Understanding Translating, Subtitling and Dubbing

By April 22, 2017Culture, Language

Subtitling is a special area of translation. Subtitling is the basic term for conveying the dialogue of a program using text displayed in a picture (generally on screen). It is a written text that aids comprehension of audio-visual content.



Subtitling is an important tool to increase literacy in a country. Subtitling makes reading practice an incidental, automatic and subconscious part of popular TV entertainment. Children and immigrants can quickly acquire languages thanks to subtitles. In India, for example, there are programs to eradicate literacy by subtitling local TV shows in the language of the viewers. This is an important step to introducing letters; and the capacity of reading and writing to people. Subtitling teacher Bartho Kriek says that we are all compulsive readers. We cannot see a text in our own language without reading it. It comes naturally. Thus, this principle can be put to use to increase literacy and thus, readership.


Entertainment is important to people and subtitling takes the joy of entertainment to thousands of people. Creative pieces across the world gain larger audiences thanks to subtitling. Without subtitles, local content would only remain accessible to the local public.

-Aid the specially-abled

Subtitling is a boon for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. They can watch and understand various audio-visual content with the help of subtitles. In many Western countries, it is mandatory for TV shows and films to have subtitles.


1927 onwards, the audience could hear the actors instead of the earlier silent films. For people across the world to be able to understand the content, films were dubbed in other languages. Subtitle comes from the word ‘Sub’ which means ‘at the bottom’. It is thus used as these are seen on the bottom of the screens. In operas or theatre shows, Surtitles are used which are projected at the top of the stage or to the side on large viewing screens to help people understand the themes/dialogues/songs in another language.

Subtitling vs Dubbing

In the past, films or other audio-visual content was dubbed in the language of the target audience. Dubbing refers to a person giving a voice-over to the content in the translated language. Over the years, dubbing was found to be very expensive and thus subtitling is now preferred. It is easier and also gives the audience the chance to hear the original voices of the artists.

Types of Subtitling


Inter-lingual subtitling refers to portraying on screen, content translated from one language into the language of the audience. Translation is an important and difficult activity in this case.


Same Language Subtitling refers to captions being shown in the same language to help understanding. This method of subtitling is used by national television broadcasters in China or in India such as Doordarshan. Brij Kothari pioneered this idea to boost literacy rates in India.

– Hard subs
– Prerendered/ Closed subtitles
– Soft subs
– Internal


Subtitle translation is quite different from translation of written text. While subtitling content for a film or TV programme, the translator has to understand and interpret each slide, each dialogue. Here, the meaning is more important than the form. Condensing is crucial to subtitling. People cannot read as fast as they can hear. Condensing is an art of the translator or subtitler as he/she must capture the essence of what is being said on screen and convey it to the audience in as few words as possible. The speed of reading, duration of dialogues and text on the screen, cultural nuances, all must be considered carefully while providing subtitles to any audio-visual piece.

Translators, in this domain follow the interpretative model. It is the task of the translator here, to give more importance to meaning than to fidelity. As Walter Benjamin, in his essay Task of the Translator says; languages are mutually exclusive but also complementary to each other. There has to be an exchange between the original and the target language. The equivalence model of translation can many times result in awful subtitling and a great loss of productivity along with viewership. Thus, Roman Jakobson’s theory of Creative Transposition is crucial here. Subtitles must take into account local idioms and phrases, country specific examples and hence create culture specific captions.


Recently, anybody can do subtitling on their own, using special softwares available for the same. Some of the examples are, ‘Subtitle Workshop’ for Windows, ‘MovieCaptioner’ for the MAC and ‘Subtitle Composer’ for LINUX

Pioneers of Subtitling

Jan Ivarsson is a Swedish translation scientist and one of the pioneers of subtitling. In 1992, he published the book ‘Subtitling for the Media- A Handbook of An Art’. This was the first book ever to systematically study the art of subtitling and captioning. It became an indispensable handbook for subtitlers. He also published along with Mary Caroll, ‘Subtitling’ in 1998.

Bartho Kriek is a Dutch translator and subtitling teacher who has been in the field of subtitling for the past 20 years. He has done many literary translations and is also the author of two novels. His video on Subtitling is an interesting piece to understand subtitling and also how it can be learnt.

Subtitling is a smaller domain under the huge umbrella of Translation and has an ever-growing scope in the world today. It has numerous interesting careers to offer as well as creative challenges to language enthusiasts or anybody who wishes to dive into it. But the most important thing that any person doing subtitles must keep in mind is that he/she is at the outset, a translator and by virtue of this- a creator. He/she has been given not just the authority but the opportunity to make available certain audio-visual content to a great number of people in the world. The work of the translator can beautify or destroy the efforts of an artist. Thus, the translator is entrusted with a critical responsibility that must be shouldered with utmost care.

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