Hans Kloos
Writing Tongues, Reading Speech


In Dutch a movie in English is always shorter than in English - not in time, but in words. Foreign films and TV-shows are not dubbed in the Netherlands, they are subtitled*. The spoken English of talking heads in interviews, the quarrels of sitcom lovers, press meetings of generals and presidents, the intergalactic dialogue of Star Trek Klingons and Vulcans, all end up as one or two lines of Dutch at the bottom of the television screen.

There is room for about 40 characters (including white spaces) in each line. An average viewer needs 3 to 3.5 seconds to read a full line. Two lines demand his attention for 6 to 7 seconds. In seven seconds, which in Europe contain 175 video-frames, a lot can happen. But even more can be said.

A transcription of a seven seconds dialogue would easily fill the entire television screen. A complete translation would obliterate the images and in the same process render itself unreadable. The solution to save both image and translation is this design of two lines at the bottom of the screen.

And so the translator who turns spoken word into written subtitles, does not just face the ordinary problems of translation, he also has to find a way to condense several lines of dialogue into two lines of subtitles which convey the same meaning and feeling and still make for easy reading and do not hamper watching the images.

In the opening scene of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs eight men sit around a table, eating and making conversation. In this conversation several dialogues seem to be going on at the same time and in seven seconds you can easily hear seven people speaking. Two lines of subtitles only can accommodate two speakers; each has his own line as readability demands. Scenes like this are a subtitler's nightmare, or they turn out to be his finest hour if he can rise to the challenge.

The groundwork of subtitling is similar to that of design. It is a matter of analyzing and of making choices. What is obvious to the viewer and can be left out? What is absolutely necessary and cannot be missed? At which point should certain information be made available, such as the punch line of a joke, to create the same effect at the same time?

In the end this ideally results in a two-line design that is ever-present and yet not consciously noticed. We take it for granted. Only its absence makes us acutely aware of it, as with the air that we breathe.


[Wanna give it a try? Read this text out loud and time it. Divide the time you have clocked by seven and multiply by two. That gives you the number of lines (of 40 characters) you have to reduce this text to without losing vital information while still making for pleasant reading; e.g. if it takes 84 seconds to read it out loud, the maximum of lines is 24 (84:7=12 ->x2=24). Good luck.]

* The choice for subtitling is, you might say, a negative one. Dutch is spoken by some 20 million people. With such a "small" audience the labor-intensive process of dubbing is simply too expensive. The situation is the same in the Scandinavian countries. Ironically this negative choice has a very positive side effect. Of all the peoples in the world the Dutch and the Scandinavians seem to be the ones with a knack of speaking foreign languages; thanks to a good educational system, but mainly to the tradition of subtitling. Our daily television diet imbues us with spoken English, German, French etcetera.

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first published on designinquiry.net (fall 2004)

© 2006 hans kloos