The Reception of Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Europe

UK, Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark, France and Germany

by Pablo Romero-Fresco (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 381 Pages


This is the first volume to deal specifically with the quality of subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) in Europe, with contributions from the UK, Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark, France and Germany. Drawing on the results of the EU-funded project DTV4ALL, the book looks at the issue of quality in the reception of SDH in Europe as a combination of three factors: what viewers think about SDH, how they understand these subtitles and how they view them. The viewers’ preferences have been obtained through questionnaires and their comprehension has been analysed with tests, involving clips with SDH and questions. The viewers’ perception has been measured with eye-tracking technology, involving the analysis of 71,070 subtitles in what is so far the largest international eye-tracking study on subtitling. With this research, we have sought to obtain both subjective (preferences) and objective (comprehension and perception) data that can inform national guidelines on SDH. The book also introduces the notion of viewing speed and points to the existence of certain universals of SDH and subtitling that can contribute to advance our understanding of how different types of viewers from different nationalities view, process and understand subtitles as a means to access audiovisual content.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Viewers’ opinion of SDH in Europe
  • Different viewers, different needs: Personal subtitles for Danish TV?
  • Long questionnaire in Poland
  • Long questionnaire in Italy
  • Long questionnaire in Spain
  • Long questionnaire in the UK
  • Long questionnaire in France: The viewers’ opinion
  • Long questionnaire in Germany
  • Part 2. Viewers’ comprehension and perception of SDH in Europe
  • Eye tracking as a method to study reading and subtitling: The DTV4ALL Project
  • Eye tracking in Poland
  • Eye tracking in Spain
  • Eye tracking in Italy
  • Eye tracking in Germany
  • Final thoughts: Viewing speed in subtitling
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix
  • Bionotes
  • Index

← 8 | 9 →Introduction


Although not as visible as it could be outside the realm of Translation Studies, Audiovisual Translation Studies (AVTS) is now generally considered as a discipline in its own right. A myriad of research projects, conferences and publications bears witness to the vibrancy of research in AVT, which becomes stronger as it continues to develop and strengthen links with an increasingly broader range of related disciplines.

The research conducted for the present volume focuses on media accessibility, one of the most active areas within AVTS, and has its roots in a recent turn that has replaced the initial emphasis on the quantity of access services provided for audiences with sensory disabilities with an interest in the quality of these services. As is the case with an increasing number of publications resulting from this turn, the studies presented here adopt a scientific approach, rely heavily on technology (in this case, eye-tracking technology for the second part of the book) and have been developed within the overarching framework of a collaborative research project between academia and the industry: the Digital TV for All project.

Funded between 2010 and 2013 by the European Commission, the DTV4ALL project aimed at facilitating the availability of access services on digital TV in Europe and at making recommendations to relevant stakeholders for the improvement of these services. The partners ranged from broadcasters (RAI, Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Institut für Rundfunktechnik, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg and Televisió de Catalunya) to access services providers (Red Bee Media) and universities such as the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which led a team made up of seven universities from Spain, the UK, Denmark, Poland, Italy, France and Germany. Whereas other EU-funded projects such as SAVAS or SUMAT have dealt with the quality of the product (live subtitling and interlingual translation, respectively), DTV4ALL explored the quality of subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) from the point of view of reception, that is, the viewers.

← 9 | 10 →More specifically, the aim of this volume resulting from the DTV4ALL project is to look at the issue of quality in the reception of SDH in Europe as a combination of three factors: what viewers think about SDH, how they understand these subtitles and how they view them. The viewers’ preferences have been obtained through questionnaires, their comprehension has been analysed with tests (involving clips with SDH plus questions) and their perception has been measured with eye-tracking technology. In other words, the researchers involved in these studies have sought to obtain both subjective (preferences) and objective data (comprehension and perception) that can inform national guidelines on SDH. Until now, these national guidelines have been either absent or, at best, inconsistent and hardly ever based on empirical research. It is this gap that the contributions to this volume aim to address.

At the beginning of the project, the hope was that this cross-national study could lead to a unique standard to help harmonise SDH practices across Europe. The reality, however, has proved otherwise. The social, economic and political situation of every country, the heterogeneity of their audiovisual landscapes and hearing-impaired communities and their different progress with regard to media accessibility make it very difficult to harmonise practices. Yet, instead of denying this lack of homogeneity, the researchers involved in this project have embraced it, thus providing findings that are illustrative of people with hearing loss in Europe as a whole and others that are specific to the countries involved in the project and essential for the creation of national guidelines.

In line with this reality, the structure of this volume combines a common approach followed by all researchers with a great deal of leeway to allow for national specificities.

Part I of the book contains seven chapters analyzing the viewers’ preferences on SDH through the dissemination of questionnaires in Denmark, Poland, the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany. Every chapter starts with an overview of the hearing-impaired community and the audiovisual landscape in the country under study, which is followed by the analysis of results of the questionnaire as completed by deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing viewers. Adapted from a template in English (see appendix) to the reality of every country, the questionnaires aim to obtain information about the respondents’ profile and viewing habits, their general opinion on subtitling and their views on specific SDH features. They were answered by 1365 viewers (on average, 195 viewers per country) and returned a total of 81,900 answers.

← 10 | 11 →In the first chapter, Henrik Gottlieb introduces Part I of this book with a description of the different types of subtitles currently available and the various ways in which they are produced and presented on screen. He then focuses on the analysis of Danish viewers’ preferences as shown in their responses to the questionnaire, which has been adapted to the audiovisual landscape in Denmark. The questions focus both on SDH and on interlingual subtitles, which are the most common translation modality in the country. The results show overall satisfaction with the quality of SDH and interlingual subtitling, but also room for improvement with regard to the viewers’ unawareness of the existence of SDH and the inability of these subtitles to cater for the needs of viewers with different degrees of hearing loss.

In the second chapter, Agnieszka Szarkowska, Joanna Pietrulewicz and Anna Jankowska analyse the viewers’ preference with regard to SDH in Poland. They use both online questionnaires and questionnaires on paper to reach people who belong to deaf organisations and live in larger cities and also viewers who live in smaller towns and villages and are not necessarily related to deaf organisations. This combined approach serves as a structuring device for the presentation of the results in their analysis. Their findings provide an interesting picture of SDH in Poland and lead them to offer a set of recommendations to pave the way for a more thorough and effective provision of this service in the country.

The third chapter includes Carlo Eugeni’s analysis of the viewers’ preferences with regard to SDH in a dubbing country such as Italy. Eugeni conducts an initial pilot study with a reduced sample of respondents, who are asked about their views on different aspects of SDH (font, position, character identification and relevance of paralinguistic components). This pilot study serves as a basis for the analysis of the longer and more thorough questionnaire presented in the second part of the chapter. The results of this study show a potentially changing situation in Italy, with a great deal of differences in the respondents’ preferences depending on whether they are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing.

In the fourth chapter, Verónica Arnáiz-Uzquiza analyses the situation in Spain, where national guidelines on SDH differ from many of the practices adopted in other European countries, for example with regard to the position of sound information. The results show that many viewers are influenced by current practices on Spanish TV and that the deaf respondents’ preferences and viewing and reading skills are determined by their ← 11 | 12 →use of Spanish Sign Language as a mother tongue. This picture is further characterised by the fact that many of these respondents changed their views following the short questionnaire disseminated after the comprehension and eye-tracking tests presented in the second part of this book.

The UK is the focus of chapter five, where Pablo Romero-Fresco conducts his analysis of the viewers’ preferences with regard to SDH with the help of an online questionnaire disseminated by the national organisation Action on Hearing Loss. In a country with a long tradition of SDH and almost 100% coverage by all terrestrial channels, the viewers seem more concerned with the quality of live subtitles than with that of pre-recorded SDH. Yet, the results show that there is room for improvement regarding the latter and shed new light on the specific differences found between deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Chapter six is devoted to France, another dubbing country where SDH are characterised by a very idiosyncratic colour code to identify characters and certain paralinguistic features. Following a general contextualization of the audiovisual landscape in France, Tia Muller analyses, among other issues, the respondents’ views and awareness of the use of colours in French SDH and compares their opinions before and after completing the whole questionnaire. Her results call into question the effectiveness of the French colour code as well as the current method used for the provision of live SDH.

The first part of this volume concludes in chapter seven with the analysis conducted by Juliane Mascow in Germany, a dubbing country with a much lower provision (and a much shorter tradition) of SDH than some of the other countries involved in this project. The results show certain reservations with regard to some of the conventions used in pre-recorded SDH on German TV and very clear views on the long – standing debate between edited and verbatim subtitles.

Part II of this volume deals with the objective side of this study on quality from the point of reception, that is, the analysis of the viewers’ comprehension and perception of SDH in their countries. Perception is analysed by looking at the viewers’ eye movements on the screen. For this second part of the project, the participants were shown 23 clips from the Shrek series with SDH and an eye tracker was used to analyse how they watched the subtitles. Every clip presented a different variable for a specific SDH parameter (for example, the use of the variable “colours” for the parameter “character identification”).

← 12 | 13 →In chapter eight, Esté Hefer-Jordaan provides an introduction to this part of the volume with an overview of how eye tracking has been used so far in the literature to study both reading and subtitle viewing. She then focuses more specifically on the two measures that have been used in the present study: time to first fixation and mean reading time. They are used to analyse, respectively, the time it takes viewers to find a subtitle once it has been displayed on the screen and the percentage of time spent reading the subtitles as compared to the time spent on the images. As acknowledged by Hefer-Jordaan while eye tracking provides accurate information on eye movements, it cannot obtain comprehensive insight into the mental processes underlying the reading process. It can tell us what viewers see, but not what they think or understand. For this reason, a series of comprehension questionnaires were handed out to the participants in this second part of the project after testing each variable. The respondents were also asked to complete another brief questionnaire on preferences after the eye-tracking sessions. The aim in this case was to ascertain the extent to which the eye-tracking test and the exposure to the different subtitling variables could change the respondents’ minds with regard to their answers on preferences in the long questionnaire completed in the first part of the study. Hefer-Jordaan’s introduction concludes with a description of the rationale and methodology used for the tests.

Four countries (Poland, Spain, Italy and Germany) participated in this second part of the project, since only they had access to eye-tracking technology. Their results are shown and discussed in chapter nine to twelve by the same authors who carried out the analyses of the questionnaires in those countries: Agnieszka Szarkowska (in this case with Izabela Krejtz, Zuzanna Kłyszejko and Anna Wieczorek), Verónica Arnáiz-Uzquiza, Carlo Eugeni and Juliane Mascow Mascow. Each of the deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing participants taking part in these tests watched 690 subtitles for about 28 minutes and answered 69 comprehension questions about the clips, which yields a total of 7210 answers about the content of the subtitles, visual elements and the general meaning of the clips. As far as eye tracking is concerned, this volume provides data about 71,070 subtitles as viewed by 103 deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing viewers in four different countries, thus providing the first comprehensive comparative picture of how audiences with different degrees of hearing loss process subtitles in Europe, which is then compared to how they understand them and what they think about them.

This second part of the volume is completed by chapter thirteen, which introduces the notion of viewing speed. The aim of this chapter is to ← 13 | 14 →adapt the key notion of reading speed (which lies under the long-standing debate between verbatim and edited subtitling) to the audiovisual reality of subtitle viewing by supporting it with the empirical basis provided by the eye-tracking data obtained in this study.

Finally, the conclusions present an analysis of the findings obtained in Part I and II of this volume and in many ways mirror the split between national and European data identified in the different chapters. Some of the conclusions are country-specific and include suggestions for national guidelines that have so far been based on experts’ views without necessarily taking into account the reception by the viewers. In some cases, an interesting disparity arises between objective and subjective data, that is, between what viewers think about subtitles and how they understand and process them, which then begs the question of whether guidelines should follow what is best for the viewers or what the viewers think is best for them. Lastly, the cross analysis of all the eye-tracking data reveals patterns that seem common to all countries. With all the reservations of a study like this one and pending further research, some of these findings could indicate the presence of certain universals of SDH and perhaps of subtitling that can contribute to advance our understanding of how different types of viewers from different nationalities view, process and understand subtitles as a means to access audiovisual content.

← 16 | 17 →Chapter 1

Different viewers, different needs: Personal subtitles for Danish TV?


Abstract: This chapter looks at the situation in Denmark, a subtitling country since 1929, with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing since 1980. The empirical basis is the Danish DTV4All questionnaire on viewer reception and attitudes to subtitles. The study analyzes the answers of 141 respondents: 31 deaf, 46 hard-of-hearing and 64 hearing viewers. The unique semiotics of subtitling are discussed, and four basic types are distinguished:

a) bona fide subtitling, with subtitles created directly from the dialogue (foreign or domestic) and cued by the subtitler before transmission,

b) relay subtitling, based on existing pre-cued subtitles,

c) semi-live subtitling, with (TV) subtitles created by the subtitler before transmission and cued during transmission, and

d) live subtitling, when (intralingual) subtitles are created and cued, with a delay, during transmission.

Although viewers of all three groups tend to be quite satisfied with Danish subtitling practices, this study shows that there is room for improvement: Not only do the needs of hearing-impaired viewers differ from those of normally hearing people; the deaf and the hard of hearing have different needs. This suggests at least three subtitling options for any TV production.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
subtitling in europe viewer relations viewer needs dtv4all first language viewers
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 381 pp., 52 b/w ill., 100 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Pablo Romero-Fresco (Volume editor)

Pablo Romero-Fresco is a Reader in Translation and Filmmaking at the University of Roehampton (London) and Ramón y Cajal grantholder at the Universidade de Vigo (Spain). He is the author of Subtitling through Speech Recognition: Respeaking (2011), Ofcom’s external reviewer for the assessment of the quality of live subtitles in the UK, and a member of the UN’s ITU Focus Group on Media Accessibility and of the TransMedia Catalonia research group, for which he has coordinated the subtitling research of the EU-funded DTV4ALL project.


Title: The Reception of Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Europe
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