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The History of Subtitles in Film

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4790 words Published: 20th Sep 2021

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Soon after the invention of film, many efforts were made to convey the dialogue of the actors to the audience. It was started with what we now call intertitles which texts are drawn or printed on paper then filmed and placed between the sequences of the film. In 1903, they were first seen as epic and descriptive titles in Edwin S. Porter’s movie, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. However, there are some argument saying this technique may have been invented by cartoonist and filmmaker, J. Stuart Blackton. The titles were called as subtitles since 1909 as they were used in the same way in a newspaper. In the early years, the subtitles were already been placed in the moving image. However, this is very rare and only applicable to a few moving images such as in “Porter’s College Chums” (1907), “Judex” (1916) and “Mireille” (1922).

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“In the early days of film subtitling the main problem was to place the subtitles on the distribution copies, as the negative was usually in safe keeping in the country of origin. Norway, Sweden, Hungary and France quickly took the lead in developing techniques for subtitling films. However, “the first attested showing of a sound film with subtitles was when The Jazz Singer (originally released in the US in October 1927) opened in Paris, on January 26, 1929, with subtitles in French. Later that year, Italy followed suit, and on August 17, 1929, another Al Jolson film, The Singing Fool, opened in Copenhagen, fitted with Danish subtitles.” (Gottlieb, p. 216)”

Jan Ivarsson (2004, November 17). A short technical history of subtitle in Europe.

While it is still in the era of intertitles, it was very easy to solve the translation problem. The original titles were simply removed, translated, filmed and re-inserted back into the movie. An alternative is where a speaker was used to give a simultaneous interpretation of the intertitles such as the French “Bonimenteur” and the Japanese “Benshi”.

“To start with, attempts were made to breathe new life into the technique invented in 1909, i.e. manual projection of slides with printed texts directly onto the screen, but very soon, methods of copying photographed titles on to the film copy itself came into use. A frame containing the title was kept in position while the film negative and the positive print strip were fed forward and exposed.”

Jan Ivarsson (2004, November 17). A short technical history of subtitle in Europe.

In fact, the very first subtitles in the modern sense have already saw the light of day since the silent film era. In 1909, M. N. Topp came out with a device which rapid showing titles for moving pictures other than those on the film strip. With this method, the projectionist can easily use the sciopticon (a kind of slide projector) to show the subtitles on the screen below the intertitles. However, this was never much more than a curiosity as similar technique with the titles on a film strip instead of slides have been used from time to time up to the present day in 2010.

“In 1930 a Norwegian inventor, Leif Eriksen, took out a patent for a method of stamping titles directly on to the images on the film strip, first moistening the emulsion layer to soften it. The titles were typeset, printed on paper and photographed to produce very small letterpress type plates for each subtitle. Later, in 1935, a Hungarian inventor, O. Turchányi, registered a patent for a method whereby the plates were heated to a sufficiently high temperature to melt away the emulsion on the film without the need for a softening bath. “

Jan Ivarsson (2004, November 17). A short technical history of subtitle in Europe.

Literature Review

Function of subtitle

There a few main functions of subtitle. Among the functions of subtitle is to help the viewer in understanding the speeches or conversations that are ongoing in the movie.

According to DePorter, B. and Hernacki, M, (1992) in QUANTUM LEARNING: Unleashing the Genius in You, there are three types of information modalities in human which are visual, auditory and kinesthetic. In this case, the creation of subtitle might help those people who perceive information visually.

Another main function of subtitle is to translate foreign language speeches in a movie to aid the native viewer in understanding the foreign movie. As the world is much globalised now, people can watch movies from across the world which might have different languages used and so the role of subtitle here is important which is to translate the foreign language into a particular native’s language.

Subtitle also helps the audibly impaired movie viewers in watching movies. Although audibly impaired people cannot hear anything, they are still visually potent. Therefore, they can never be neglected as potential customers of filming industry. With the existence of subtitle, it encourages this group of people to watch any movie they like.

Positive Effect

A large number of researches based on observations and feedback from students have been done to determine the positive effect of monolingual subtitles on viewer-learners. This type of screen translation, known as subtitle helps a lot in the language acquisition process by providing them with written comprehensible input, which can help the viewer to understand better in the movie. This will indirectly motivates them to continue watching and encourage them to extend their learning and intake of the language.

Subtitles encourage positive learning reaction by presenting the movie in both visual and hearing perception, allowing the viewer to have multi-semiotic reception. In most of the case of foreign language viewers, they often learn through hearing, reading and visual perception of images. When an oral dialogue is transformed into written textual material, the outcome must be very accurate and always follows the paste of the speech by actor so that the subtitle can easily combine with the audiovisual make-up of the film or TV program. This is an important part in monolingual subtitling for learning purposes, especially the correspondence between the spoken text and written text as this could ensure the learners’ feedback is not only exposed to the phonological and orthographic inaccuracies but also to semantic confusion. For example, the movie “Bend it like Beckham” which uses different linguistic expression has create confusion in the viewer, unless they are gradually guided with explanation throughout the movie.

“Simultaneous presentation of soundtrack and written text improves recognition memory for spoken words and can aid novel word learning, as assessed by explicit and implicit memory tests (Bird and Williams, 2002: 509). Memory and learning are closely related.”

Annamaria Caimi (2006). The journal of Specialised Translation (6), 14.

The term ‘learning’ is often referring to the process of getting of information, while the term “memory’ is always refer as the storage of information. However, this may be merged together which is considered by psychologists as a mean of incorporating encoding, storage and retrieval of information. Recently, memory researchers discovered that sometimes past events influence our present behavior without our conscious awareness. Such memories are referred as implicit memories. On the other hand, explicit memory refers to conscious and intentional collection of experiences. Implicit memory is been measured by using indirect memory tests while explicit memory has always been measured by using direct memory tests like recall and recognition.

A group of university student which consist of fifteen members have volunteered themselves to attend a series of experimental class modules on intralingual subtitled videos. In the early stages of the experiment, the students were been tested on lexical, semantic and visual recognition memory after attending the first module of lessons which they viewed some intralingua subtitled videos. The analysis of their answer shows positive results only if the quality of the subtitles is good and appropriately adapted to the plot, speed of speech, images and scenes.

“The use of imagery and text as an elaborative study task is examined to determine its effects on tests that are adapted to an explicit recognition memory perspective. The tests are based on word-stem completion, dialogue completion, paraphrasing completion, questions on context, colour/object association, true/false questions, old/new questions, yes/no questions and summary completion.”

Annamaria Caimi (2006). The journal of Specialised Translation (6), 14.

The tests with provisional results have shown that explicit test performance is greatly improved after the students perform an imaginary study task. This improvement is significant as the students are able to imagine the referent of visually presented words and sentences. However, it is very important that the subtitle is kept with its optimal requisites so that the improvements are maximized. Such optimal requisites for a subtitle demand the professional ability of the audiovisual translator, who has to transfer the relevant verbal dialogue into written text to be presented without any changes of meaning. It is very obvious and important that a professional audiovisual translator is not paraphrasing the cues, but rather transforming the dialogue in a concise way by eliminating the redundancies, and sometimes if necessary safeguarding the kernel message which is crucial to the understanding of the scene. The reading and listening comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, word recognition, and overall motivation to read among students will only be improved only if these tight and crucial rules subtitling are been followed appropriately.

Negative effects of subtitle

Although subtitle brings benefit to all movie viewers, there are still a few flaws in it. According to Holger Mitterer from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen and James M. McQueen from Behavioural Science Institute and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition & Behaviour, Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, foreign subtitles help but native-Language subtitles harm foreign speech perception.

“Native-language subtitles appear to create lexical interference, but foreign-language subtitles assist speech learning by indicating which words (and hence sounds)are being spoken.”

Holger Mitterer from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen and James M. McQueen from Behavioural Science Institute and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition & Behaviour, Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception, PLoS One. 2009; 4(11): e7785. Published online 2009 November 11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

It is shown that native-Language subtitles harm foreign speech perception as one cannot really perceive foreign language speech due to the fact they perceive them by using the lexical and phonics of their own native language. This way of perceiving will create wrong perception about the lexical and phonics of foreign language as the structure of foreign and native language can never be the same.

“Imagine an American listener, fluent in Mexican Spanish, watching El Laberinto del fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth, 3]. She may have considerable difficulty understanding the European Spanish if she is unfamiliar with that language variety. How might she be able to cope better? We argue here that subtitles can help. Critically, the subtitles should be in Spanish, not English. This is because subtitles in the language of the film indicate which words are being spoken, and so can boost speech learning about foreign speech sounds.”

Holger Mitterer from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen and James M. McQueen from Behavioural Science Institute and Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition & Behaviour, Centre for Cognition, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception, PLoS One. 2009; 4(11): e7785. Published online 2009 November 11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

Besides that, subtitle may not completely display all the text speeches in the movie due to time constrain. This will result in poor quality of subtitle; hence, the movie viewers cannot totally rely on subtitle as an aid in capturing and understanding the speeches and conversations that are ongoing in the movie. In this case, if one relies too much on subtitle, he or she may not completely capture the content of the movie.

There is one uncommon case about the negative effect of subtitle which is movie subtitle encloses computer virus. According to BitDefender PressCenter, BitDefender has tracked down a spying program which encloses itself in DIVX film subtitle library in the internet.

“Details inside the virus body may indicate that the author is a Romanian fan of underground music.”It tricks users into executing the backdoor, using the name of the movie “Kill Bill”. The ZIP file was specially crafted, so most antivirus products will not identify the file inside as executable”, Mihai Neagu, Virus Researcher at BitDefender Lab said. “The backdoor sends network and internet passwords, as well as statistical system information by email, to the virus author”, Mihai added.”

BitDefender PressCenter, 16th October 2010.

Previous Studies on Subtitles

First study

This study was conducted by Abdul Samad.A. He is a student from University of King Ahmed(2006).

Abdul Samad.A analyzed the translation of English conditional sentence in “The Network Conspiracy” movie and its subtitle which is done by Said Saqqaf.

Abdul Samad.A took the data from the movie and the subtitle. He studied the process of the translation from spoken language into written language. He interested in study the translation varieties of English conditional structural sentence into Arabic conditional structural sentence. He also analyzed the type of the translation and the message equivalence.


He found that there are 21 varieties of the English conditional sentence translated into explicit, implicit, and another Arabic conjunction. Also he found five types of translation into the subtitling (literal translation, word-for-word translation, pragmatic translation, dynamic translation, ethnographic translation)

Second Study

This study was conducted by Abdul Rauf. A. (2006). He is a student of University of King Ahmed.

S. Abdul Rauf studied the comissive utterance in “The Hurt Locker” movie and its subtitle which is done by M. Hamid and Hnadi.

S. Abdul Rauf took the data from the utterance of the movie and its subtitle. He studied the process of the translation from spoken language into written language. He analyzed the equivalence politeness and the accurateness of translation of comissive utterance by using the equivalence and the accurateness translation theory.


His study shows some accurate translation and some inaccurate translation. There are 15 (fifteen) from 20 (twenty) data (95.19%) are accurate translation and 6 (six) data (5.81%) are in accurate translation. Related to the politeness equivalence, he found four politenesses in the movie and its translation (positive politeness, negative politeness, bald on record, and off record)

Third Study

This study was conducted by Windarta (2008). She is a student from Muhammadiyah University of Surakarta.

In this study, Windarta analyzed the condensation strategy in subtitling of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Film.

She took the data from dialogue of the actors of the movie and its subtitle. She studied the translation process from spoken language into written language. Then she analyzed the condensation strategy in subtitling the movie.


The study showed three main results. First, there are five types of condensation sentence are used in the subtitle (positive interrogative sentence, positive and negative declarative sentence, positive and negative imperative sentence). Second, the reasons of using condensation strategy in this subtitle are related to providing maximum appreciation and comprehension and readability and to the temporal parameter / duration. Third, there are some condensation sentence are non-equivalence.

Movies Reviews

“Journey to the Center of Earth” Movie Review:

The pioneer live-action feature to make use of new digital 3-D technology has to be “Journey to the Centre of Earth”. The film producers, however, has lost track of the need to tell a compelling story to enhance the eye candy in producing what amounts to a 90-minutes theme park ride. Although taking its name from one of the most well-known science fiction novels of all centuries, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” is as feeble when it meets with “fiction” as it is when it meets with “science”. It is undeniably a lengthy gimmick, a chance for special effects whiz-turned-director Eric Brevig to impress the audience with his technical brilliance. In absence of lawful script with credible characters, and with 3-D, a little goes a long way, the thrill ended long before the movie ended.

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The movie’s plot is bad. The relationship between Trevor and Sean is dull; neither is developed as more than a puppet to manipulate with in the 3-D surroundings. It is Hannah’s role to make Trevor looks like a fool and in the end provide some unexciting romance. The attempt to import some charm by Brendan Fraser that he showed it in “The Mummy” to this film has generally failed. Trevor is basically just a human face to enter into a world that is a cross between “Jurassic Park” and “Land of the Lost”.

On the whole, it is just all about its striking 3-D, but after 30 minutes (or so) of pretty images, one begins to desire for more and it makes the movie can’t deliver. Take away the 3-D, and there’s little remaining.

“The Karate Kid” Movie Review:

The karate kid is among the most satisfying and interesting movie I’ve seen all year. I like the new star Jaden Smith, who is only 12 years old and the main character in this movie. Smith plays Dre, a Detroit pre-teen who moved to Beijing as his mother was transferred here because of her job. He was able to make fast friends with an American boy and a cute Chinese girl named MeiYing. But a school bully named Cheng makes his life in China a living hell. For many times Dre has given up and please her mother to bring him back to Detroit. Finally, Dre get knew to a local repairman named Mr. Han who teaches him martial arts to defend himself for an upcoming tournament. While teaching the boy, Mr Han learnt some important lessons of his own which is very remarkable.

I think this movie has discovered a right and important truth, the audience watching a pre-teen to get bullied and fight back is a lot more powerful and touched than if they are adult. For example, it is quite hard to imagine those kids facing the kinds of chest-caving punches and kicks. It is also a little weird and new to watch kids this little to romance each other while it is less awkward for audience if they were older.

The most important is, ‘The Karate Kid’ also treat the Asian locale with respect, which gave the whole film a greater sense of seriousness and sincereness. Moreover, there are also some acknowledgement of the cultural differences between America and China. ‘The Karate Kid’ has gorgeous and attractive scenery, and the filmmakers make the most of the local, with the most amazing forbidden city, as well as a nice peek into a temple studying kung-fu deep in the mountains, which is quite a beautiful shot.

Jackie Chan, the famous Chinese actor who act as the repairman, Mr Han, has been in bad situation lately in North America, but in Asia, he is moving towards to become a character actor with big films like ‘Little Big Soldier’. Jackie got the best role he ever had in America as Han. He really acts very well in this movie, especially in his big emoting scene, in which we get knew to his tragic past, is among the finest acting I have ever seen from him.

Finally, I am confused with why is this movie called ‘The Karate Kid’ but not ‘Kung-Fu Kid’ as there is absolutely no action of Karate in this movie. I also agreed that the kids who fought Dre were too evil and cruel, so as their coach. Furthermore, this movie is also too long; it runs about 130 minutes, which is too long for an audience to enjoy it. However, this was my only disappointment towards the nice movie.

In overall, I think this is a good movie and is a very suitable and worth to watch movie. In fact, I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt myself enjoy so thoroughly while I am watching such as well and prefect sort of movie.

The Findings

Based on our studies, we definitely understand the movie ‘The Journey to The Centre of The Earth’ better because it has English subtitles. The other movie which is ‘The Karate Kid’, it has Chinese subtitles. The movie itself is in English, therefore with the English subtitles, we were able to catch every word spoken by the actors and actresses. Besides that, we learnt how to pronounce it properly. This will helps us in improving our phonics in English language. It is not that we did not understand the Karate Kid movie but surely there are many words that we missed. Having the Chinese subtitle definitely did not help me at all as not everyone knows Chinese. As a consequence, it forces us to download either our own native-language subtitle or English language subtitle from the internet. Downloading subtitles from the internet will put our computers at risk of being infected by virus which is found recently by BitDefender. Thus, to be cost wise, it is safer to have a movie that has both subtitles and speeches in a same language.

If we were to say that Mandarin subtitle can help someone who is learning English especially the Chinese themselves, it is definitely a major error of learning English as it is proven that foreign speeches are better off to be with subtitle in the same language. This is because native language subtitle harms foreign speech perception, like in this case of English speeches with Mandarin subtitles. For instance, the Chinese themselves especially those who are not well verse with the basic of English language structure itself, will perceive the structure of English language and Mandarin language whether it is grammatically, lexically or speeches, as the same with each other. Therefore, it is not encouraged for people to learn a foreign language by looking at native language subtitle in a movie; instead they should look for movies that have both speeches and subtitle in the same language.

Furthermore, when we use subtitle which is in the same language with the movie, of course it will help us improve our language acquisition process in that particular language as it will expose us to accurate usage of grammar and vocabulary and phonics. If it is the other way, we could get confuse of a particular word spoken and the meaning of it. Because for example, for every line spoken, in the subtitle it will be translated for the whole line. It will not be translated word by word as some English vocabularies are not found in Chinese vocabulary and it would carry different meanings and sometimes it would not even make sense. So, basically the reading and listening comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, word recognition, and overall motivation to read among students can be improved in this way.

Based on the functions of subtitles, it is very essential for a subtitle to present the speech of the actors in a nice and clear way. Somebody can understand the movie better by looking at the subtitle in the same language with the movie while some prefer their mother language. From the positive side of view, a suitable subtitle language can encourage positive learning reaction by presenting the movie in both visual and hearing perception. These will indirectly motivate them to continue watching and encourage them to extend their learning and intake of language. This is very important especially for children and students who are in the process of learning a language and spending most of their time watching movies. Moreover, only when we really understand the movie, then we can really get into the movie and enjoy what the movie is really about. Then, from the negative side of view, sometimes a foreign language subtitles may cause conflict to a person towards the movie as the subtitle may not completely display all the text speeches in the movie due to time constrain. The audience cannot totally rely on subtitle as an aid for capturing and understanding the speeches in the movie.

From our own experiences, with the help of subtitles it does make me understand better. We become excited in learning English and it does give me the motivation to learn more as well as mastering the language. We, personally, more prefer subtitles with the same language with the movie itself because to me it is far better if you want to improve a particular language with enjoying the movie at the same time. Like the saying goes, it is like killing two birds with a stone. So, the two hours will not be wasted just for the sake of enjoyment if you can also dig something else out of it. Thereby, the movie of “Journey to the Centre of Earth” which both of its speeches and subtitles is in English is more understandable than “Karate Kid” that has English speeches but Mandarin subtitle.


In general, I think the subtitles provided do improve my English language. It is very important for a movie to have subtitles so that I can easily understand the story line. For example, sometimes the actor speaks too fast or the actor has weird accent such as British or American accent, I find it quite hard to get what they said, so now subtitles is needed for better understanding. With subtitles, we can learn more about English speaking in other country’s accent. This really helps a lot especially if you are a traveller who travels very often to other country.

For an English movie, the subtitle can be in various type of language. In Malaysia, we normally use our four main languages as the subtitle in our movie, which is English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. These languages reflect our country as a multi-racial country which consists mainly of Malays, Chinese and Indians.

For subtitle in English language, the subtitle is absolutely same as what the actor is speaking. Therefore, I can learn to speak and the correct pronunciations of a specific word by listening to the actor. Furthermore, I can also easily spot new words in the movie by having the subtitle, thus I can get know to many new vocabularies just by searching those new words in the dictionary. I can also remember the word better if I can see and hear it rather than just hearing it. Next, English subtitle also helps to improve my reading skill. We need to read fast enough so that we can always follow the subtitle and get knew to what the actors really meant in their speaking.

Next, for subtitle in Malay, Chinese and Tamil, these are the mother language of our majority race in Malaysia. With these languages as subtitle, we can easily get knew to the new word spoken by the actor as we are very familiar with our own mother language. Furthermore, when watching an English movie with these mother languages subtitles, our brain automatically translate the subtitle into English. Therefore, our English is also indirectly been improved in this way.

In conclusion, subtitles in an English movie will definitely help to improve our English language. We must appreciate the work done by all those film makers in making their movies complete with subtitles. Together we watch movie with good subtitle and develop an endless love towards our English language which is one of the most powerful language in the world nowadays.


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