On the typography of subtitles

Subtitles are a necessary evil if you

  1. Plan to watch TV programmes from overseas
  2. Don’t plan on becoming entirely fluent with every language in the world

Nevertheless, there are problems with them. You lose a lot in the translation when phrases and words don’t have matching concepts in your own language. Then there are prissy subtitlers who don’t like swearwords or perhaps aren’t as fluent as they should be in your native language, resulting in errors. Subtitles also have to fit on-screen and progress at the same speed as the dialogue, so generally abbrievate the dialogue anyway.

A little considered aspect of them is their typography and positioning. Consider Sebastian Bergman‘s subtitles:

Sebastian Bergman subtitles

Nothing inherently wrong with the subtitle typeface, and you’ll notice there’s both a keyline and a dropshadow on the text so that it’ll show up well against the mixed black-white background. I tried to watch Kurosawa’s Ran which had purely white text against a bright background so was unreadable.

But have a look at the credits in the mid-left of the screen. They’re in a sort of bold Futura, all in upper case, designed to look sophisticated, discreet and intelligent – as is the show. Except the much bigger, italic Helvetica-esque text at the bottom of the screen now swamps that effect completely. The subtitles convey a rather more ordinary tone to the show, something more generic. Imagine what the screen would look like without them, to see what I mean.

As a result, the viewer can subsconsciously be led into thinking the show is something different from what the creators intended. There’s not a lot that can be done about it, although a lot of Blu-Ray releases now have custom typefaces for subtitles designed to match the feel of the show as much as possible, but it’s something to bear in mind when watching a foregin show.

Ain’t typography fun?

  • Stuart Ian Burns

    I knew a bloke once who said that he preferred dubbed films because of the disruption subtitles cause to the mis-en-scene and could never be convinced of otherwise which is frankly bizarre since noticing that the words don't match the lips is far more distracting. Some of Passolini's films are really troubling because they have both.

  • Adam Bowie

    The version of the sub-par Danish thriller “Those Who Kill” shown recently on ITV3 are easily the worst that I've seen on a broadcast TV programme. They look like ones generated by the cheapest of cheap DVD players. No keyline or drop shadow, and all in a very jagged italic font.

    I miss those old subtitles that appeared in a black box that were par for the course in the early eighties.

  • bob

    No mention of Night Watch? I have to wonder why gorgeous graphic subtitling didn't catch on after that film.

  • Mark Carroll

    Ooh, yes, I'd clean forgotten that. As I recall it was some effort somehow to make sure I'd got the version that had that. I'm glad they cared enough.

    I had remembered the Irken subtitles for Invader Zim. That was a nice touch. Now we just need the “Complete Invasion” set to be re-released.

  • Lisa Rullsenberg

    Hmmm… I agree that HOW subtitles look on screen can be really disconcerting (esp if they become unreadable).

    I get more irked by the quality of translating though – heck, even we could tell some of the English subtitles on The Bridge were off.

    And finally I think I have got Disqus to recognise me. Even if I'm not a Google+ gal.

  • I remember thinking how cheap and nasty they looked. And yes, the thick black box subtitles were very nice, I think