New book reveals audience responses to film subtitling

Do subtitles have an impact on how audiences understand the movie? A University of Nottingham academic published a book on viewers’ interpretations of dynamic interactions represented in films via subtitling.

Xiaohui Yuan, a lecturer in Translation and Interpreting Studies at The University of Nottingham, shared her views in the latest book Politeness and Audience Response in Chinese-English Subtitling on how the face negotiation is dealt with when subtitling between Chinese and English.

Her book aims to explore and understand how people use verbal and non-verbal languages in society to manage interpersonal relationships across cultures, how it is delineated in Chinese and English films respectively and what Chinese and British viewers’ interpretations of dynamic rapport interactions represented in films via subtitling are.

Yuan said: “The research is highly original and fills the gap in several areas of Audiovisual Translation and Intercultural Studies. Particularly, it has for the first time established a composite model to explain people’s relationship management features in Western and Far Eastern cultures. Chinese and English are markedly remote from each other in both linguistic and cultural terms. The research is also the first using Chinese-English data to successfully demonstrate the representation of those interpersonal features in the process of subtitling and how it facilitates viewers’ correct or incorrect comprehension of protagonists’ personality, attitude and intentions.”

Audience response data shows cultural differences

The research focuses on Chinese and English languages. In order to see the differences of viewers’ interpretations of protagonists’ interactions, she conducted audience response experiments in which Chinese and British audiences were recruited in two groups for comparison. One was relying on the sound track and images of the original film sequences while the other was relying on the subtitles of those sequences. One-on-one s were undertaken with all the British and Chinese subjects.

The results demonstrated that viewers who relied on the subtitles produced sig¬nificantly different impressions of the interlocutors’ personality, attitude and intentions as well as the nature of their relationships, from those of audiences who replied on the soundtrack. This might lead to different interpretations of film characters and their interactional features.

Subtitles can be misleading

The findings of the book demonstrate that the absence of interpersonal elements and change of interpersonal relationship management strategies often happen in the process of subtitling, due to temporal and spatial constraints. The cumulative effect of these omissions and changes in the subtitles may inevitably impact on viewers’ interpretations of film characters and their interactional features.

Yuan also discovered body languages have played an important role in constructing viewers’ interpretations of interactions on the screen. Characterised by cultural differences, it is suggested that subtitles must represent interactional features which are expressed via paralinguistic behaviour, in order to assist foreign viewers to avoid misinterpretations.

Yuan said: “It is highly important that interpersonal features are represented in subtitles so that they can provide adequate support for the audiences’ correct comprehension of dynamic interactions taking place on the screen. This will enhance their understanding of the movie and ultimately their enjoyment of the film.”

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