Don’t mistake legibility for communication - or the creative use of typography on screen
It is my contention that most subtitled audiovisual texts are surprisingly unimaginative when it comes to choosing a font. Most of the DVD film releases are subtitled in Arial 30, either bold or regular, for most languages (apart from non-Latin typefaces). For most film distributors this seems to be the way to go. Disney, Fox, Sony, Universal and Kinowelt are only a few examples of the companies that commission subtitles with these specs since “in most European countries there is now a general agreement that optimum legibility is achieved by using a simple, stark typeface such as Helvetica or Universe” (Ivarsson & Carrroll, 1998: 42).
However, we should not – as Carson (1995) proposed – mistake legibility for communication. “Typography is a powerful tool for anyone who has something to say and needs to say it in print or on screen” (Spiekerman, 2003: 7). Nowadays, with the emergence of high-definition television (HDTV), TV-Digital, digital cinema and the possibility to watch DVDs and Blu-ray discs (BD) on a TV or computer screen we are theoretically not restricted to certain typefaces that are particularly designed to enhance readability on a low resolution screen. Technically speaking, as on a DVD for example, each subtitle is embedded as a picture file (usually in a *.tif format) and the potential exists – if not the desire – to use any typeface for the subtitles.
In this paper, I will discuss how certain characteristics of typefaces create a particular impression on the receiver and evoke personal associations, feelings and experiences. The phenomenon that typefaces – regardless of their legibility – have the power to evoke certain positive or negative emotions seems to be evidence for the fact that they convey more than just language, they transport atmosphere as well (Wilberg, 1977: 8). The ‘tone’ of the typeface contributes to the ‘overall sound’ of the work and it becomes evident that there is not such thing as a ‘neutral’ type.
The main aim of this contribution is to show how different typefaces could be implemented effectively in different programmes or even in one programme, and to give examples of how typography is being used in audiovisual texts in subtitles, credits, captions and main title design. The proposal is for a bolder approach to subtitling in which font types can be used for more creative and appealing subtitles that in turn would help to enhance meaning.
Carson, D. (1995). The end of print. Bangert.
Spiekermann, E. (2003). Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out how Type Works. Berkeley: Adobe Press.
Wilberg, H. P. (1977). “Buchform und Lesen”. Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel. Frankfurt edition Nr. 103/104. Separatum.
Stefanie FOERSTER holds an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds (UK) and is writing her PhD on “Aesthetics in Subtitling” at Imperial College London under the supervision of Jorge Díaz Cintas. She works as a guest lecturer at the Metropolitan University (London), where she teaches Translation Studies and Audiovisual Translation and has got many years of work experience as a translator and subtitler for large TV stations, leading subtitling companies as well as film and theatre productions.