Surtitling: a blend of culture and translation

In contrast to the famous technique of subtitling which consists of translating films or audio-visual programmes, surtitling is based on the translation of speeches given during live shows, such as theatre performances, operas and festivals. While subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen, surtitles are projected above the stage. Since globalisation as we know it today does not only effect the economy but also cultural and artistic spheres, the technique of surtitling has been in increasing demand for around the last twenty years. This technique can be described as a type of translation, and at the same time a medium of cultural exchange for the performing arts.

An intercultural experience

The main objective of surtitling is to render a stage show more accessible to all audiences from differing linguistic communities and who do not necessarily have a perfect command of the production language. In this way, surtitling allows the audience to enjoy the original version of the show with a live translation.
Paris, the French capital, is full of tourists who are not able to access the performing arts due to language barriers. As a result, the start-up company Theatre in Paris ( has been created, with the project’s founders believing that French culture is not sufficiently displayed to tourists. From now on, Theatre in Paris provides them with the option of attending French theatre performances with surtitles in English. This allows them to discover French culture through a different lens to that of museums or architecture whilst enjoying an intercultural experience.

Surtitler: Transmitter of emotions

The surtitler carries out a crucial role as a real-time translator. Like a subtitler, a surtitler must follow certain guidelines. The surtitles must be concise and succinct so that the audience has time to read the text and at the same time see what is happening on stage.
Their role consists of looking for equivalents in the target language and culture that are likely to invoke the same emotion in the spectator. For this, the surtitler attends consecutive rehearsals or works using videos. They produce a first translation and then examine and adjust it as many times as necessary to be able to best adapt the surtitles to the performance, as it is essential that the play is imbued within the surtitles as far as possible. It is also the surtitler who must control when the surtitles appear, given that the performances are never exactly the same from one day to the next. The reaction of the audience must take place at the appropriate time, hence the importance of surtitles that are correctly aligned with the performance.

Interviews with Carl de Poncins and David Mass

To end this article, we have interviewed Carl de Poncins, one of the co-founders of Theatre in Paris, and David Mass, who has significant experience in the surtitling field.
Do you know of any other theatres either in or outside Europe which use the same concept or are you “unique”?
CDP: As far as I know, several opera houses in the world offer ways for a multilingual audience to access the performances, such as the Vienna Opera, the Komische Oper Berlin and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In theatres, this type of service is rare. It exists for some performances in the Teatro Real in Madrid, the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam and in many theatres in Berlin (such as the Schaubühne, Deutsches Theater, Gorki Theater and Theater am Potsdamer Platz).
– Have you thought about providing surtitles in languages other than English in the future? If so, which languages?
CDP: Yes, we are thinking about Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and German.
DM: We will soon have technology such as augmented reality glasses and mobile devices which allow every audience member to read the surtitles in their own language.
– How long does it take to prepare the surtitles for one play in the theatre?
CDP: You have to allow for around one month of work, including the involvement of the artistic team to follow the development of the text and the staging.
DM: At least a month. However, we can prepare them in less time when shows need surtitles for the first performance, even if they are not finished.
– Are surtitlers always in contact with the actors and the director or is it more of a solo task?
CDP: To get the best result possible, it is essential that the surtitlers interact with the director, author and actors at all times. There are a huge number of nuances in rhythm, especially in comedies. It is a true art!
DM: It always depends on who is on the other side… Normally, we prepare the surtitles and afterwards we consult the artistic team to go over any nuances or questions we may have.
– What is the difference between a surtitler and an ordinary translator? Which qualities are necessary to be a skilled surtitler?
DM: A translator does not “kill his darlings”. This means that their translations are always too long. Surtitling is a different profession and requires extensive experience in theatre, given that ultimately the surtitles are an integral part of the show.
– In the article, we talk about surtitles as being an intercultural experience. Do you agree?
CDP: I completely agree. To experience a night at the theatre in its very own premises, and all thanks to surtitles, is an extraordinary experience – truly unique!
DM: Yes, I agree. Theatres have to open their doors to new audiences and they will benefit from that.
– We also talk about surtitlers as people who carry out the role of “transmitters of emotions”. What do you think about this?
CDP: I sincerely believe this is the case. It is an art situated directly between the production and the stage, a role of precision that is almost musical in its nature.
DM: When the majority of the audience does not understand the language being spoken on stage, the surtitler is much more than this: they become the person who makes the play possible. The actors need to feel understood and the audience needs to understand as far as possible. This is the only way that that the essence of theatre productions can flow between the two.