Don’t believe everything you read: the pleasures and perils of TV subtitles

Name: Subtitles.

Age: During the silent movie era “intertitles” or “title cards”, boxes of text between film sequences, were used in lieu of speech, so that viewers had some idea of what was going on. So about 115 years, let’s say.

Fascinating. They’re a bit different now, right? Right. Now we’re talking text displayed at the bottom (hence sub) of the screen. And it can either be a translation of the dialogue from one language to another or a written transcription of the same language.

Of course, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Exactly. Though by no means exclusively.

Who else? Well you might have trouble understanding an accent or dialect perhaps – an American watching Trainspotting, for example. Or you might just be a young person.

A young person? Yes. Research by captioning charity Stagetext found that young people are almost four times as likely to watch TV with subtitles as older viewers.

What kind of numbers are we talking about? So four out of five people aged 18 to 25 said they have subtitles on all or part of the time. For those between 56 and 75, it’s less than a quarter.

Though presumably they’re more likely to be deaf or hard of hearing. Nearly twice as likely.

So what is it about then? “I think there’s far more acceptance of subtitles by young people because it’s the norm,” said Stagetext’s chief executive, Melanie Sharpe. “They can take in far more information quickly because they’re used to it.”

That’s why young people are always looking at their phones while I talk to them. That’s probably just because you’re boring. Also, they are better with text than spoken conversation. Have you tried calling a young person? They panic and don’t answer …

Because they see it’s you calling them. Anyway, when I finally get round to this Squid Game everyone is talking about I’ll be switching on the subtitles as my Korean is a bit rusty. You might be better off brushing up on your Korean. Some native speakers have said the subtitles on the hit Netflix show deviate widely from the original script.

Oh really? Indeed. TikTokker Youngmi Mayer, of Korean-American descent, said: “If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show.”

Maybe it’s a period romantic comedy in Korean. Maybe. Still, not as fun as real-time captioning?

Which is? You know, news bulletins, live sports etc when the subtitles are generated by speech-to-text programs, which are prone to mishearing fails, as the BBC has often found out

Do say: “Cromer, famous for its crab”; “Chinese year of the horse”; Benedict Cumberbatch.

Don’t say (as the BBC did): “Cromer, famous for its crap”; “Chinese year of the whores”; Benedict Couple Beer Batch.

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