Why we all need subtitles now

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[10:42 video — entertaining and informative]

I certainly do, and most people I know do too.  And I'm not talking about just for foreign movies, but also for movies in my own tongue, English.  And it's not because we're old and addled or hard of hearing

This video explains very clearly exactly why that is so, why nearly all of us need subtitles — in technical, audio, phonetic terms.

You tell me, though, whether you would prefer to watch movies with subtitles and understand everything, or watch them without subtitles and understand about half of what is being said.

Incidentally, both of the principals in this video, Edward Vega (video producer, Vox) and Austin Olivia Kendrick (dialogue editor, Pace Pictures), speak exceptionally clearly, probably because they are professionals who know the root causes and resultant effects of muddled speech.  This is especially true of Kendrick, who describes her work thus:  "I basically perform audio surgery on actors' words".


Selected readings


[Thanks to Antonio Lopez Banderas]


  1. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 11:06 pm

    My normal practice is to not use captions. But there are exceptions.

    The main exception is Star Trek; I always use captions while watching episodes of any Star Trek series, because those shows have many unusual character names and a great deal of fictional technology jargon. Watching with subtitles helps me remember these words and to keep them straight— which comes in handy in a universe that has both El-Aurians and Illyrians (words that sound far more similar than they look).

    A related rationale, namely, dialogue containing many unfamiliar words, led me to use captions while watching Silicon Valley.

    In shows that I typically watch without captions, I turn the captions on whenever there is a song, as happens sometimes in Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Bob's Burgers. This obviously helps me understand the lyrics, which I really want to do considering the great care that is put into the music on these shows. After the song is over, however, I turn the captions off right away, because I don't want any jokes to be spoiled by my reading them before the line in question is said, even if the difference amounts only to a split-second.

    Of course, if I find in any show that the dialogue is too low in the sound mix, then I certainly turn on the captions. I remember having to do this consistently during episodes of Atlanta.

  2. David Moser said,

    January 20, 2023 @ 11:41 pm

    I felt so much better after watching this video. I had always assumed it was because of hearing loss in my old age. Now I know it's not me, it's the movie dialogue that has become increasingly inaudible.

  3. AntC said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 1:45 am

    Thank you, I wasn't aware there's a problem. (I don't have a TV. I don't go to the sorts of movies with explosions/car chases.)

    So (as my grandmother, born 1896, used often to say) with this modern technology, it's one step forward and two steps back.

    I do notice the incidental music in movies is deafeningly loud. For that reason I often take noise-cancelling earphones.

    I watch plenty of foreign-language movies. Fairly quickly I plain forget whether a movie had subtitles or was dubbed.

  4. Mike Casey said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 1:54 am

    I started watching with subtitles many years ago when my wife, who's Spanish, but is a proficient English speaker, keep asking me for clarification of what was being said at certain moments in a movie, for example. It was better to use subtitles or captions in English than to keep having my watching interrupted. But what I realised is I had also been watching without understanding every word of what was being said during a movie or series. So, I also began to rely on subtitles or captions, and to an extent that I leave then on even when my wife is not present.

  5. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 2:05 am

    (1) "Mumblecore"
    (2) Is it possible that using the term "SUBtitles" is not politically correct, b/c it demeans the titles (cf. SUBaltern, SUBjugate, etc.); perhaps "closed captioning" would be more acceptable?

  6. Taylor, Philip said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 7:04 am

    "You tell me, though, whether you would prefer to watch [films] with subtitles and understand everything, or watch them without subtitles []" —

    With subtitles, if they are in any language other than English. By choice, I will always watch a film in the original (undubbed) language, whether or not I understand that language. What I found interesting, though, is the comparison between two different films/series, the first being "Three Pines" (8-part series set in Québec) and the 2022 release of Maigret, starring Gérrard Depardieu. Because the first was set in Québec, I assume (wrongly, as it turned out) that the original language was French, so selected the French audio track. To my surprise, all speakers spoke in Metropolitan French, not in Québecois, and I understood about 90% of the dialogue, barely needing the subtitles. But for Maigret, I understood barely 10% of the dialogue, and was totally dependent on the sub-titles. So it seems to me (although this is not germane to the theme of this thread) that the register of the language used when dubbing can be markedly different from the register used in the original sound-track. A particularly bad example comes to mind. About 50 years ago, I watched a Japanese language film in a London arts cinema. There was Japanese over the loudspeakers, French in the headphones, and English sub-titles. At some point fairly early on in the film, a young boy greets his father very formally, with many bows and many honorifics. The English sub-titles read "Hi, Pop !".

  7. BSmith said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 7:15 am

    Thanks for this. I learned something today!

    I speak American English and use subtitles when watching BBC shows filmed in Wales or Scotland. These shows are pretty good and thanks to subtitles I can fully appreciate them

  8. Gerd Duerner said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 7:40 am

    I tend not to use subtitles, I may miss some but usually can infer the missing parts of dialogue from the action, I think.

    Unless we are talking Hollywood movies who tend to have such atrocious sound mixing that it is often near impossible to follow the dialogue as it becomes a flip between either being able to understand the dialogue but get your ears blown off from the non-diaolgue soundtrack, or keeping the soundtrack to a human level but it being humanly impossible to pick up a thing that is being said.

    This said, my personal solution is
    4. Don't watch big budget movies that much anymore

  9. Mark P said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 9:54 am

    What this means to me is that movie makers don’t think dialogue is integral to the value of the production. We might as well go back to the days of silent movies with subtitles already on the recording, plus, of course, deafening music and explosions. Digital recording of TV shows allows us to back the damned show up multiple times to try to understand certain segments of dialogue before we have to turn on subtitles to finally get it. Usually once I know what’s being said I can understand it. I resent being forced to do that much work to understand the dialogue.

  10. bks said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Subtitles on most of the time. But subtitles can ruin comedy, especially stand-up comedy, because of timing issues.

  11. Jerry Packard said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 1:58 pm

    I find we use subtitles for British programs and US doctor shows, but lately we’ve been using them for TV programs like ‘Riches’ or ‘Yellowstone’ because they improve our understanding of unclear dialogue and are also a great help in keeping the characters straight.

  12. SlideSF said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 5:35 pm

    My wife is Thai, and though her English is pretty good, she still finds the subtitles helpful. After several years of switching them on or off depending on who is watching, I now leave them on all the time, just for convenience. And now that I am used to having them on all the time, I find it difficult to understand the dialog without them. This may be for any number of reasons, but no matter.

    The thing I find most annoying about the subtitles, though, is when (as is increasingly the case) a movie is either multi-lingual, or there is an actor speaking another language. In the un-subtitled version, a subtitle will appear, translating the dialog. But the subtitled version will simply state [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] or [SPEAKS SPANISH] or whatever the case may be. Unfortunately, the subtitle is completely superimposed over the original translation, making it unreadable. It makes me want to shout at the screen: "I know she's speaking a foreign language! I want to know what she's saying!"

    If the audience the subtitles are "meant" for is hard of hearing, then surely, if they can read the closed captioning, they can read the original subtitles too. It the captioners want the audience to know that the speaker is speaking another language, surely there is a better way to do it than to completely obliterate the translation.

  13. HAR said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 5:58 pm

    Subtitles vs Closed captions

    Sub (under) – titles: a description of the location, but titles?
    Closed implies Open,. Are there "Open captions"? Certainly captions.

    The best is the combination, subcaptions, location+description

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 6:02 pm

    I think this is part and parcel of several other related trends that people here might like. Filmmakers now feel not just permission, but perhaps even an obligation, for foreign characters to be played by actors speaking that language, rather than speaking English with a stilted accent. Science fiction and fantasy TV shows now very often hire linguists to construct alien languages, even if audiences won't be able to tell the difference from unstructured gibberish. Similarly, sound designers now sometimes design the sound to give you more of the feeling of the sound environment they want you to experience, rather than prioritizing intelligibility of the speech of the characters. All of this is enabled by the ease and acceptance of subtitles and captioning, which also turn out to be very helpful for anyone who wants to watch a video on a small screen, or when the kids are sleeping, or in any of the other environments we can watch in now apart from the best theaters.

  15. Pamela said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 7:44 pm

    a relief in a way. i'm not actually going deaf. but also a bit annoying. the video is about all the stuff i'm supposed to do to compensate for the fact that so many people are making so many trash decisions (or, like Nolan, just arrogantly shoving bad stuff into people's faces). funny Ferdinand mentioned Star Trek, because the content of this video became clear to me some time ago when i contrasted Discovery, in which it is nearly impossible to understand what the main actor is saying (only Michelle Yeoh and Anson Mount can be understood) to the original Star Trek, in which every single actor can always be understood. the difference? training. all the original Star Trek actors had stage training. they all knew how to speak. and, oh, they were also more credible and interesting than the folks getting paid to do Star Trek today. mumbling and whispering don't make for good acting, no matter how "naturalistic" they claim it is. it isn't natural. so my suggestion is instead of me paying to see everything in a surround sound theater or using subtitles to listen to American media in my living room, how about actors learn to speak and directors be willing to make stuff people can actually watch. the only reason old time bad micing produced good sound and current technology produces bad sound is attitude.

    and… it is contagious. don't get me started on mumbling students who think it's everybody else's job to figure out what they are saying.

  16. Bloix said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 9:12 pm

    My wife, who watches less TV than I do, finds the TV noise annoying when she's doing something else. So years ago, I set up some wireless headphones (I bought Sennheiser RS-135's but there are lots of choices). And as a bonus I find that I can hear dialogue more clearly with the headphones. It's true that my ability to hear the higher frequencies has deteriorated somewhat due to aging. But it's also true that a decent set of headphones provides a better audio experience than the built-in TV speakers can.

    And sooner or later I'm going to spring for a sound bar – not for the superhero/action flick bass sounds, but for music and dialogue.

  17. BillR said,

    January 21, 2023 @ 9:24 pm

    Because I’m becoming deaf subtitles on TV are helpful. The biggest problem is inconsistent quality.

    Subtitles are absolutely necessary and have been forever for watching British comedy shows—the panels and sitcoms. Especially the panels, like Quite Interesting, and 8 Out of 10 Cats. Very funny people who are wont to be funny in various dialects at each other, and the laughing from the audience and other panelists made for lots of rewinds before we got the subtitle feature on our cable.

  18. Barry Cusack said,

    January 22, 2023 @ 5:10 am

    Professor Mair’s question has a clear answer once a movie, with its unintelligible dialogue, has been released: subtitles. Though it would help if the contrast between text and background could be got right: unreadable subtitles are fairly frequent.
    The elephant in the room, among the majority of comments so far, is actor skill. To produce, often in challenging plot settings, dialogue which seems natural and yet is intelligible, is what acting is about. In addition to bodily movement, it is the essence of the craft. In the clip, Alec Baldwin does it, but Tom Hardy does not. Technology, in spite of Edward Vega’s arguments, is not the main source of the problem.

  19. ohwilleke said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 1:14 am

    One of the amusing things you can do with subtitles is watch a dubbed foreign language video with subtitles in the same language that the work is dubbed in.

    While the two are similar, they are rarely identical, largely because the highly fluent voice actors use more vernacular language and ad lib a little bit to capture the right feeling of the characters in the overall production. The discrepancies can also shed light on what the likely real content of the original language dialog involved.

  20. jonathan silk said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 3:52 am

    Something not mentioned (I confess I did not watch the entire video, so maybe it's there?) is that there are constraints on space and time; the bottom of the screen has only so much space, and the text must remain long enough to be read. I had a student who went on to work in this field and she told me that often subtitlers were forced to paraphrase or otherwise alter the dialogue simply to get it on the screen under the constraints just mentioned. She was doing subtitles for translated text, in which it is often impossible to somehow render everything, but told me that this applies even in the original language.

  21. Julian said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 4:27 am

    In the 2012 film 'The Master', the troubled Navy veteran character did such a good job of being a mumbling drunk that you could hardly understand a word he said.
    And I was so irritated that I remember it 10 years later.
    Making dialogue sound natural yet remain intelligible is a skill that actors need to master. Seems like many don't bother.

  22. Guy_H said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 9:32 am

    Thank you for this! I've been saying this for years…Hollywood movies are increasingly hard to understand and I finally understand why.

    As an aside, in the Chinese-speaking world, everything (regardless if its Mandarin, Cantonese, foreign language content etc) is subtitled/captioned in Chinese – movies, TV series, game shows, talk shows etc. I find even Chinese-speaking Youtubers tend to automatically subtitle their videos. I'm so used to it, it feels abnormal to watch Chinese language content without subtitles.

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 9:35 am

    @Philip Taylor, the worst example I've seen was The Lion King in Russian as an overdub. (Spoiler alert) When Simba's father dies I heard the original English "Noooooooooooooooo!" which lasts for several seconds, and dubbed over it a clipped, emotionless, "Nyet".

    @ohwilleke, a similar exercise is to do the same in your own language with the volume muted, subtitles on, and trying to read the lips of the actors and pick up on the discrepancies. I used to do this when watching films well after my housemates had gone to bed.

  24. Stephen said,

    January 23, 2023 @ 4:50 pm

    I think the video makes a very good point but there is a very significant omission. I can understand (perfectly) good sound in a cinema with (up to) 128 channels becoming muddied when it is converted to stereo for TV.

    What seems odd to me is TV programmes (presumably originated with stereo) having muddied sound when broadcast in stereo on TV.

    @Mark P
    "What this means to me is that movie makers don’t think dialogue is integral to the value of the production"

    I think that is a little harsh. When I watch films at the cinema (obviously without subtitles) I rarely miss anything but I do miss enough when watching TV that I have the subtitles on. So I think that the dialogue is okay in the films in a cinema.

    @HAR said,
    "Are there "Open captions"?"

    AFAIUI, 'open captions' are ones that are part of the presentation and cannot be switched off, e.g. a German film on UK TV would have German dialogue and English subtitles.

    @Barry Cusack
    "Though it would help if the contrast between text and background could be got right: unreadable subtitles are fairly frequent"
    It used to be the case (last century) that subtitles were white and so disappeared on white, or pale backgrounds.

    This changed a long time ago so that subtitles were white with a black border and so were a lot more visible. Now they are multi-coloured.

    "The elephant in the room, among the majority of comments so far, is actor skill. … In the clip, Alec Baldwin does it, but Tom Hardy does not"
    I think that clip does Hardy a disservice. I would not call him a mumbler at all. I must have seen him in half a dozen films/TV series and I don't remember them in all of them but strongly do in Locke and in Peaky Blinders, and he was perfectly clear in both of them.

    "Something not mentioned … is that there are constraints on space and time; the bottom of the screen has only so much space, and the text must remain long enough to be read"

    This is sort-of a game that my wife & I play, seeing where and how they have paraphrased what was said, sometimes altering the meaning. One particular version of this is where the person doing the subtitles presumably knows little or nothing about the programme and so has no real idea what to do with jargon. For example, in a police programme AFIS (pronounced as a word) has been subtitled, IIRC, as 'aphid'.

  25. Barry Cusack said,

    January 24, 2023 @ 12:29 pm

    @ Stephen
    Re: “This changed a long time ago so that subtitles were white with a black border and so were a lot more visible. Now they are multi-coloured.”
    Maybe in the movies, a long time ago. Not so on UK television, January 2023. Unreadable subtitles are still a common phenomenon, regrettably.
    Re Tom Hardy: “I would not call him a mumbler at all.”
    The point is not that actors mumble all the time but that mumbling has become more common; and that it has become so common as to impede understanding and enjoyment, resulting in frequent recourse to subtitles.
    I would say that actors can do a lot better, and that they are letting themselves, and their craft, down. Audiences deserve better too.

  26. Shannon said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 8:47 am


    "In the un-subtitled version, a subtitle will appear, translating the dialog. But the subtitled version will simply state [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] or [SPEAKS SPANISH] or whatever the case may be."

    Why not have both? e.g. say have [SPEAKING (whatever they're speaking language-wise] appear on the screen followed by the translated dialog itself? I mean it'll take up space but only just a bit more. It would seem to solve the problems of both options but seemingly with not much downside but two or three extra words on screen added to the subtitle (unless there's something missing or a hidden reason this isn't a go-to option?).

  27. Stephen said,

    January 25, 2023 @ 9:43 am

    @Barry Cusack

    "Maybe in the movies, a long time ago. Not so on UK television, January 2023. Unreadable subtitles are still a common phenomenon, regrettably"

    Obviously your experience is different, but on the UK TV that I really cannot remember the last time I saw 'white on white' subtitles. So I really do not think it is common.

    Maybe older programmes (from the white on white era) still have those old subtitles.

    Nowadays, IME, at the end of the programme it will normally say which company did the subtitling. So when you see white on white subtitles it may be informative to see who is named. My understanding is that it used to be (e.g. last century) done in-house, so if there is no name then it is probably an old programme.

    "The point is not that actors mumble all the time"
    But that is surely what is meant by saying that 'X is a mumbler'. Everyone mumbles some of the time, so to use 'is a mumbler' to differentiate someone must describe their constant (or majority) action.

    That fact that I could immediately name two cases where he was clear (one BTW using quite a strong accent) means that he does not mumble all the time.

    "but that mumbling has become more common"
    True, but why is the blame for that laid with the actors?

    This is not live theatre where there is only one shot at a line. Each scene will be shot multiple times and then in the edit specific ones will be chosen. If the director wants the actor to speak more clearly, then they can say that and reshoot the scene. If the director/editor wants clear speech, then they can choose the take with that.

  28. AmyW said,

    January 26, 2023 @ 5:19 pm

    I thought this video was really interesting–I actually watched it on Youtube before seeing this post. One reason that I use subtitles at home is that I can read a lot faster than I can listen, so if someone interrupts me, I don't miss as much.

  29. Maxim said,

    January 27, 2023 @ 12:21 am

    I saw a Wes Anderson movie at a cinema in Minneapolis last year. The film was in English and they showed it with English subtitles. I believe it was an accessibility accommodation for hearing disabled people. I was conflicted about this somewhat, as it ruined the comedic timing of the movie. Over and over again, a line that would have been funny was soured because my eyes automatically took in the line from the subtitles before the punchline was delivered. I haven’t been to many movies in the past couple of years. Is this standard nowadays?

  30. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 27, 2023 @ 5:21 am

    I rarely watch movies, and they may well have better subtitling on whole, but on TV I note enough outright errors in subtitles that "understanding everything" sounds unlikely.

    (Perhaps TV subtitles are better in larger languages? Though I've certainly spotted errors in English subtitles for third-language programmes. I also have the impression subtitles have become worse over time, but apart from a simple tendency to idealize the past possible confounders present themselves: my English is better than it once was, improving my ability to spot errors, and the TV I watch nowadays tends to be commercial channels, who perhaps cuts corners in the interests of profitability, while I used to see more public service programming, which has a different set of incentives.)

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