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The Instructional Value of Subtitles

Thorbjörn Broddason
Department of Sociology
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Iceland
IS-101 Reykjavík
Telephone: +354 525 4509

Informal learning and digital media:

constructions, contexts, consequences
21-23 September 2006
University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark
Community through communication
The linguist Anna Wierzbicka quotes her colleague, Thiru Kandiah, as follows:
“Community is created through communication, in a discourse…whose nature
and manner of use are agreed on…by those who go to make up the community.
Indeed, it is by virtue of such agreement or shared authorization that these
people emerge as a community” (Wierzbicka, 2006: 15). This is reminiscent of
James Carey’s definition of communication as “a symbolic process whereby
reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed" (1992: 23) as well as
his discussion of the transmission view vs. the ritual view of communication. As
he sees it "A ritual view of communication will...view reading a newspaper less
as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in
which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is
portrayed and confirmed" (Carey, 1992:20). Wierzbicka points out that
immigrants to the major English-speaking countries (the “Anglo countries” as she
labels them) need to learn “to understand the meaning of unfamiliar
conversational routines and to grasp the cultural values and assumptions
reflected in them” (2006: 11); this in view of what Wierzbicka identifies as the
Humboldtian view of languages: “Language is the repository of the history of a
people” (2006: 9). Wierzbicka further dismisses as totally unrealistic the idea
“that international English can take the form of a culturally neutral “nuclear
English” and thus be divorced from the historically shaped and culture-bound
(Anglo) English” (2006: 14). The above observations are all highly relevant for
those who wish to consider the transfer of meaning involved in the translation of
a cultural product from one language (culture) to another.

The transfer of meaning

Since the beginnings of their trade, successful publishers of daily newspapers
have usually had a fairly clear idea of who their readers were and done their best
to meet their requirements. The most obvious and basic method of
accommodating the readers is to write the paper in the language of its desired

Similarly, when radio superseded newspapers as the most advanced mass

medium during the first third of the twentieth century, practically all (textual)
programmes were transmitted in the language of the primary audience of each
broadcasting service.

If texts of foreign origin were to be printed or broadcast they were first

translated into the appropriate vernacular. Although this inevitably involved
some loss and even distortion of the original communication, whether deliberate
or not, it was a fairly straightforward exercise. What the users read or listened to
were the familiar words of their mother-tongue.

During the latter half of the twentieth century a new mass medium, television,
gradually established its pre-eminence over the earlier two daily media. Towards
the end of the century average daily viewing time in industrialized countries was
between two and four hours (IP Group, 1999; Carlsson and Harrie, 2002).
This gave rise to a novel situation in most countries, particularly those where
English was not the native or official language. Due to well-known historical
and cultural circumstances programmes originating in English-speaking
countries – in particular the USA – came to constitute a disproportionate share
of the output of European television (de Bens and de Smaele, 2001; Broddason
and Karlsson, 2004; Carlsson and Harrie, 2002): “US fiction succeeds in
breaking through all cultural barriers in Europe” (de Bens and de Smaele (2001:
51)). As is the case with newspapers and radio, imported products on television
have to be translated for the benefit of the target audience. The obvious
difference is, however, that the translation is only partial: we translate the
spoken words, whereas the visual images are left intact.

The two most common forms of screen translation are dubbing, where the
spoken text in the programme is removed and substituted with a new one in the
language of the receiving audience, and subtitling, where the soundtrack is left
intact, but a text with a translation of the dialogue in condensed form appears at
the bottom of the screen. “In short, dubbing is a process of acoustic replacement
while subtitling is a process of visual supplementation” (O’Connell, 1998: 66).
In both cases the original product has been substantially interfered with. In the
process of condensation the text is reduced by about 30% but there is indication
that in most cases condensation will not lead to loss of information (Koolstra et
al., 2002: 328; Kristmannsson, 1996: 241; Lomheim, 1999). This may be due to
“the fact that spoken language often contains unimportant verbal padding which
is only confusing if kept in the written subtitles” (Wikipedia). In the case of
dubbing the problem of condensation does not arise. There is a considerable
divergence of opinion as to the relative merits of these two language transfer

Particularly strong views are held…about the purported shortcomings of dubbing,

to the extent that in some quarters it is regarded as a wholly contemptible practice.
For those who take the contrary view, subtitling is regarded with almost equal
disdain (Kilborn, 1993: 643).

The complaints against dubbing concern “the imperfect lip-synchronicity in

dubbed programmes, and subtitling is defended with the argument that the
original voices of the actors are left intact.” (Koolstra et al., 2002: 326). Both
these aspects are highly important, but there is even more involved. We do not
speak only with the lips; we speak with the whole face and the whole body for
that matter. The body language that accompanies the spoken words is culture-
bound no less than the words themselves (Kristmannsson, 1996: 235). Leonard
Shlain notes that ”in many instances, the listener’s eye gathers more about the
meaning of the speaker’s message than does his ear” (Shlain, 1998:40). The
cultural pitfalls of language transfer were well put by the Syrian-American
writer Abraham Rihbany: ”It is unpleasant to an Anglo-Saxon to note how many
things an Oriental says, but does not mean. And it is distressing to an Oriental to
note how many things the Anglo-Saxon means, but does not say” (quoted by
Wierzbicka, 2006: 26).

“Dubbing countries” and “subtitling countries”

We have “typical dubbing countries” and “typical subtitling countries” (Koolstra
et al., 2002). Broadly speaking, we find the larger and more economically
powerful countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain in the former category
while the Nordic countries, the republics of former Yugoslavia, Belgium
(Flanders), the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Israel and many other small
nations belong to the latter. (Kilborn, 1993; Koolstra et al., 2002; Wikipedia).
Austria and Belgium (Wallonia), although small by themselves, follow the
dubbing traditions of Germany and France, respectively. Interestingly, we also
come across small language areas, Wales being one example, where dubbing is
the preferred method. According to Kilborn (1993: 644), the Welsh claim to be a
“nation without a state.” Considering that dubbing is more than ten times as
expensive as subtitling it is clear that Welsh television is regarded as a major
asset in the preservation of the spoken language and, implicitly, a sense of
national identity.

Hearing your own language spoken not only provides confirmation of its
importance and relevance in an increasingly homogenized world, it is arguably a
more potent way of reinforcing a sense of national identity or autonomy than
reading the subtitled text (Kilborn, 1993: 644).

In the case of dubbing, the final product is very much the result of a
collaborative effort involving a considerable number of people, including
writers, language specialists, technicians and actors. The process is usually a
highly complex, lengthy and consequently expensive one (O’Connell, 1998: 66).
It is not without reason that in Germany, the key persons, those who take the
raw translation (interlingual translation) of the film dialogue and turn it into the
final text of the dubbed product (intralingual translation), refer to themselves as
“Synchronautoren” (Kristmannsson, 1996: 237). We are bound to conclude that,
for better or worse, the dubbed film or programme is in a very real sense a new
creation. The usefulness of this aspect of dubbing was not lost on the political
leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain during the 1930s who found it to be an
expedient form of censorship that ensured that foreign views and ideas could be
stopped from reaching the local audience. With subtitling, censorship may also
occur, but it will not escape the notice of an attentive viewer (Wikipedia;
(Koolstra et al. 2002: 330).

Generally speaking, television viewers prefer the language transfer method they
are used to: dubbing is preferred by those who are used to dubbing and subtitling
is preferred by those who are used to subtitling. As Hasebrink and Herzog put it,
what is considered perfectly normal among the dubbing countries is regarded as
cultural barbarism by the subtitling league (Hasebrink and Herzog, 2004: 156).
To an Icelander, the idea of a popular English or American film star or
television character expressing himself or herself in Icelandic on screen would
be absurd (Kristmannsson, 1996: 231). Instead, subtitling is an essential part of
everyday communication in Scandinavia and, for some people, they may be the
main or the only contact with written texts (Lomheim 1999: 190; Hiirikoski,
1996: 90). Kilborn (1993: 647) has pointed out that “subtitling requires a degree
of literacy and visual acuity, both of which cannot necessarily be presupposed in
all members of the television audience”. This is a relevant observation, but at the
same time it should be kept in mind that the level of literacy is not a static
phenomenon. An improvement in children’s decoding skills has been
demonstrated among children who frequently watched subtitled television
programmes There can be no doubt that watching subtitles is beneficial to the
comprehension of foreign languages, both for children and adults. One-quarter
of Dutch primary school children are convinced they even learn more English
from radio and television than at school (Koolstra et al. 2002: 340-341).
Considering this it should not come as a: surprise that “younger viewers – in
subtitling as well as dubbing countries – seem to be developing a preference for
subtitling” (Koolstra et al., 2002: 350). This is also Eithen O’Connell’s

For much of the history of film and TV, subtitling was viewed as a poor second to
dubbing. But now all that seems to be changing. The increasing popularity of
subtitles is certainly helped by the relatively low costs involved but another very
significant factor is the growing interest many Europeans now have in their
neighbours, and their cultures and languages...In short, subtitling for all its
imperfections amounts to an inexpensive, quick, foreign-culture friendly and
generally fairly politically correct mode of screen translation (O’Connell, 1998:

Although it is very difficult to estimate the amount of reading that television

viewers in subtitling countries engage in there can be no doubt that it is highly
significant. In a study some years ago it was found that Danish television
viewers spent on average 138 minutes per week watching subtitles. This was
compared to 112 minutes a week on all other reading (Kristmannsson, 1996:
235). Another way of looking at this question is to count the words. Based on a
small sample which the present author obtained from the subtitling department
of the Icelandic Broadcasting Corporation we may conclude that a viewer who
has sat through one feature film has been exposed so some 15 pages of
typewritten text. If we allow us to indulge in some conservative guesswork we
might be able to argue that an ordinary person in a subtitling country reads
through the equivalent of some ten novels on the screen during one year of
television. At the same time this person has been constantly challenged to pick
up a foreign spoken language (most likely English). The ordinary person in a
dubbing country who has watched an equal amount of television has done so
much less reading. Instead, he or she has been listening to hundreds of hours of
his or her mother tongue.

Conclusion: The third category

Above, two types of societies have been discussed, the dubbing kind and the
subtitling kind. Bearing in mind that the most important films and programmes
shown by television services around the world have their origin in English-
speaking countries it is worthwhile to introduce the third category, i.e. the
English speaking countries themselves. I suggest the following three labels for
the three kinds of categories, based on the part played by television in the daily
lives of the audiences.

1. Television: A champion of national and cultural identity

2. Television: A vehicle of foreign language learning and cultural diversity
3. Television: Instigator of cultural confusion.

1 Television: Champion of national and cultural identity

The first category includes the English-speaking peoples (the United States, the
United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland etc.). Television pro-
grammes in these countries originate overwhelmingly within their own cultural
sphere; their production language is English and the programmes are subse-
quently transmitted in English to their English-speaking audiences. The policy is
simply to produce and broadcast in English to the English-speaking world.
Under these conditions any translation problems are eliminated before they
arise. In particular, television provides viewers, young and old, with a constant
reinforcement of their oral culture. In this category the issue of dubbing vs.
subtitling does not arise. We may conclude that television in these countries is a
champion of cultural identity and (to different degrees) of national culture.
Television: A vehicle of foreign language learning and cultural diversity
This category is made up of small to medium-sized countries that do not belong
to one or another of the major continental language spheres (the Nordic
countries, former Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Israel etc.). In these
countries, restricted economic resources make for a dependency on foreign tele-
vision programmes. Iceland, with a population of 300 thousand, may serve as an
extreme example of countries thus situated. Over the years about one third (or
slightly less) of the programming hours of the Icelandic national broadcasting
monopoly has consisted of native productions, one third (or slightly more) has
consisted of productions originating in English-speaking countries, and the rest
has been imported from other countries, mainly European. In the mid-1980s,
when the monopoly was abolished, a new commercial television station flooded
the market with British and American programmes and films, whereas the
former monopoly slightly increased its share of Icelandic material. Counting the
number of programming hours alone, however, tells only part of the story
because the imports are usually among the most popular programmes with the
highest viewing figures. The same economic considerations that lead to large-
scale imports of television programmes prohibit them from choosing the
dubbing solution favoured by the more populous countries. Instead they use
subtitles. Television viewers in this category are thus served vast amounts of
programming which originates in the Anglo-American culture. Further, they
receive original versions, i.e. versions where the sound track has not been
altered. Added to this they are given a text in their own native language at the
bottom of the screen which delivers the content of the dialogue on the screen.
These viewers are massively exposed to the intact visual and aural stimulus of a
foreign culture. At the same time they are offered the added visual stimulus of a
written translation. As an extra bonus they are allowed to become familiar with
spoken English, and may at their own convenience gradually move away from
the subtitles to the dialogue of the characters on the screen. For the absolutely
youngest viewers the subtitles offer a powerful incentive to master the art of
reading because they realize that this will open up to them the world of foreign
(exotic, adult) television. And as soon as they have come to grips with the
subtitles they can graduate into learning the foreign language spoken on the
screen. What they do miss is the exposure to the spoken language of their own
culture. And most definitely, they miss the immediate connection between the
screen culture and their own culture that the viewers in the first category enjoy.
For these audiences television serves as a vehicle of literacy, foreign language
learning and cultural diversity.

Television: Instigator of cultural confusion

This category consists of the already discussed non-English-speaking big
nations of Europe: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, but also Austria and the
French-speaking part of Belgium . The majority of television programming in
terms of transmission hours in these countries is produced in their respective
native languages, but they also depend heavily on imports. And a considerable
part of these imports originates in English-speaking countries. In order to
accommodate their publics, television stations in these countries resort to
dubbing. Thus viewers in these countries can enjoy foreign programmes in their
native language but this operation drastically alters the original work and
inevitably interferes with its message. These viewers are the recipients of a
curiously hybrid product where the visual stimulus derives from one cultural
sphere and the aural stimulus from another. As is the case with the English-
speaking countries, television in this third category celebrates the oral culture.
But because this is done in a visual setting that is totally at odds with the
language we may at least suspect that television in this last category contributes
to cultural confusion among the viewers.

Summing up, television can be a champion of cultural and national identity,

given the right kind of circumstances. In other circumstances television may be
seen as a vehicle of literacy, reading exercises and language learning. And
finally, television can turn into a servant of cultural confusion..

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