On the Importance (and Difficulties) of Subtitles

It was a historic moment for non-English filmmakers and aficionados everywhere, Korean director Bong Joon Ho stepping onto the stage at the Golden Globes to receive a Foreign Language Film award. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong says, or rather, his translator Sharon Choi. 

The way he said the phrase in Korean was slightly fumbled; the way he said it originally goes something more like this: “Those… subtitles, that barrier of subtitles (in English), though not really a barrier, but if you overcome that roughly 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will enjoy so many more movies.” The way Choi interpreted it on spot is remarkably impressive and put-together, capturing the core message of what Bong was trying to convey and presented in a way that the sentence alone carries so much power. A proverb. A proverbialization, if you will.

A scene from Parasite(2019) featuring English subtitles. Image credits: Korea Herald


The Importance of Subtitles

This is the power of subtitles: they allow viewers to experience whole new cinematic realms in their native language (or language of preference), effectively breaking down cultural and linguistic barriers that would have otherwise prevented people from enjoying works of cinema (or TV) from other parts of the world. Subtitles connect viewers to works of visual media from places around the globe they could never have imagined existed or mattered, and in doing so, attempts to make relevant cultures and languages that were previously not deemed so by prevailing cultures and languages (primarily Western).

Subtitles are by no means the only form of translation available for audiovisual media. There is, of course, dubbing and voice-overs, which are the preferred form of audiovisual translation in various parts of the world and more accessible for those that are visually impaired. 

A map of Europe indicating the usage of subtitles in films. Countries in red prioritize dubbed films over subtitled ones, whereas countries in blue prioritize subtitled films. Image credits: Wikipedia


The Difficulties of Subtitles

People who work professionally to create subtitles are, indeed, translators, as they are tasked with translating the audiovisual content of a film in a source language into another. However, subtitles occupy an ambiguous space within translation as well. Unlike more institutional forms of translation—technical, literary, legal, patent, etc.—subtitles come with very specific constraints. This isn’t to say other modes of translation are not constrained; technical, legal, and patent translation have their own corpora and regulations that mark it different from average translation. More than these translational modes, however, subtitles are constrained by space and time. They must be legibly displayed in extremely constrained spaces: a time span of mere seconds, and the space of a couple lines. Bong may think of subtitles as a mere “1-inch-tall barrier,” but this barrier presents significant difficulties for translators working with audiovisual media.

Furthermore, subtitles are different from other translations in that the medium of the source language is spoken language, and the target medium of the translation is written. Subtitling, then, is not merely a transition between languages, but also form as well. This proves to be difficult: spoken language and written language are dissimilar, and translators must always look for ways to present their subtitles as natural and legible while, at the same time, remaining mindful of the differences in form and language.

To achieve this tremendous task, translators often abide by certain rules, regulations that the translation theorist Lawrence Venuti calls “instrumental” in his essay “The Trouble with Subtitles.” Such instrumental rules can include: being faithful to the general “message” or “point” of a sentence rather than the actual language; reducing the source sentences and condensing them into their ideas so as to be accommodated into their limited spaces; or opting for standard dialects and forms of the target language to improve legibility. These guidelines serve to clarify and facilitate the translation process: translators can thus spend less time worrying about linguistic choices and more time on actually getting the work done.

A scene from Charade(1963) featuring subtitles. Image credits: Wikipedia


Lost in Translation

For ordinary, unassuming subtitling tasks, the aforementioned “instrumental” methods suffice. However, Venuti disapproves of such methods of reduction and standardization, as so much meaning is lost in the process. He provides the following example from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho: specifically, a scene featuring a salesman saying “One thing people never oughta be when they’re buyin’ used cars and that’s in a hurry.”

A scene from Psycho(1960). Image credits: TMDB

Venuti compares the original line to three translated subtitles in French, Italian, and German:

Non si dovrebbe mai andare di fretta
quando si compra una macchina.
[One should never be in a hurry
when one buys a car.] 

On ne devrait pas être pressé
quand on achète une voiture d’occasion.
[One should not be hurried
when one buys a used car.]

Beim Gebrauchtwagenkauf
sollte man es nie eilig haben.
[When buying a used car
one should never be in a hurry.] 

Venuti points out that, in each one, the familiar subject “people” is replaced by a more formal, abstract “One”: “non si dovrebbe mai” (“one should never”), “on ne devrait pas” (“one should not”), and “sollte man… nie” (“one should never”). Furthermore, other omissions are present, such as the omission of the “used” state of the car in the Italian; the Italian and French translations also modify the structure of the sentence so that it is more generic and fitting with the standardized structures of their language. However, these are very acceptable translations; such standardized subtitles are the majority of the subtitles we see today when watching foreign films. So why is this a problem for Venuti? 

The main flaw that such standardized subtitles have are that they are reductive, both in meaning and in interpretation. In reducing the original language, meaning is erased and the original film or video is rendered impossible to interpret. Good subtitles should be open for interpretation, Venuti argues. In his words: “A hermeneutic model takes for granted that translation is transformation, even when a semantic correspondence is strictly maintained or a stylistic approximation is established.” Good subtitles must actively engage with the viewers’ expectations and experiences, as well as the standards of the receiving viewer’s cultures. In brief, such an interpretive, hermeneutic process of subtitling can only be possible when not only the translator, but also the viewers, are cognizant of such cultural, linguistic factors in play. 


Subtitling in the Technological Age

In a world where machine translation and AI-based language processing is consistently reforming our relationship to language and communication, human translators are always fighting for a place and situating their relevance and importance. Can the subtitling process ever be fully automated? 

Given all the information above—the deliberation that goes into making the right choices in subtitle translation—it seems highly unlikely that an AI-based model could ever rival the intentional choices made by human translators. Under Venuti’s framework of hermeneutic subtitling, the subtitling subject would always have to question their choices to create subtitles that are most open to interpretation, negotiation, and meaning-making. Even under instrumental, standard guidelines subtitling translators use today, there is still a difficult, deliberate process that goes into translating the audiovisual content of a film (or any other medium) into the constraints of the written subtitle. 

One of the main areas in subtitle translation in which AI-based models fail is the realm of puns and wordplay, abundant in films and TV shows by nature of the puns’ oral and creative presence in language. Venuti provides an example from the 1970 Woody Allen film Annie Hall, in which a conversation involves the play of words between “Jew” and “did you”: very similar in pronunciation, but difficult to translate. Venuti offers a Spanish translation by film critic José Luis Guarner, who renders the scene beautifully by using the Iberian Spanish word for green beans (“judías”) and the Spanish word for Jewish women (“judías”). Not only would an AI-based model not be able to create such corresponding translations, but it would also fail to take into account the nuances and ramifications of anti-Semitism presented by the wordplay or the cultural significance and difference presented by Guarner’s translation (as judías—green beans—are not called that in Latin America). 

A scene from Annie Hall(1970). Image credits: TMDB


The Subtitle Industry Today

Rest assured, translators—and most of all, subtitling translators, do not have to fear the loss of their jobs. The more constrained and deliberate a translation task is, the more human involvement it takes. This is one of the reasons that the subtitling industry is thriving today; there are more content available than ever before, yet the subtitles for such films around the world can only be mediated and translated by professional translators who are able to create such deliberate, intentional renditions.

According to Valuates Reports, the captioning and subtitling solution market was worth USD282 million in 2021 and is expected to reach USD476.9 million by 2028, at a CAGR of 7.7%. The report cites “the increase in demand for streaming of content from media platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, etc.” as well as “the rise in demand for captions and subtitles in the media industry, production industry” as reasons for such growth in the market. 

A chart showing the growth of the captioning and subtitling solution market. Image credits: Valuates Reports

Things aren’t all rosy in the market, however; with the recent limelight on subtitles and film translators comes news of quite appalling conditions translators are subject to. Gavin J. Blair of The Hollywood Reporter notes that “there is a widespread lack of appreciation in the [film and TV] industry for just how challenging the work of a subtitler can be” and speaks to a Korean-to-English subtitler who “reported payment of $255 for a 110-minute film for a local streaming service, and that such low pay, often accompanied by short deadlines, can result in a shoddy final product.” Furthermore, less frequent language pairs are often indirectly translated, Blair notes, meaning the translation into the final target language is done from an intermediary language, primarily English, hence further lowering the accuracy of a translation.

A report by UNESCO also sheds light on the plight of subtitlers; according to Roshanak Taghavi, a DC-based journalist, “while 50 per cent or more of most films’ revenue is earned from their foreign translated versions, only 0.01 per cent to 0.1 per cent of budget is spent on them.” Furthermore, “subtitlers are generally paid per minute of content rather than per subtitle… this per minute rate has been gradually falling over the past thirty years.” The problem? According to Taghavi, “there is no standardized process for assignments, contracts or payment, with rates and methods for contracting subtitling services varying vastly by region.”

All that being said, the more attention and spotlight subtitlers receive will hopefully force governments and relevant institutions to implement necessary regulations that protect the livelihoods of subtitlers and other translation-based vocations related to the film and TV industries. And in doing so, the so-called “1-inch-barrier” will no longer be a barrier, not just for viewers all over the world, but also for translators.


Venuti, L. (2019). The Trouble with Subtitles. In Contra instrumentalism: A translation polemic. essay, University of Nebraska press.