Opera Surtitling as a Special Case of Audiovisual Translation

Towards a Semiotic and Translation Based Framework for Opera Surtitling

by Anna Rędzioch-Korkuz (Author)
©2016 Monographs 251 Pages
Series: Łódź Studies in Language, Volume 46


Despite the growing interest in various translation activities, there is still a potentially vast area of research. The statement may be true for opera surtitling, which was introduced in the nineteen eighties and has been used in opera companies worldwide ever since. This book aims to offer a theoretical framework for opera surtitling, based on several factors, including the semiotics of opera, relevance theory, or fundamental rules of audiovisual translation. The author provides a more illuminating insight by means of practical research into surtitling in Poland, which proves that surtitling is not as simple a task as it may seem, demanding a multimodal and multifaceted analysis of an audiovisual complex and requiring a constant struggle to guarantee optimal relevance of the surtitled performance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: On Opera as a Genre
  • 1.1 Culture as a Means of Communication
  • 1.2 Opera as a Cultural Phenomenon
  • 1.2.1 Beginnings of Opera
  • 1.2.2 Principles of the Genre
  • A Matter of Convention
  • Synthesis of the Arts
  • Art of Composition
  • 1.2.3 Literary Source
  • 1.3 Libretto as a “Non-Existing” Text
  • Chapter Two: Semiotic Foundations of Opera
  • 2.1 Opera as a Semiotic Fact
  • 2.1.1 Langue and Parole in Opera
  • 2.1.2 Operatic Langue
  • 2.1.3 Operatic Parole
  • Chapter Three: On Operatic Communication
  • 3.1 Staging as a Text
  • 3.2 Multi-Nature of the Operatic Text: Disambiguation
  • 3.3 Process of Stage Interpretation
  • 3.4 Operatic Communication
  • 3.4.1 Deciphering the Code
  • Chapter Four: Facilitating Operatic Communication
  • 4.1 Operatic Communication as an Example of Bilingual Communication
  • 4.2 Libretti Get Translated
  • 4.3 Moving with the Times: Opera Surtitling
  • 4.3.1 Surtitling as a New Type of Translation
  • 4.3.2 The Source and the Target
  • 4.3.3 Similar Yet Different
  • 4.4 Surtitling in Practice
  • 4.5 Translator, Surtitler or Operator?
  • Chapter Five: Surtitling in Poland
  • 5.1 Opera Companies in Poland
  • 5.2 Surtitling Landscape in Poland
  • 5.3 Surtitling Process in Polish Opera Companies: Division of Labour
  • 5.4 General Overview of Surtitling Strategies
  • 5.5 Speaking with One Voice? Audience Opinion
  • 5.5.1 General Conclusions
  • Chapter Six: Towards a Theory of Surtitling
  • 6.1 Relevance Theory and Surtitling
  • 6.1.1 Operatic Performance as an Instance of Ostensive-Inferential Communication
  • 6.1.2 Function, Product and Process of Surtitling
  • 6.2 Constraints in Surtitling
  • 6.3 Translation Norms in Surtitling
  • 6.4 Surtitling as a Special Case of AVT: Towards Practical Implications
  • Concluding Remarks and Recommendations
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • References
  • Author Index
  • Subject Index

← 8 | 9 →


Recently the theory of translation has experienced a number of considerable changes. On the one hand, those changes came from translation scholars who had succeeded in shifting the interest from the notion of equivalence to more process- or target audience-related aspects, such as the goal of translation or the idea of acceptability and adequacy, to name just a few. On the other hand, the changes seem to have been inevitably demanded by the omnipresent development of communication technology: the Internet, computer games, DVDs, video­conferencing or smartphone applications have called for a rapid flow of easily accessible information. In practice, it soon turned out that the translator had to face the challenge of serving not only as a language mediator but also as a culture mediator making conscious decisions on the textual make-up of the target text, often bending the corset of translation equivalence.

A good illustration may be the scope of audiovisual translation (AVT), which has been currently gaining momentum. AVT has brought the tripartite division of translation put forward by Jakobson into academic spotlight, making room within translation studies for activities which would otherwise defy the traditional and fairly common understanding of translation as a process of rendering a source language text by means of an equivalent text in the target language. That includes subtitling or dubbing, which face the translator with distinctive constraints, e.g. temporal limitations or synchronization issues, but also subtitling for the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing or audio description, which embrace the essence of intralingual and intersemiotic translation respectively.

Despite the vigorous debate on the intricacies of the most common subtitling or dubbing, or recently audio description and subtitling for the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing, it seems that certain aspects of other peripheral or challenging AVT methods are subjects of piecemeal research. It may be true for simultaneous interpreting, free commentary, audio subtitling or opera surtitling. The last example may be fairly surprising: introduced in the nineteen eighties, surtitling has apparently attracted little academic attention so far. Perhaps, it is due to the fact that opera surtitling is rather conveniently categorized as a method similar to subtitling, which should essentially suffice to discuss it in more detail. Undeniably though, surtitling seems to depend on certain issues not found elsewhere and therefore deserves a thorough analysis.

It seems that a deeper insight into the essence of surtitling is crucial in an attempt to produce an audience-friendly product which would meet certain ← 9 | 10 → criteria of acceptability, readability, or relevance. Simple task though it may appear, surtitling does present the translator with specific problems and may at points be far more challenging than initially expected.

Conceptual Framework

This book is aimed at shedding more light on the overall nature of surtitling, its purpose, intended shape, evaluative criteria or potential norms to be sought. It is not meant only as a source of prescriptive rules for good surtitling practice, but rather a theoretical description of the rationale behind this particular translation activity. It is to be interpreted as an attempt at suggesting helpful and general guidelines on surtitling, based on the specific context in which it functions, as well as underlying implications arising from the general theory of AVT.

To this end, it provides a descriptive outline of surtitling strategies employed by selected opera companies in Poland. This helps to evaluate the relation between the theoretical assumptions (established for AVT in general as well as surtitling as an individual translation activity) and common practice. It helps to address the question whether theory is reflected in practice and if so, to what degree. In order to arrive at general conclusions, opinions from the audience gathered by means of a questionnaire are considered.

The conducted survey as well as the subsequent analysis of the gathered data helps to state whether surtitling is a special case of AVT, in that certain rules or limitations may be relaxed owing to, for instance, the presence of music which determines the overall tempo.

The book is divided into six chapters which discuss some of the most significant issues related to opera and surtitling. Chapter One covers the general history and semiotic make-up of the genre of opera. It presents an opera as a word-sound-image compound, highlighting the fundamental principles of the genre, which guarantee an artistic balance. The following sections focus on the libretto as a literary undercurrent of the operatic opus and a text which is not meant as a self-contained or autonomous whole. As a result, it is concluded that the libretto does not signify outside the context of a relevant operatic compound.

The next chapter presents a brief analysis of opera from a semiotic perspective which is based on the traditional Saussurean division. A distinction between operatic langue and parole leads to conclusions according to which the former can be regarded as an abstract collection of potential semiotic systems, whereas the latter may be understood as a staging presented in the relevant context of its performance. ← 10 | 11 →

Chapter Three is dedicated to discussing the staging as an underlying construct behind the operatic performance. It is understood as a multimodal composite, which may serve as an audiovisual complex. A result of a lengthy stage interpretation process and collaboration of a great many persons, the staging seems the appropriate starting point for further deliberation on the essence of communication within the operatic performance. The primary focus remains on potential sources of incomprehensibility of the operatic message: it is underlined that there exists a vital necessity for introducing means of mediating operatic communication and enabling the audience to enjoy adequate aesthetic experiences.

Chapter Four touches on the problem signalled towards the end of the previous one, viz. interpreting operatic communication as an instance of bilingual communication, which consequently calls for certain means of translation. It presents common ways of dealing with the problem of a foreign-language libretto, such as printed programmes, inter-commentaries or singable translations. The second part of the chapter is exclusively devoted to the invention of surtitling. Starting with the very beginnings of surtitling, it discusses the initial reception of surtitled performances and suggests a definition of this AVT method, underlining its typical features. The following sections are centred on the problem of appropriate source and target material in the surtitling process. Based on the prior conclusions, it is stated that the staging should be interpreted as the most adequate source complex in the process of mediating operatic communication. Next, differences between subtitling and surtitling are discussed, which brings the reader to another point, namely various approaches to surtitling opera performances, established practices and available guidelines. The last section looks at the profession of a surtitler and the common division of tasks comprising the overall surtitling process.

Chapter Five presents surtitling practice in Poland, including a tripartite division of labour, which leads to an indication that the audiovisual translation factor seems present only to a limited degree. The whole process usually comes down to choosing specific source material, i.e. a particular libretto translation, dividing and distributing the text as well as synchronizing surtitles with the onstage action. The next section focuses on the reception of surtitling in Poland, outlining the results of a questionnaire survey conducted among operatic audiences in selected opera houses. The chapter finishes with a presentation of general conclusions on the surtitling landscape in Poland, which altogether seems to have been evaluated positively, with certain technical issues, e.g. the font readability or screen location, criticised most severely.

The last chapter serves as a summary: drawing on selected translation theories, including the skopos or relevance theory, as well as the findings from the previous ← 11 | 12 → chapters, it endeavours to describe the surtitling process from a theoretical point of view, focusing on multifaceted aspects, such as the function of surtitling, audience design, source complex nature or adequate shape of the end-product. That shifts the discussion to the problem of potential constraints in surtitling, which to a considerable degree determine the process.

The book finishes with a tentative enumeration of aspects which should be taken into account while compiling prescriptive guidelines or norms. The very last paragraphs suggest a scope for further research as well as briefly describe other innovations introduced to opera, but not common in Poland yet, including audio description or surtitling for the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing. At the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of references as well as an author and subject index.


The terminology introduced in the book is fairly specialized and follows the definitions commonly encountered in the literature on the subject. Unless used in a traditional and clear way, a given word is defined or explained in more detail.

The most important distinction is made at the very beginning and refers to the use of two spelling varieties of the words “text” as opposed to “Text” and “language” as opposed to “Language”. The words written with small letters should be understood in a more traditional manner: “language” will refer to a natural language, whereas “text” will designate any written or oral utterance expressed in a natural language. The upper case letter options should be understood in a broader sense, according to the general semiotic perspective. As a result, “Text” should be interpreted as any organized complex built upon certain semiotic systems, and “Language” should mean any abstract system consisting of specific signs or sign systems.

It follows, then, that opera may be understood as an example of a Language, with a single staging functioning as a Text formulated in this particular system. The notion of a staging and an operatic performance should not be mistaken as well: the first one is used to mean a particular opus as a result of the stage interpretation process which is later on presented in a relevant context, i.e. specific spatio-temporal conditions with the presence of the audience. A given staging within such conditions is described as an operatic performance. A staging constitutes a message communicated in the act of operatic communication and seems the appropriate source Text in the surtitling process.

Audiovisual translation is meant as translation for and in the media, in which the translator consults not only verbal signs but also other non-verbal ones. Seen ← 12 | 13 → as one of AVT methods, opera surtitling means a translation activity which enables spectators to experience a more accessible operatic performance, letting them overcome the most acute stumbling block, that is the language barrier in the case of foreign-language libretti.

The notions of accessibility, usability and relevance are understood as the most crucial criteria in evaluation of a surtitled performance. Accessibility means an overall increase in the access to opera as a general fact, making it a less elitist or hermetic form of entertainment. Usability, on the other hand, means that the performance offers better experience irrespective of the background knowledge or available tools. Relevance is defined as a feature of the operatic performance, meaning that contextual effects are intensified with a simultaneous attempt to curb processing efforts necessary to derive the intended meanings.

Assumptions and Research Methodology

By means of conducting research into surtitling in Poland a hypothesis on the assumed dichotomy between theory and practice is tested. Surtitling may be subject to highly individualised approaches rather than any standardised practice, which may result in a specific understanding of surtitles, their intended purpose or shape. It may be the case that decisions made during the surtitling process are not as relevant to the audience as they could or should be. Consequently, it may be assumed that little awareness of the true essence of surtitling may lead to drafting surtitles which defy generally accepted AVT guidelines. Only by means of observing and describing the current surtitling environment in Poland can this hypothesis be challenged.

On the other hand, it may be true that surtitling is a special case of AVT and allows less stringent rules as for the number of characters per line or exposure times. Considering the fact that surtitling has been used in Poland for over twenty years, it may be assumed that the audience is used to certain conventions which may have been established irrespective of the theoretical undercurrents. It follows, then, that even surtitles which are basically in breach of fundamental or golden rules may still be evaluated positively.

In the light of the reasoning presented in the first chapters as well as the results obtained from the survey an attempt at supporting or rejecting the above hypotheses is made. The final conclusions prove helpful in producing practical implications for drafting more relevant or audience-friendly surtitles.

The practical part is based on a questionnaire and corpus surveys. The questionnaires were used twice during the research. They helped to gather information on the strategies used by surtitlers working for selected companies in ← 13 | 14 → Poland. Unless interviewed in person, the surtitlers were asked to answer several open-ended questions which covered technical aspects as well as overall strategies and more particular editing techniques.

More importantly, the questionnaire was used to gather opinions from audiences of selected opera companies in the country. Consisting mostly of multiple-choice questions and based on a five-point Likert item, the questionnaires were distributed among spectators in six opera companies during the 2011–2012 season. The spectators were asked to evaluate specific aspects of surtitles, including the surtitle readability, surtitle length, cueing or the influence of surtitling on the reception of particular performances. The respondents commented also on the introduction of intralingual surtitling. The questionnaires were meant to mea­sure above all personal and subjective opinions among the spectators.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016, 251 S., 11 s/w Abb., 15 s/w Tab.

Biographical notes

Anna Rędzioch-Korkuz (Author)

Anna Rędzioch-Korkuz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw. Her main research interests lie in the interrelationship between translation studies and semiotics, as well as singable and audiovisual translation, especially opera surtitling and opera accessibility.


Title: Opera Surtitling as a Special Case of Audiovisual Translation