There used to be a time when subtitles were a thing of arthouse theatergoers and movie buffs. Now, they are available in multiple languages for most content on all main streaming platforms.
Back in January 1896, pioneering filmmakers Auguste and Louis Lumière first screened their movie “L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat” (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, in English). Although that was not the first movie screening in history, urban legend says it had great impact on the audience. Overwhelmed by the life-sized image of a train coming in their direction, fearful spectators screamed and ran to the back of the room. Urban legend or not, movies do have that power—they weave spectators into the web of other people’s stories, leading them to places they’ve never been, showing them things they’ve never seen, playing music and speaking languages they’ve never heard … inviting them to look deep into the rectangular window of silver glimmer.
While the essence of filmmaking has remained the same throughout the years, a lot has changed since the days of the Lumière brothers. Color, sound, motion graphics, animation, 3D, and so much more have been gradually added to productions. And all of these elements play a different part in making that story interesting, enticing, and relatable to the audiences, including subtitles.
The first evidence of text being used in film dates back to the era of silent movies, when title cards, also known as intertitles, were used to convey character dialogue and narrative content. In time, title cards would be also used in opening and end credits to display the names of production companies, directors, artists, and later, crew members. The rise of American and European production companies in the era of talkies (that is, movies with recorded sound and dialogue) was such that they broke through the borders of their own countries to send their movies off for international screenings. At this point, understanding the language spoken by the actors became fundamental to fully experiencing the story, and this new demand led to a series of different attempts at translation techniques, from live dubbing at theaters in France, to word balloons added one by one to their respective scenes in the USA, to projections on one side of the screen so the text could be displayed horizontally in Japan.
Cut to the 21st century. “Every film is a foreign film. Foreign to some audience somewhere around the world. It is through subtitles that an audience can experience different languages and cultures. And behind every foreign film that brings a culture to a viewer is a subtitler,” explains the narrator in the short documentary, “The Invisible Subtitler”. Considering how interconnected and globalized markets are nowadays, it’s fair to say that this is true now more than ever. If for decades Hollywood has dominated the global movie-making and screening market (with the exception of India and maybe France), streaming platforms have arrived to make this a two-way street: not only does the USA export its movies, but it now also imports foreign movies for the American audience. Multiply that by every country that is currently streaming content—and by that I mean not only movies and series, but video games, tutorials, the news, and the infinite other shapes and forms that video and film can take nowadays–and you have a booming market for video content translation and localization.
There used to be a time when subtitles were a thing of arthouse theatergoers and movie buffs, who tend to share the equal sentiment for images that they do for sounds. Now, they are available in multiple languages for most content on all main streaming platforms. In addition, given that many of these streaming platforms produce their own content, localization is now planned during the early stages of pre-production, instead of being added once the final product is ready, almost as an afterthought. That changes more than it may give away. If the decision to localize is made prior to knowing the ratings and number of viewers, any investment made for that purpose must be retroactively justified. With the new pressure that comes with being a desirable feature, video localization companies and experts are constantly pushed to improve quality and lower costs. After all, the cost of localization can make or break potential project trying to make it onto streaming services or screening rooms worldwide.
This newfound appeal is not the result of a global economy alone. Subtitles create accessibility for the hard of hearing in the form of closed captions, support language learning for those reading them in a different language, and allow people to multitask, contrary to what subtitling non-believers may say, claiming the text requires additional attention from the audience. In fact, social media manager Christina McDermott pointed out in 2019 that up to 85% of Facebook videos are watched without sound—and thus with subtitles. That is because most people are in public transport or crowded places when they hit play, and still users would rather watch videos with no audio instead of saving them for later.
Another great use of subtitles is to encourage kids to read more and improve literacy. Research published by Turn on the Subtitles, or TOTS, a campaign that encourages broadcasters, policymakers, and parents to provide and watch more subtitled content, shows that once kids can decode a minimum of five words, they start reading along. The benefits of using subtitles for literacy prove more evident among children who most need it, according to another study on the TOTS website: “in Linebarger et al.’s (2010) study with struggling readers in Grades 2–3 from economically disadvantaged urban locations in the US, SLS [same language subtitling] exposure was limited to just six 30-minute episodes from children’s TV. Still, ‘[t]he majority of outcomes … indicated that children who viewed with captions outperformed their counterparts who viewed without captions,’ and the improvement was most pronounced among children at risk for poor reading outcomes.” Considering a generation raised in the times of memes—images with captions, nothing but a frozen version of subtitles for videos—it doesn’t seem like it would be a challenge to convince children to turn on the subtitles.
In the 1920s, pioneer subtitler Herman G. Weinberg acquired a Moviola, a machine that allowed editors to watch the film while editing it. While testing the use of text at the bottom of the screen that moved along with the images, he noticed that the audience “[d]idn’t drop their heads, they merely dropped their eyes” in order to read the subtitles. Within a century, a foreign film, “Parasite,” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards for the very first time (and 3 other major awards, for that matter). This was an unprecedented win that speaks not only to the outstanding quality of Bong Joon-Ho’s filmmaking and storytelling, but also to the broader acceptance of subtitled movies in the American market. Bong Joon-Ho said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Considering the perpetual essence of filmmaking, it wouldn’t be a stretch to add that you will also be introduced to new cultures, new places, new people, new ways of thinking, and so much more.
We in the Localization Team at Blueprint Technologies have been continuously working to offer seamless, synchronized, and accurate subtitles to our clients for years. With specialists covering nearly 30 languages and counting, our team is happy to lend their typing hands to open the doors of international content to viewers all over the world. Just turn the subtitles on, and we’ll handle the rest!