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Literature Review on the Functions of Subtitles

The invention of films started without sound. And not so long after that, many efforts had done to convey the message of the actors to the audience. Their efforts were what we now call intertiles which were texts, drawn or printed on paper, filmed and placed between scenes of the film. The original titles were removed, translated, filmed and re-inserted and even a speaker was used to give a simultaneous interpretation with another language.

In 1909, a method of projectionist, using a scioption (somehow like a slide projector) that showed the subtitles on the screen was used. According to Gottlieb (2002), M.N. Topp registered a patent for this device for the rapid showing of titles for moving pictures. From 1927 onwards, sound films are invented, so the titles inserted between scenes were removed. The idea to make several languages versions aroused but the efforts are highly cost them.

So the attempts to make subtitle started with manual projection of slides with printed texts directly onto screen. A frame containing the title was kept in position while the film negative and positive print strip were fed forward and exposed. Then, the process was automatically done by inserting exposed ‘blank’ frames between the title frames and the title were fed forward by means of a counter to ensure subtitles were in right length and in right place.

But the films negative were difficult to be obtained plus large quantities of negative were needed to publish a large copy of films. Therefore, the titles were photographed onto separate film of same length as original, synchronize with the sound. The negative and the roll of titles were then copied and displayed simultaneously.

In 1930, a Norwegian inventor, Leif Eriksen registered a patent for method of stamping titles directly on to the images on film strip, followed by a Hungarian inventor, O.Turchanyi who used high temperature to melt away the emulsion on film, without the need for softening bath did by Eriksen, and then patented his method in 1935.

Laser subtitling, according to Ivarrson (2004), developed by Denis Auboyer is the latest development which involves the use of lasers to burn away or vaporizes the emulsion. This has been in commercial use since 1988. The titles themselves are computer typeset and can be showed on video display by means of time coding or frame counting. Laser subtitling is cheaper but requires costly investment in equipment.



Subtitles are textual versions of the dialog in films and television programs, usually displayed at the bottom of the screen. They can either be a form of written translation of a dialog in a foreign language or a written rendering of the dialog in the same language, with or without added information. From the beginning of the existence of subtitles, it has been functioning in many ways.

Translated subtitles have been used in live broadcasted program. In order for viewers to understand foreign language live television program, translated subtitles are helpful. Also, the subtitles are important this type of program is just one time showing.

In addition, subtitles also functioned to translate foreign films. In the beginning of the 19th century, the spreading use of mass media increased the demand for foreign films and news. The translation fever started in the 1920s and 30s. In the era of talking pictures, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain were the first to decide on dubbing, while the other European countries had their movies subtitled.

Not only have that, subtitling too functioned to reduce the cost of the production. This is because of the high costs of dubbing. It is true that dubbed films distract viewers’ attention to a lesser extent, and dialogues are much more understandable. However, it is less favourable because many had complained that it is not natural to watch the movie with someone else talking for another person. To add to that, dubbing costs which are higher compared to subtitling is because they need to hire few people in order to use their voice in the process of dubbing. The process of dubbing requires a lot of time too.

The usage of subtitles also is to maintain the originality of the audio and the voices of the original and professional cast, actors and actresses. The subtitles which appear at the time for every lines said by the cast does not distract the viewers to listen to the real voice of the cast. Moreover, in dubbing, the people who are involved in this process sometimes did not done it with the correct intonation and rhythm like the original cast. This is quite distracting for the audience when they watch the movies because the environment in the movie does not suit with the incorrect intonation from the voice of those people.


Subtitles are mostly provided in various types of media such as television programmes, movies, and broadcasts. Subtitles help a lot as it brings many advantages to the audience. Subtitles may be in the same language with the media or may be translated into other languages which are mainly in specific mother tongue languages.

Subtitles assist the audience who are deaf and hard-of-hearing to follow the dialog. In addition, people who cannot understand the spoken language or having accent recognition problem could understand what they are watching with the aid of subtitles. Television teletext subtitles are hidden unless requested by the audience from a menu. This type of subtitles always comes with additional sound representations for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Furthermore, teletext subtitle language follows the original audio, except in multi-lingual countries where the broadcaster may provide subtitles in additional languages on other teletext pages.

In some East Asian countries, such as China, Korea and Japan, subtitling is common in some genres of television. In these languages, written text is less ambiguous than spoken text, so subtitling may offer a distinct advantage to aid comprehension. For example, although people in China generally speak Putonghua, the standard spoken language, and different speakers have different accents due to their native dialects and subtitles bridge this gap as most Chinese speakers understand the one standard form of written Chinese.

According to Van Der Kamp (2007), subtitled movies have been found to improve reading skills especially for children. Subtitled movies enable people to automatically and subconsciously read while watching. In order to comprehend subtitled movies, the audiences need to read the lines fast and accurately. Indirectly, this could improve the literacy skills.

One of the most important roles brought by subtitles is to help people who wants to learn language either the mother tongue language or the foreign languages. A research shows that, young people in Hungary watched subtitled movies to learn language!

People who are learning a foreign language may sometimes use same-language subtitles to better understand the dialog while not having to refer to a translation. For example, a person who is learning English language could boost up his/her language skills, by watching English movies with English subtitles. However, this way of learning only suits with beginners. This is because; the learners could not develop his or her language skills if they keep looking at the subtitles. Therefore, once they have improved, they are encouraged to watch movies without the aid of subtitles.

Besides, subtitles help a lot when it comes to the scene where the actor or actress need to speak with low tone such as the actor need to whisper. Audience usually cannot interpret the word that had been mentioned especially during the romantic scene of the movie or even worse, the background sounds are too loud (Anonymous, 2008). Therefore, reading subtitle was the alternative way for audience to understand the film and most important, to enjoy it.

In conclusion, subtitles bring many advantages to the audience in terms of language learning, reading and translating.


Some people said that subtitle give problem for them to understand the message of the film. In other words, according to Tyler (2010) subtitles may create misunderstanding among viewers in order to interpret the film. We cannot deny that there are some mistakes for the translation that had been made by the media corporation. This is because the translation was not been made by those person that are professional in translation of foreign-language and the culture of the native citizen. If the translations were not made properly and with high quality, it totally not going to develop any positive effect thus people will going to keep complain about it.

Sometimes, translation of subtitling could be very different from the translation of written text. Usually, before a person makes subtitles, he/she may or may not have the access to the written transcript of the dialog. Therefore, in some cases, the person who made subtitles often interpret what is meant, rather than translating how it is said. In some cases, the subtitling is done word by word, thus confusing the viewer to interpret what is meant by the whole sentences. It could be frustrating to the audience who know some of the spoken language. This is because, spoken language may contain verbal padding or culturally implied meanings, which are confusing words and not usually adapted in written subtitles. The inaccurate translation in subtitling could affect those who aim subtitling as a method of foreign language learning because they are referring to low quality sentence structures and poor grammatical reference.

It is undeniable that subtitling do improves many language learning skills such as reading and writing skills, but it is also makes sense that subtitling leads to weakness of listening skills. When people keep referring to the subtitles, they use less listening skills. In some cases, people tend to read what is written at the bottom screen rather than listen to what the speaker said. This is not necessarily happening only to people who watch foreign movies, documentaries or others. Even if they are watching the mother-tongue-language television program, they prefer to read the subtitles. To language learners, this is not good and will not help in developing their language learning too.

Other than that, some people opine that reading and interpreting the stimuli seen at the same time could be annoying, regardless of the type of program. For example, in movies, subtitling provided may takes away the movie experience of the audiences because they are reading, not viewing. Some people prefer good, well-subtitled foreign language movies than equivalently same-language-subtitled movies. By reading the dialogue instead of hearing it, there is more room for interpretation thus creating a movie that means more to certain viewers. In this case, the subtitles should be made with high quality, good grammar and interpretation, as well as precise.

To conclude, subtitles do not necessarily give harm to the audiences. It is base on individual perception on how he or she deals with it. An optimistic person surely could see the positive side of providing subtitles and would use them to make benefit out of it. Therefore, the important role should be played by the media in providing the high quality subtitles in purpose of assisting language learners and also giving satisfaction to movie lovers.


This journal entitled ‘Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception’. The research was done by Holger Mitterer, from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands and James M. McQueen from Behavioural Science Institute and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

121 participants from the subject pool of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics participated in the experiment. The participants were native speakers of Dutch studying at the Radboud University Nijmegen, with good command of spoken and written English . They had not been to Scotland or Australia for longer than two weeks, so were unfamiliar with Scottish and Australian English.

The objective of the research was to investigate whether subtitles, which provide lexical information, support perceptual learning about foreign speech or not. Native-language subtitles appear to create lexical interference, but foreign-language subtitles assist speech learning by indicating which words (and hence sound) is being spoken. The method of the research is to test whether subtitles help or hinder adaptation to unfamiliar accent in a second language.

The research was tested to several Dutch participants who are fluent in English. They were given video material to be watched for 25 minutes. The video are either strongly-accented Australian English or strongly-accented Scottish English. In each case, separate groups had English, Dutch or no subtitles. After this exposure, all six groups of 20 participants were asked to repeat back excerpts from both the Australian and the Scottish material. The groups exposed to Scottish English thus provide no-exposure control data for the Australian English excerpts, and vice versa. This is because the focus was on adapting in listening, thus the excerpts were audio only. There were 160 excerpts in total. Eighty excerpts (spoken by the main characters in each video) were taken from the exposure material (forty from each source). Eighty excerpts were completely new, but from the same speakers (again, forty Scottish and forty Australian excerpts). The latter material in particular allowed us to assess how well listeners adapted to the accent during exposure.

They were asked two questions. First, whether audiovisual exposure allows listeners to adapt to an unfamiliar foreign accent. Second, whether subtitles can influence this process. The results show that this kind of adaptation is possible, and that subtitles which match the foreign spoken language help adaptation while subtitles in the listener’s native language hinder adaptation.

Result for the first question shows that listeners can adapt to an unfamiliar regional accent in a second language after only brief audiovisual exposure. Note that listeners in the control condition for each accent were exposed to the other accent. From the second question, the adaptation effect shows that listeners were able to retune their perceptual categories to characteristics of the exposure speakers, leading to long-term changes in speech perception. The enhancement of this adaptation by English subtitles suggests in turn that the retuning benefited from listeners knowing what words they were hearing. This indicates that the listeners were using lexical knowledge to retune phonetic perception.

Other study by Mina Lee and David Roskos-Ewoldsen (2004), investigated the different pattern of inferences generated by participants watching a native language film versus a foreign language film with subtitles. It was assumed that reading subtitles creates a detrimental effect to inference generation. The method of the research is they used two versions of the film Rear window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956) which one of them is in English and the other is French dubbed and subtitled in English. 34 participants were selected. The participants were recruited from an introductory mass communication class or a mass communication law and regulation class.

The first procedure is the participants were given the synopsis of the earlier portion of Rear Window. They would be watching only the last 40 minutes of the film so they were asked to read the synopsis given carefully. Participants are then asked to write down any thoughts coming to mind during the film watching. They were instructed to stop the movie whenever they have thoughts about what is going to happen or what has happened earlier in the film. This has been gathered as the inferences. The inferences were categorized as either backward (focus on previous information), forward (focus on future information), and current (focus on information in the current scene).

After finishing the film, the participants were asked whether they had ever seen the film before this occasion. They were then debriefed and dismissed before their data were run individually whereby each session took less than 60 minutes.

From all the inferences gathered, only 28 data from the subjects were selected because one of them did not follow the instructions and the remaining five have watched the movie before. For comparison of inference generation between two groups, three categorizations were developed depending on the source of the inferences used. When an inference was generated regarding a future scene, it was categorized as a forward inference. When an inference was generated by using either earlier information or general knowledge, it was considered a backward inference. Last, when an inference was generated by using current information within the scene, it was considered a current inference.

The analysed gathered inferences show that participants generated more current inferences in the foreign language film with subtitles. In contrast, more backward inferences in the native language condition were generated by the participants. These results are consistent with the idea that participants had less comprehension of the foreign language film with subtitles which proved the assumption made by Mina Lee and David Roskos-Ewoldsen.

Another study of subtitle was done by Maria Bernschütz, a PhD holder in marketing from the Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. In her research, she studied the attitude of the young towards subtitled movies. The participants consisted of young people only because it is essential for them to be expert in foreign language, especially in English.

413 third-year students of Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary participated in this research as samplings. 63 % were women, 37 % were men. The average age of the group was 21 years. They were given questionnaires on subtitled movies. The respondents had to answer the question: for what types of program they would recommend subtitles. The number of ‘yes’ answers are represented cumulatively. 86% of the respondents agree that subtitles are appropriate for movies in cinema while only 65% recommended subtitles for documentaries. 65 % of the sample suggested subtitles for the historical film followed by the comedy, 60 % of the sample.

From the results, it is found that Hungarian young people prefer subtitled movies rather than dubbed movies. This is to maintain the originality of the movies. They also watch subtitled movies mostly for learning foreign language easily.


The first film chosen is a production of Touchstone Pictures entitle ‘Déjà vu’. This film of 128 minutes running time is fully utilized by the director Tony Scott to depict the action and thriller scenes. With Denzel Washington, Jim Caviezel, Paula Patton, Adam Goldberg, Val Kilmer and Bruce Greenwood, they make up a fascinating combination.

To summarize, Denzel Washington stars as Doug Carlin, a man capable to discover the clues from crime scenes, that others might overlook. He is an ATF agent who is investigating a cataclysmic bomb explosion on a New Orleans Ferry. He checks and sorts the clues carefully which later come across a female victim whose death doesn’t follow the same pattern as the other dead bodies from the bomb blast. While Carlin is still pondering about her death, an FBI Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) offers him to solve the bombing and also catch the murder of the woman by using a latest, top secret surveillance technology. The technology allows them to view a real time playback of particular locations within the city of New Orleans. However, the playback can only be played once from four days in the past and cannot be replayed. As Carlin gets caught up in watching the events unfold, he is confident that there is a way to stop the ravaging event from actually taking place. Eventually, he travels through the machine and save the woman from death. He stops the bomb on the ferry and save the people on board from the explosion.

This film makes a good use of sci-fi elements. Some audience may not understand some parts of the film especially on the explanations of the technology used which is the main idea of the storyline. However, the plots are arranged as simple as possible to differentiate the past and present events. The actors speak American English thus the subtitle may assist some audience in certain parts of the accents used.

‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ is the title of the second film chosen. This film is directed by Eric Brevig with Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson and Anita Briem as the main casts. This film is a production of New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Pictures in 2008. All in all, this film is a retelling of Jules Verne’s original story that takes the 19th-century novel as facts.

To sum up, in this film Brendan Fraser stars as Trevor, a geology professor whom his brother Max has disappeared several years back while exploring ‘volcanic tubes’. Trevor is continuing his brother’s theory of an express lane to the center of the earth through the volcanic tubes. One weekend, Josh Hutcherson stars as Max’s son, Sean pay a visit to Trevor’s place and they accidentally discover that Trevor’s findings are align with Max’s notes. So Trevor decided to track back Max’s expedition together with Sean. They get assisted by a mountain guide, Hannah (Anita Briem) a daughter of an old scientist who does not believe in Verne’s theory, unlike his father. They trek up a mountain to find one of Trevor’s geologic sensors, which later take them into a journey way down into the earth. The three of them encounter many miraculous things in the earth’s crust and also reach a place where Max was once there before he died of extreme high temperature. Trevor finds Max’s notebook which could lead them back on earth. During their journey to get out of the place, they are accidentally separated from the group and meet a lot of grievous adventures. Finally they get together again and being thrown up to the earth surface by a huge glasier.

Thoroughly, this film makes ample use of CGI, 3D techniques and highly realistic settings. Moreover, there are a lot of adventures involving science phenomena, geology and also scene involving dinosaurs and cannibal plants which bring sheer pleasure to the audience. The plots, screenplay and sound system used in this film is totally impressive. Audience can feel their heart beating moments as the film bring the audience to go through the experience together. Usually in scientific film like this, there are lots of science explanations and terms used by the actors. Profusely, subtitle plays it important parts for audience to infer the difficult terms spoken by the cast. Without subtitles, audience may only understand some parts of the film and skip the explanation parts which sometimes are important to make out the storyline.

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