Editor at Large

Why European Subtitles Can Be Cringeworthy

Guy La Roche at A Fistful of Euros is a career subtitler. I have subtitled a few indie movies, but most of the subtitling work in Europe is on English-language films. As a native English speaker and translator, that leaves me out.

La Roche has a great explanation of why the subtitles on a film may not be equal to the dialogue:

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough. It is your fault, not the subtitler’s.

But I’m a fast reader, you say.

It doesn’t matter.

According to a Belgian study years ago the average television viewer’s literacy level was estimated, if I remember correctly, to be that of a… fourteen year old!

If that Belgian study was years ago, and some teenagers prefer reading on the Internet to reading books, will subtitles have to change too?

One reply on “Why European Subtitles Can Be Cringeworthy”

I am Greek. At first I used greek subtitles, then I get used to English subtitles, because I can only hear, and when I miss something, only then I read it.

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