating experience. An SRT file (SubRip caption file) contains the original text and the time codes for the text. This file is typically loaded into the subtitle editor, and this programme is then used for translating, editing, and quality checking. As a rule of thumb, subtitles for movies are usually not longer than two lines and forty characters per line. If the translated text falls outside these parameters, it would need to be adapted, while maintaining the original meaning. This could entail a substitution of words, or the text may need to be summarised.

Other uses of subtitling

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The use of subtitling is not limited to foreign movies – when you and a bunch of friends had a few too many drinks and decided to sing the “YMCA song” in the local bar, it did not immediately pop to mind that karaoke is also a form of subtitling. A language artist spent a bit of time putting the text together (and getting the timing correct) so you and a group of friends could have a good laugh. Aside from foreign films and karaoke, subtitling is also used to improve literacy, writing and oral skills within the speech and language therapy discipline.

Please speak to a Wonder Words project manager about your subtitling needs.