Researching reception and audiences

One of my areas of interest in subtitling research is reception: How do viewers read subtitles? How is it possible to simultaneously read subtitles and watch the rest of the programme? Is the viewing experience different with subtitles than without them? What would be the optimal layout, reading speed, and linguistic choices to make subtitles as readable as possible? There are endless questions concerning reception, and finding answers to them might allow us to serve viewers better.

What first got me interested in this topic was the fact that translation studies seems to emphasise the target audience and its preferences quite often. However, for a long time, there wasn’t much empirical research that would have provided direct information on actual audiences. That inspired me to do my PhD on subtitle reception.

Fortunately, the situation has changed since I started my PhD, and a lot of interesting reception research has been published in recent years. A great deal of the research employs eyetracking technology to explore the often unconscious ways in which we read subtitles and focus attention. Eyetracking has been used, for example, to find out whether viewers read subtitles at all, how errors, segmentation, or vocabulary choices affect subtitle reading, and how quickly viewers read subtitles.

While eyetracking explores unconscious reactions, questionnaires and interviews have been used to probe viewers’ conscious opinions and interpretations of translated materials. Studies have investigated viewers’ comprehension of subtitled programmes and their responses to aspects such as humour and culture-specific references. In addition, some studies have attempted to discover whether reactions to subtitled programmes differ from reactions to programmes viewed without subtitles. Furthermore, some studies have used questionnaires to explore audiences’ viewing habits of subtitled programmes in general. A number of studies have also used a combination of eyetracking and questionnaires to gain an even more complete understanding of reception in a specific context.

Photo by Melanie Deziel on Unsplash

In my own research, I have taken a broad view of the experience of viewing a subtitled programme and the ways in which subtitles become a part of viewers’ media consumption. I think it is important to complement studies on specific aspects of the viewing experience with research that helps us understand how viewers relate to subtitled programmes, whether they trust subtitles as a source of information, and how the viewing process unfolds. It is also interesting to discover how viewers talk about subtitles with each other.

In my PhD study, I conducted focus group discussions with three small groups of Finnish viewers. Each group watched a subtitled film and discussed the experience immediately afterwards. One of the main conclusions of the study was that these viewers did tend to read the subtitles even though the source language was English, which most of them understood quite well. They received information from the spoken dialogue and the subtitles in combination. Reading subtitles was a rather superficial, “accidental” process for them, and it was important that the subtitles were quick to read and did not jolt the viewer out of the flow of the film. The participants also seemed to trust subtitles as a source of information. They spoke, for example, about learning new vocabulary in both the source language and in the target language – their native language – with the help of subtitles. The participants were particularly interested in discussing how slang and swearwords were translated, whether song lyrics should be translated, and how humour came across in translation.

Because of the small number of participants, my study is quite limited in nature, and the findings cannot be generalised, particularly not beyond the Finnish context. However, the study taught me that people are open to discussing their viewing experiences and that focus groups can be used to study the consumption of subtitled materials. It would be great to see similar studies from other countries to see whether the findings hold true in other languages and settings.

Reception research in general tends to be somewhat bound to its context. We can never say the final word about how viewers read subtitles. Still, reception research is extremely useful in opening our eyes to how real audiences operate and giving at least an indication of what kinds of subtitles might work best. The more studies there are, the better. I hope that researchers will work collaboratively to replicate research designs in different countries and contexts to provide comparable research findings. I also hope that as many studies as possible will be available for everyone to read, because reception research can be quite interesting and useful to practitioners.

Photo by Tiina Tuominen

For a bit of fun late-summer reading, here are a few links to some viewer and reception studies that are freely available online. Feel free to provide more links to interesting publications in the comments or on the forum!

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