Subtitles in Plays?

Posted on Sep 12th, 2011 by Shuchi in Theatre Trivia

Subtitles in Plays The promos of the play The Tale Of Haruk had me intrigued: the language, they said, was "Korean with English subtitles".

Subtitles in a play? This was a new one.

They managed it with large screens along the sides of the stage to display English translations of the actors’ dialogues. With that aid, the audience in Bangalore could follow the Korean play without hiccups.

When I hear my friends rave about Neenaanaadrenaaneenena? or Mysooru Mallige, I wish for a bridge across the language gap – and my mind harks back to The Tale of Haruk.

Why is subtitling, adopted so ardently in films, virtually unheard of in theatre? Someone from the Other Side of theatre would be better qualified to answer that but I can think of a few reasons.

In film, the visuals and subtitles lie within the same frame of reference – a single screen. In theatre, it can be tricky to have subtitles legible from a distance and yet not obstruct the scene of action. To read subtitles in plays, the audience will have to shift focus from the stage to the subtitles and back, over and over – not the most conducive for undisturbed viewing.

Film also has the advantage of constancy. Subtitle it once and it is done forever. But theatre changes every time you view it. To achieve a high level of synch in a live performance is no mean task, harder still in plays that rely on improvisation.

These challenges did not weigh heavily on The Tale Of Haruk – it was not a dialogue-intensive play and the little there was of speech, was succinct and simple.

Does this mean that subtitling and full-blown live drama cannot mix?

It sure can, and it is being experimented with. talks of a Spanish university that has developed a software for live subtitling to enable the hearing impaired to enjoy theatre. All the accessibility elements – titles, sign language video and audio description – are pre-recorded and manually synchronized by a technician during the show. The technician need not even be present at the venue but can follow the play anywhere via VoIP, and broadcast the elements over various channels. What’s more, says the article:

…because of the high degree of compatibility of the chosen formats, the play’s audience can simultaneously consult them from different devices: mobile phone, PC tablet, PDA, etc.

Read more about the tool UC3MTitling here: New System for Live Subtitles Debuts in Spanish Theater.  [Thanks Sreekanth for sharing this link.] describes a device with multi-lingual support for live subtitling, which was being trialed at the Shaftesbury in central Londonium in 2009.

… it combines a simple WiFi-enabled device with an LED-backlit screen and a dude in the background who feeds live subtitles over the air. The pleasure of said dude’s services will be a steep £6 ($10), which you might scoff at now, but imagine yourself attending a show in Tokyo or Beijing and suddenly the price becomes a lot more justifiable.

No updates on how far these trials were successful. Read the full article here: .AirScript translator beams live theater subtitles over the air.

What do you say, theatre practitioners in India? Given our plethora of languages, real-time translation of performances has sure scope and need. The question is – is it practicable?

Update (2017): Since writing this post, saw a couple of plays that make use of subtitling: the Afghan play Komedy-e-Eshtebahat and the Javanese Prambanan Ramayana Ballet.

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Article by Shuchi

Shuchi lives in Bangalore (mostly), when she isn’t traveling out of town for work. She adores theatre and writes about plays she watches whenever she gets a chance.

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9 Comments to “Subtitles in Plays?”

  1. I’ve quite enjoyed the plays with similar subtitles that I’ve watched. Watching a live opera with subtitles was quite an experience, as well. And that had a lot of words, as you can imagine. It’s a little difficult, though, if you happen to sit at the back and don’t bring your glasses 🙂

    September 21st, 2011 9:25 am

  2. Hi Brishti,

    Interesting to know that…where was this? How were the play subtitles displayed? Was it distracting to read them while watching the play?

    September 21st, 2011 11:56 pm

  3. Some were in the U.S, some were in Singapore.The opera was in the U.S. The plays usually displayed their subtitles on large monitors to each side of the stage. It wasn’t too hard to follow, but sometimes one had to read fast 🙂

    September 25th, 2011 12:41 pm

  4. A play with subtitles is on at RS this weekend.

    I am very curious. But, since the duration is 2 hours, I am wondering if I would really be comfortable sitting through.

    May 8th, 2012 12:42 pm

  5. Hi Sreekanth, I’m curious about it too. I hope you have booked your tickets by now – I tried for the 3:30pm Sunday show online and apparently it’s sold out already.

    Looks like subtitles are no deterrent to our Bangalore audience 🙂

    May 10th, 2012 11:09 pm

  6. Oh! I haven’t booked as I had something else planned for that day. Now that those plans are canceled, I was thinking of booking tickets tomorrow morning. Guess the only option is to try my luck with cancelled tickets.

    I noticed that the troupe got good publicity in newspapers. That is one reason tickets are sold out.

    May 10th, 2012 11:22 pm

  7. Done! Booked tickets on Bookmyshow. Sunday 3.30 pm show. 🙂

    May 10th, 2012 11:45 pm

  8. Thanks for the tip. They’re sold out on indianstage, still available on bookmyshow – got mine too!

    May 11th, 2012 1:02 am

  9. There’s a Mac app called Subtitles for theatre ( It’s dedicated for this purpose. We use it for making surtitles on French theatre festival.

    April 19th, 2017 4:38 pm

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