What Do Viewers Think of Subtitles? - 2013

The following text is based on the popular lecture given by Tiina Tuominen at her dissertation. Titled The Art of Accidental Reading and Incidental Listening. An Empirical Study on the Viewing of Subtitled Films, her doctoral thesis in the field of translation studies was accepted by the University of Tampere on 12 January 2013. The thesis can be found here.


Tiina Tuominen                                                                                   12 Jan 2013




Honorable Custos, Honorable Opponent, ladies and gentlemen.

Subtitles are one of the most widely read text types in Finland, and perhaps the most read translated text type. Almost all Finns read subtitles at least to some extent. It is often suggested that many children learn to read through subtitles, that reading skills are improved by reading subtitles, and that following subtitled programmes supports language learning. Subtitles play a rather central and visible role in Finnish culture. It is therefore interesting to consider how subtitles are read, what kinds of attitudes they evoke in viewers, and what viewers expect of them. Such research can inform translators of viewers’ needs and preferences and thus help them create successful subtitles. It can also help us understand the cultural role of subtitles.


Reading subtitles is not a simple process for a viewer. It requires learning and experience. Viewers are not allowed to concentrate on reading a subtitle for as long as they want, because the text must be read at the pace in which it appears on screen. It is also impossible to return to a previous part of the text to reread it. The programme proceeds at its own pace, and the viewer must keep up. In addition, viewers must be able to divide their attention so that they can simultaneously follow both the subtitles and the programme itself and its images, sounds, and source-language speech and text. Viewers must be able to tolerate receiving the same information simultaneously in two languages, one of them spoken and the other one written.


This means that the process of watching a subtitled programme consists of a number of choices, which we might even call strategies: the viewers must choose where to focus their attention when they perceive several messages at the same time, and they must decide how closely to follow the spoken source language and the subtitles at the same time, whether to attempt to receive information through both or only concentrate on one or the other. These decisions are not always conscious, and they are often the automatic result of several years’ experience of watching subtitled materials, but, in any case, they require the ability to process multi-dimensional and overlapping messages.


This navigation between different channels of communication is a normal, natural process for a viewer who is used to watching subtitled programmes, but it necessarily focuses the viewer’s attention differently than watching a programme without subtitles. In addition, there are differences in viewing practices between individual viewers, because different people make different choices in their viewing processes. And when the additional layer of the translation is introduced into the viewing experience, the number of potential choices and combinations increases. Therefore, we cannot assume that a viewer who reads subtitles watches a programme in the same way as someone who watches it in its source language, nor can we assume that all viewers read subtitles in the same way. Because of these complicating factors, and the general challenges of viewing subtitled material, it is interesting and important to study the viewing processes of subtitled programmes, and to study them from many different perspectives, each of which can shed light on some aspect of this complex, everyday phenomenon.


But are the various dimensions and challenges of viewing subtitled programmes visible in viewer opinions? Finnish viewers are used to watching subtitled programmes, but what do they think of them? Some everyday discussions suggest that Finns’ relationship with subtitles is somewhat suspicious, or even explicitly negative. When subtitles are mentioned, the discussion often turns to their errors or shortcomings. Looking for subtitling blunders is sometimes even a source of entertainment, as some mistranslations can be quite funny. It is, of course, easy to criticise subtitles, because their source text is always available to the viewers. This might be one reason why negative comments on subtitles are such a popular topic of conversation, but it does not fully explain the criticisms.


In addition, viewers often state that they do not need subtitles at all, because the source language is most often English, and English is so widely understood that a translation might seem unnecessary. These attitudes suggest that the audience’s view of subtitles is negative and dismissive. This makes subtitles seem like a necessary evil which is not trusted to be an accurate reflection of the programme’s contents.

However, these opinions are contradicted by the everyday reality, where subtitled programmes are watched widely, and where the disappearance of subtitles, or their substitution with dubbing, leads to immediate protests. Subtitles are clearly a necessary or at least somewhat useful method of conveying information for many viewers. But can both dismissive criticism and an accepting everyday use of subtitles be part of the same reception processes? Reception research, both in Finland and elsewhere, has produced some tentative explanations to how reception actually works.


For example, the so called eye tracking studies are used to investigate how test subjects direct their gaze in a certain situation. Some eye tracking studies on the viewing of subtitled programmes have found that it is nearly impossible to avoid looking at subtitles: when text appears at the bottom of the screen, the eyes are unavoidably directed towards it. Therefore, it is quite unlikely that viewers would be able to avoid reading subtitles completely. This means that some part of the programme’s contents is unavoidably transmitted through subtitles, and subtitles are indeed a part of the viewing experience.


In addition, even though viewers’ discussions often expose negative opinions, some studies have revealed more positive attitudes, where the quality of subtitles is said to be good and negative aspects of subtitles are not easily remembered. This indicates that, even with occasional mistakes and mistranslations, the general viewer experience of subtitled films can be positive. However, some studies have also shown that it can be difficult for viewers to understand some elements in audiovisual translations, such as concepts and references closely related to the source culture. Humour also appears to be difficult to convey in translations in general and audiovisual translations in particular. This confirms that the reception of audiovisual translations contains challenges as well as positive experiences, and empirical studies can point out particularly problematic areas.


When discussing the results of reception studies, it is useful to keep in mind that this kind of research is faced with its own challenges. The audience is never a homogeneous mass, whose opinions are easy to measure and classify. Each viewer is an individual, with a unique background, unique opinions and unique ways of interpreting films and television programmes as well as their translations. Therefore, even wide-ranging studies which look at viewing statistics, or questionnaires where individual responses are generalized into averages and commensurate response scales cannot tell the entire truth of reception or paint a realistic picture of individual, concrete viewing situations. These studies do produce useful information about the specific questions that they ask and increase our understanding of certain general tendencies present in reception. However, it is worthwhile to complement them with smaller-scale qualitative studies, which take a closer and deeper look at individual reception experiences and in that way provide helpful explanations for some results gained from wider-ranging studies. This is because the analysis of individual experiences reveals something about what is hiding behind the statistics and generalisations: individual experiences can offer surprises, inconsistencies, and extremely situation-bound reactions, and observing these makes it easier to read and relate to statistics. For example, if a study based on numerical scales tells us what grades the respondents award subtitles, it is undoubtedly interesting to complement this data by listening to how viewers describe, in their own words, their relationship to subtitles, how positive or negative expressions they use, and how much reliance on subtitles they demonstrate. This kind of information provides reception research with a very human dimension. In addition, qualitative research and its deep analysis of individual situational contexts can uncover those elements of the reception process which are worth investigating further. Thus, qualitative research is also helpful in formulating new research questions and focusing research into particularly interesting areas.

This is what has been the purpose of this doctoral dissertation: to investigate concrete reception situations with qualitative methods. This was done by analysing the discussions of film viewers who had just watched a subtitled film. This approach has been quite rare in reception research within translation studies, and it is therefore interesting to see what this perspective can contribute to translation studies. This type of research produces rich, varied and unpredictable data, which can be analysed from a multitude of perspectives and contrasted with the results of other types of reception studies. For example, viewers’ tendency to read subtitles whenever they appear on screen, which has been discovered by eye tracking studies, was also evident in this study, when even those viewers who denied having read subtitles ended up quoting them accurately. This suggests that viewers do not only direct their gaze at subtitles, as the eye tracking studies have shown, but also read and occasionally even remember what they have read.


In all, subtitle-reading was a popular topic of discussion in this study, and the discussions produced interesting insights into the reception of subtitled materials. The discussions brought up four different ways of viewing a subtitled programme:

  • concentrating exclusively on listening to the source text,
  • concentrating exclusively on the subtitles,
  • receiving information primarily through the source text and secondarily through subtitles,
  • and receiving information primarily through subtitles and secondarily through the source text.

However, as the discussions revealed that it was impossible to avoid reading the subtitles and equally impossible to avoid hearing the source text, in reality it appears that a normal viewing strategy is a combination of listening to the source text and reading the subtitles. The discussions also pointed out the superficial nature of subtitle-reading, the so called accidental reading process that happens in the flow of the film without much conscious notice. This means that even though subtitles were read, they were not read very carefully. In fact, any part of text which requires particularly close attention due to, for example, unfamiliar vocabulary or difficult sentence structures, can be problematic for the viewer, because it interrupts the normal viewing process and draws too much attention to the subtitles. Subtitles are, after all, only a supportive text which is not supposed to claim any more of the viewer’s attention than is necessary for understanding the film as a whole.


This kind of information on reception can be helpful in understanding how a viewer uses subtitles next to the source text and other visual and auditive information. It is certainly useful for audiovisual translators to be aware of this superficial manner of reading and the interaction of the source text and subtitles, so that they are able to formulate subtitles that are suitable for this kind of reading process.

The discussions also included both positive and negative evaluations of subtitles, but largely portrayed subtitles as a generally accepted and trusted source of information. This points to one important question which arises from many reception studies: the relationship between subtitle quality and reception. This question is particularly topical in Finland at the moment, as we have heard in the last few months news of outsourcing subtitling work, of deteriorating working conditions for audiovisual translators, of questionable subtitle production processes and even of using amateur subtitles in commercially distributed programmes. These stories have ignited a rather active discussion on subtitle quality, on subtitlers’ ability to produce high quality under difficult working conditions and on the significance of quality to viewers. Some have again claimed that English-language programmes do not have to be subtitled, or that subtitles have always contained errors, so it is useless to talk about preserving quality. On the other hand, many have also emphasized the visible cultural role of Finnish subtitles and the powerful tradition of the Finnish subtitling culture. In this way, subtitle quality and subtitlers’ expertise become a significant part of the discussion. Does subtitle quality matter? Is it enough for the viewer that some text appears on screen, or are well-crafted and factually correct subtitles a significant part of the programme? Reception studies can give some indications of what the case might be.


Both this doctoral dissertation and some other reception studies have discovered fairly positive attitudes towards subtitles. In addition, it appears that viewers do not always notice or memorise mistakes that appear in subtitles. This indicates that viewers trust subtitles and accept them as they are. This could even be taken to mean that quality is somewhat irrelevant to viewers, if they pay little attention to errors and accept subtitles as they are. To some extent this is a valid perspective, as viewers do appear to be able to ignore some individual errors in subtitles and still follow the programme successfully, but this would be a rather narrow perspective to reception. Studies have also found that a viewer automatically expects the subtitle to appear on screen exactly as speaking begins, which means that inaccurate timecueing can interfere with the viewing experience. In addition, the fast, superficial reading process requires subtitles that are fluent, easy to understand and which fit in well with the programme as a whole. Furthermore, as cultural references and humour can be difficult to transmit in translations, they require careful attention from the translator. All of this indicates that subtitle quality does matter, even though individual subtitling errors might not be  particularly significant, especially if they do not break the coherent flow of the subtitles and the film itself.

In fact, these findings mean that the question of subtitle quality becomes even more challenging: it is not enough that the subtitler is able to eliminate obvious mistranslations and make sure that all the terms are correctly translated. What is even more important for the viewing experience is that the text is fluent and idiomatic, that the timecueing is precise, and that the subtitles follow established conventions. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask questions about subtitle quality and its effects on reception. It is also important that the quality discussion move beyond individual words or mistranslations to pay attention to subtitles as a whole and as a part of their audiovisual context. Systematic reception research, including both wide-ranging tests and questionnaires and qualitative analyses concerning individual reception contexts can play a valuable role in this: research results can offer useful arguments for the discussion and help all parties understand what significance a good translation has for the viewer and what a successful translation is like. Therefore, an even wider variety of research designs would be beneficial for both translation studies and the practice of translation, and fresh research could hopefully result in constructive conversations about the role of subtitles as part of the Finnish culture.