The politics of subtitling | Language on the Move Recently, I watched a TV documentary about the proliferation of Nomura jellyfish in Japanese coastal waters. It was a shocking tale of the devastating environmental, economic, social and human impact of overfishing, global warming and marine pollution. The reason I’m blogging about the show as a sociolinguist, though, has nothing to do with the content of the documentary but with the fact that the speech of all the Japanese people appearing in the documentary was subtitled – irrespective of whether they spoke Japanese or English. Many of the fishermen, government officials and experts interviewed for the show spoke in Japanese and so it was obviously appropriate for their speech to be subtitled in English for non-Japanese-speaking viewers. By contrast, all the interviews with Professor Shin-ichi Uye of Hiroshima University, the world’s foremost expert on Nomura jellyfish, were in English. He spoke English with a Japanese accent but fluently, accurately and idiomatically. I found his speech easy to understand and so was surprised that someone had made the judgment that his speech was unintelligible to the degree that it needed subtitles in the same way that those speaking Japanese needed subtitles.

This is not the first time that I (who watches TV very rarely) have wondered about the ways in which subtitles work to make speakers sound (or, rather, look) not only unintelligible but also deficient and illegitimate. Earlier this year, for instance, the advertising block during the evening news ended with a preview of a show about migration, in which a migrant engineer from Colombia spoke about her experiences of settlement in Australia. She had lived in Australia for a number of years so it’s probably unsurprising that I found her Spanish-accented English perfectly intelligible. Nonetheless, it was subtitled. Shortly after, there was a news item about soccer violence in Glasgow which included an interview with a Scottish publican. Even with context clues, I had a hard time trying to make out what he was saying. However, this time, there weren’t any subtitles to help.

In yet another example, in August 2010, the evening news featured a report about the 2010 Pakistan floods as well as one about the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For the former, senior members of Pakistan’s army and civil defense forces were interviewed in English. In my perception, their educated English sounded a bit stilted but perfectly intelligible. It was subtitled. For the Hurricane Katrina report, ordinary New Orleans residents were interviewed. Their broad Southern American English was difficult for me to understand but – you guessed it! – there were no subtitles.

Is it possible that I am so out of touch with my speech community that I find accents that no one else understands intelligible and that I find accents unintelligible that everyone else understands? Possible, yes, but unlikely. The fact is that most Australians, just as myself, are likely to have more exposure to Australian English with a Spanish accent than to Glaswegian, or to an educated Commonwealth accent from Pakistan than a Southern drawl.

Subtitling varieties of English (as opposed to foreign languages) is thus a matter of ideology and identity construction as much as a matter of intelligibility. In the examples I have described here, the pattern is obvious: native speakers of English are presumed to be universally intelligible on Australian TV, even if theirs is a distant and obscure dialect. The speech of non-native speakers, by contrast, is presented as problematic and unintelligible even if they speak educated Standard English.

Familiarity with an accent is a key aspect of intelligibility. So, if the more familiar varieties are subtitled while less familiar ones are not, subtitling is clearly an exercise in linguistic subordination (a fact that hasn’t escaped the comedians behind this 2003 Skithouse sketch). Familiarity not only improves intelligibility but also influences attitudes towards speakers positively, as Eisenchlas and Tsurutani demonstrate in a recent matched-guise study. Participants, who were native speakers of Australian English, rated a speaker with Spanish-accented English as the most competent out of speakers of six different varieties of accented English (including standard Australian English) and a speaker with Japanese-accented English as the most attractive speaker. The researchers explain these rather surprising findings as a result of the fact that their participants are foreign language students. Consequently, they make this recommendation for a more equitable and harmonious multicultural society:

employment of non-native speakers within the education system and the introduction of compulsory foreign language study into school curricula will help to broaden people’s perceptions of foreign accented speech from an early age when world views are formed. (p. 234)

Additionally, the media also have an important role to play. All my examples above come from SBS, the broadcaster tasked with “reflecting the multicultural spirit of our own community.” Surely, that includes not branding familiar accents as exotic and illegitimate by subtitling them.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Susana A. Eisenchlas, Chiharu Tsurutani (2011). YOU SOUND ATTRACTIVE! PERCEPTIONS OF ACCENTED ENGLISH IN A MULTILINGUAL ENVIRONMENT Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 34 (2), 216-236

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Eleonora Deak

    I completely agree with the invalidation and I do find it offensive to watch. I did actually once see someone with a Scottish accent subtitled but I can’t remember the details of that and whether it was a news article or some drama.

    However it seems reflective (just on the basis of the circles I have the opportunity to move in) of the needs of many in the broader speech community. People seem to have these minor panic attacks when confronted with non-English accents and their brains and ears freeze up. In a group assignment recently, I found a couple of the girls looking and speaking to/at me when they were trying to interact with the African guy in our group (whose English was perfectly understandable to me). Also I’ve seen people from non-English speaking backgrounds who are not linguists have similar trouble with other non-English accents (so maybe a Phillipine person trying to follow the English of an Eastern European person etc).

  • Alwin

    I think there is a solution for this subtitle discrimination issue appeared on TV. I had some working experiences in Sichuan TV station where locate at the capital city Chengdu of Sichuan province in China. I think you may know there are numerous local dialects in China, and people usually speak the only official language – Mandarin with strong local accent. What they do is put subtitles under every words or sentences, even for ‘standard Mandarin’. I still remember those lonely night shift in video editing room, I struggled with listening in various dialects and accent for subtitles.
    I think media should endeavour to fill the gap caused by linguistic varieties between different groups of people, especially for those public funding media like ABC, SBS etc. in Australia.

  • Verónica López

    I think you’re right.
    Have you seen this video about English subtitles?


  • Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections:()

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    I remember noticing this when I first came to Australia in the late 1990s, and the fact that it was happening on SBS was particularly disturbing. I wonder how they justify the use of resources for sub-titling even the English speech of indigenous Australians?
    I am also regularly confronted with the type of situation Eleonara mentions, when people talking to myself and my husband, who is a non-native English speaker, look only at me. The fact that this also happened in Japan, even though my husband was the more fluent speaker of Japanese, suggests that the issue goes beyond that of intelligibility.
    By the way, my son’s teacher is non-native English speaker of Armenian heritage. As far as I am aware, the Englnish speech of speakers from eastern Europe is not normally sub-titled on television.

  • Sun

    Well, I think the idea of subtitles has two point of view. First, for people who does not have good communication skills, they could understand and learn from the subtitles. For example, when I saw the movie, I still read the subtitles sometimes. To learn the pattern of sentences and also I can understand the communication clearly. This can be show the advantage of subtitles which is the good purpose. On the other hand, in our feeling, we sometimes feel that subtitles for people who have strong communicative skills but they judge to be non-native speakers is not fair. It show the idea of unequal term. So, it is the media’s duty to judege what is advantage or disadvantage to have subtitles and make it fair for all audiences to reduce the bad feeling of unequal term.

  • It would be fascinating to conduct a study and examine subtitling practices vis-a-vis the subtitling of English being spoken by speakers who are “non-native” and/or considered by broadcasters/film makers not to speak sufficiently standardized/clear English to be understood by audiences. A documentary film that I show in some of the courses I teach for undergraduate college students — Lost Boys of Sudan — comes to mind. In this, Sudanese immigrants to the U.S. speaking in English are still subtitled, though, interestingly, not all of the time. Here’s a link to a web site with a trailer —

    I can also recall watching at least one Irish-made movie with my wife that was in English and which had subtitles.

    Of course, in some cases you can turn subtitles on/off, which complicates the whole equation.

  • Thanks, Christof! I agree – this would be a perfect PhD project! 🙂
    The Irish movie Kisses was partially subtitled for US audiences – how such decisions are reported in the press is interesting, too. This article in the Irish Herald or this one on Irish Central seem to simply accept that American audiences find Irish accents too difficulty; comments seem to be a bit more critical (see also this one) and it would be fascinating to see whether there has been any discussion on FB or Twitter. Finally, this article on the Irish Film&TV Network has an interesting explanation how another Irish director went about deciding NOT to subtitle for US audiences:

    “When you are at Sundance you do these screenings in towns that are nearby,” explains Ed. “They are regular mid America towns and so we had a number of those screenings and then we were in Tribeca and we also recently screened in L.A. And I think by and large, people have not had an issues understanding it. It’s set in Galway and people do have accents, but they are not incredibly thick and equally I think if you give it a moment, you tune into it and I think you get it. Also the enunciation of the dialogue is very clear. Once you’ve tuned into it I think it is fine. Yes, they do have a brogue but it doesn’t seem to be an issue, in terms of an editing issue and in terms of what Sony are proposing anyway.”

  • I think some mentions of this being seen as discrimination are silly, silly accusations to be making. What about those who are watching these programmes with minor or major hearing impairments? A slight accent may be a struggle for them to understand, and I believe that if we can in any way aid their experience, then we should allow subtitling.

  • Thanks, Richard. I was pointing out the ideologies underlying selective subtitling. Subtitling/close captioning for the hearing impaired is an entirely different matter and, of course, very valuable indeed.

  • PeterL

    On Japanese TV, it’s common to subtitle interviews, even when the person speaks completely standard Japanese. So, I think your assumption of “subtitled means difficult to understand” is questionable. (Maybe it’s correct in your country, but it’s not correct in Japan.)

    [The Japanese subtitles are not always precise — they sometimes condense the response a bit, or leave out some “keigo” (polite language)]

    As to why this is common in Japan … sometimes technical terms are difficult to understand without kanji (the language has a lot of homonyms), and often people do speak with regional dialects, and *some* regional dialects are difficult to understand. So, subtitling so widely is a way of treating a farmer in Kagoshima like a professor from Tokyo University. If it’s ideological, it’s *inclusive* rather than exclusive.

    Japanese variety shows often have abbreviated subtitles for emphasizing funny or notable responses — so in that sense, subtitles are even thought of as positive.

  • Pingback: Illegitimate English | Language on the Move()

  • Pingback: English subtitles for Spoken English? | So You Think You Can Sabbatical()

  • Martyn Moore

    I hope you don’t mind me reviving an old thread here. I found this discussion while seeking guidance. I am in the middle of subtitling an English-speaking documentary film for the benefit of the hearing impaired. I’m afraid this is slightly off topic but you might be able to advise. Two of the speakers have strong regional accents and use words in ways that are not strictly correct. They say “we was” instead of “we were” and other peculiarities. This way of speaking is very common among old people from this part of the country so my question is: should I write the subtitles as they speak or should I write them in ‘correct’ English. Viewers from outside the region might prefer the correct version but I’m worried that I will lose the local idiosyncrasies, which may be appreciated by the local viewers. The film will have a national, maybe international, audience. Your views would be appreciated.

  • Thanks for finding us! How to represent non-standard speech in standard writing is a perennial problem. One aspect of the problem is how to actually represent non-standard features in writing (your “we was” example is relatively straightforward but what about accent?) – the aim of accurate phonetic representation is largely incompatible with the convenience of your audience.

    The other aspect of the problem is that non-standard forms provide so much identity-related information about the speaker. For a speaker whose speech is subtitled in Standard English, the viewer will focus on the content; but for a speaker whose speech is subtitled in alternative (and usually idiosyncratic ways because of problem #1) ways of writing, the viewer will focus on the identity of the speaker.

    So, my suggestion would be: if the main focus of your documentary is some non-language-related and non-local content, it might be best to subtitle everyone in standard written English. If, on the other hand, the way something is said is really important to your overall content and message, you’ll have to find a systematic way to represent those idiosyncrasies that does not stereotype some speakers over others and is still convenient to read for your audience.

    Would be interested to hear what you decide to do in the end. Good luck with your project, Ingrid

  • Martyn Moore

    Thanks for that, Ingrid. You have some fascinating conversations on here and I will add you to my useful resources list. I agree with your comments. I was also helped in my decision by the BBC. It publishes subtitling guidelines and point 13.3 addresses my question exactly. I’ll share it:

  • Thanks, Martyn! Thanks for sharing the link to the BBC guidelines – really useful!