Constantly, we’re being told that the world is shrinking, that distance is becoming less of an issue, and that we are able to communicate with more people than ever before; however, if we’re still being limited solely by the language that we understand, barriers remain. One of the ways to break down the linguistic barriers between us, especially considering audio-visual applications, is through the usage of subtitles, but there’s more to it than just reading the text below the picture. In order to gain a better understanding of what it is, where our idea of subtitling came from and what option would work best for you, read on.
Breaking down the word itself, subtitle consists of the prefix sub, meaning ‘under or beneath’ in Latin, and the root word, title, which comes to us through the Old French title from the Latin titulus, meaning ‘inscription, heading, or label’. First arriving in English through the Bibliotheca Spenceriana, written in 1814 by the English bibliographer, Thoms F. Dibdin, we can see the literal usage of the term, akin to a subheading, with Dibdin noting that: “The following sub-title (wanting in the preceding edition,) is prefixed to the first section of the work: Strabonis Geographi Europe primus Commentarius.” By the next year though, as can be seen in the January 1815 edition of the monthly magazine, The European Magazine, and London Review, which states that: “The sub-title of ‘The Two Cupids’, Mr. J. thinks, will be fully understood by classical readers,” we can already begin to see the term being used as more than a subheading to give a supplementary or explanatory title to the main title of a work.
As could be expected, the big changes to the use of our term occurred with the advent of widespread media. Taking our word to mean an explanatory caption beneath a photo or illustration, the first change can be found in a May 1907 issue of Outing Magazine, where it is remarked that: “In one of its illustrated folders some years ago the Great Northern railroad printed a photograph of this noble mountain, with the sub-title of ‘Hough’s Mountain’.” A couple of years later, we finally see, in the American trade journal, Moving Picture World, from 27 February, 1909, the word used in the context of moving pictures, writing: “If the audience is not given time to read the subtitles or if they are indistinct..the spectators lose the thread.”
Considering these earlier uses, it may be surprising to discover that the use of the word as our modern concept of a running caption across the lower portion of our screens only first appeared in 1931. While referred to the concept a year earlier, our familiar iteration of the word appears in Bernard Brown’s movie making and showing book, Talking Pictures, where he records that: “Subtitles, with their orchestral accompaniment, are made by two cameras.”
Finally, as the distribution of motion pictures continued to expand – and with TV broadcasts soon to be a force in media – we see our term transitioning from a noun to a verb, with the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture (and Television) Engineers writing that: “Several operations are necessary in order to subtitle pictures.”
Beyond just etymology and development of usage, it’s important to understand that all subtitles aren’t the same. For a start, is the intralingual subtitling designed for individuals who would understand the initial language being spoken, such as the hearing impaired, whereas, if individuals don’t understand the language being spoken, such as with a foreign film or broadcast, the subtitling is interlingual, with differing skill sets being required for each. Moreover, both of these types of subtitling can be done in 2 different ways: real-time subtitling, which is essentially the same as the closed captioning of a live broadcast, and involves either the use of an interpreter and stenographer working in tandem or simply through the use of a subtitler who, much like lectoring, listens to what is being spoken and repeats it into a microphone; conversely, there is also offline or pre-recorded subtitling, which, though it potentially takes more time to prepare, can, through multiple review processes, often produce a subtitling with less errors that is able to better capture the overall intent of the words being subtitled (as sometimes, words, phraseology, and idioms are culturally or linguistically exclusive).