Viewers can keep up with fast subtitles: Evidence from eye movements
Gerber-MoroÂn O (2018)
Viewers can keep up with fast subtitles: Evidence
from eye movements. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0199331.
Viewers can keep up with fast subtitles: Evidence from eye movements
Agnieszka Szarkowska 0 1
Olivia Gerber-MoroÂ n 1
0 Centre for Translation Studies, University College London , London , United Kingdom , 2 Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw , Warsaw , Poland , 3 Department of Translation and Interpreting & East Asian Studies, Faculty of Translation and Interpreting, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona , Barcelona , Spain
1 Editor: David Orrego-Carmona, Aston University , UNITED KINGDOM
People watch subtitled audiovisual materials more than ever before. With the proliferation of subtitled content, we are also witnessing an increase in subtitle speeds. However, there is an ongoing controversy about what optimum subtitle speeds should be. This study looks into whether viewers can keep up with increasingly fast subtitles and whether the way people cope with subtitled content depends on their familiarity with subtitling and on their knowledge of the language of the film soundtrack. We tested 74 English, Polish and Spanish viewers watching films subtitled at different speeds (12, 16 and 20 characters per second). The films were either in Hungarian, a language unknown to the participants (Experiment 1), or in English (Experiment 2). We measured viewers' comprehension, self-reported cognitive load, scene and subtitle recognition, preferences and enjoyment. By analyzing people's eye gaze, we were able to discover that most viewers could read the subtitles as well as follow the images, coping well even with fast subtitle speeds. Slow subtitles triggered more rereading, particularly in English clips, causing more frustration and less enjoyment. Faster subtitles with unreduced text were preferred in the case of English videos, and slower subtitles with text edited down in Hungarian videos. The results provide empirical grounds for revisiting current subtitling practices to enable more efficient processing of subtitled videos for viewers.
Together with an ever-growing demand for subtitles in digital media, we are witnessing an
increase in subtitle speeds. Yet, despite the ubiquity of subtitling, little is known about
optimum subtitle speeds and their impact on cognitive processing. The pervasiveness of subtitling,
coupled with a significant shift from slow to increasingly high subtitle speeds [
], offer a
timely opportunity to examine the effects of speed on viewers' processing of subtitled videos.
Two main types of subtitling can be distinguished: intra- and interlingual [
subtitling (also known as captioning) contains a written version of dialogues in the same
language (e.g., English to English), whereas interlingual subtitling is a translation of a foreign
dialogue (e.g., English to Dutch). Upon careful review of the subtitling literature, it becomes
Curie fellowship was awarded to A. Szarkowska for
a two-year project to be conducted at University
College London. The funding covered employment
costs and the costs related to carrying out the
study, incl. participant fees. O. Gerber-Moron was
awarded the scholarship from La Caixa foundation
for her PhD. She is also part of the Transmedia
Catalonia research group. This funding was used to
pay for Olivia's 5-month stay in London at UCL to
help prepare materials, carry out the tests and do
the data analysis.
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
apparent that in interlingual subtitling, it is part and parcel of the process to condense and
reduce the text±the underlying assumption is that because viewers can integrate information
from subtitles with that coming from images and soundtrack, verbatim translation is not
]. Another reason for text reduction stems from reading speed requirements, which
are meant to allow viewers to comfortably follow both the subtitles and on-screen action [
In contrast, text reduction is not welcome in intralingual subtitling, mainly produced for the
deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), who demand to have a verbatim and ªuncensoredº version of
the dialogue to be on a par with hearing people, as well as to avoid mismatches between
subtitles and speakers' lip movements [5±8].
Subtitle speed, also referred to as `reading speed' [
] or `presentation rate' [
], is usually
measured in either characters per second (cps) or words per minute (wpm). Given the differences
in the length of words in different languages, in the audiovisual translation industry the cps
measure is used more often, as it is considered more accurate across languages [
on English-to-English SDH, however, have traditionally used the wpm measure .
The most widely known rule on the speed of interlingual subtitles±ªthe six-seconds ruleº±
stipulates that a full two-line subtitle should be displayed for six seconds in order for an
average viewer to be able to read it [
]. The six-seconds rule is equivalent to approximately
140±150 wpm or 12 cps [
]. While the origins of the rule are difficult to trace±d'Ydewalle,
] even state that ªnobody seems to know how the six-second rule was arrived atº±it
is the golden standard recommended in subtitling textbooks [
The prevalence of the six-seconds rule may be rooted in the belief that fast subtitle speeds
will not allow viewers to follow both the subtitles and the on-screen action [
]. However, how
much time do viewers actually spend reading subtitles and watching the images? This can be
assessed using the concepts of absolute reading time and proportional reading time [
Absolute reading time is measured in seconds and it is the actual time spent on reading the subtitle.
For instance, a viewer can spend 4 seconds reading a subtitle displayed for 6 seconds, which
leaves them 2 seconds to follow the on-screen action in the film. Proportional reading time is
measured in percentages and is the proportion of the total subtitle display time during which
the viewer is actually gazing at the subtitle. Thus, if a reader looks at the 6-second-subtitle for 4
seconds, their proportional reading time is 66%. Longer subtitle display times have been found
to increase the absolute reading time but decrease the proportional reading time [
the one hand, this finding may suggest that longer subtitle display times can benefit viewers by
giving them more time to follow the on-screen action. On the other hand, however, it is
plausible that when faced with fast subtitles, viewers simply read them more efficiently and,
ultimately, do not need longer display times.
Subtitle speeds are not set in stone; they differ from country to country and even from
company to company [
]. In interlingual subtitling, various countries have followed different
traditions on subtitle speeds, ranging from 12 cps on television in Scandinavian countries [
16 cps in Central Europe [
], to 17±20 cps in global online streaming services [
]. In English
intralingual SDH, the typical recommended speed is up to 180 wpm [18, 19], which for the
English language is equivalent to 15 cps (assuming that an average word has 5 characters).
From a historical perspective, subtitle speeds have been on the rise in both intra- and
interlingual subtitling [
]. In English SDH, subtitles evolved from being a highly reduced and
simplified version of the dialogue in the 1970s and 1980s, aimed primarily at prelingual deaf
viewers , to the current forms of verbatim uncondensed text±a direct result of viewer
demands, technological developments and subtitle production costs [
]. In interlingual
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subtitling, modern viewers are presented with subtitles that are longer than before (a rise from
32 to 42 characters per line) and faster (from 12 to 17±20 cps). In spite of these dramatic
changes in subtitle speeds, relatively little attention has been given to their impact on viewers.
Subtitle speeds have been studied extensively in the context of English-to-English SDH [7,
12, 22±31]. As early deafness can be a predictor of poor reading [
], it has been advocated
that speed in SDH be slow and that text be edited down [
5, 34, 35
]. Yet, other studies
demonstrated no benefit of slowing down subtitles [
6, 9, 27, 36, 37
], showing that edited subtitles
contain reduced text and fewer cohesive links and, as such, may be difficult to process .
In contrast to the vast body of research on subtitle speed in SDH, research on speed in
interlingual subtitling has been limited [
] and has possibly become obsolete now. The earliest
studies on speed in subtitling with hearing viewers go back to the early 1980s in Belgium. To
the best of our knowledge, the first study was undertaken by Muylaert and colleagues [
using a quite imprecise measurement of subtitle speed: ªlonger than usualº, ªshorter than
usualº and ªnormal speedº. In addition to speed, the authors tested other parameters,
including unusual line breaks and difficult vocabulary, conflating the parameters and thus rendering
the results problematic. They found that the proportional reading time of ªnormalº subtitles
was 55%, slower subtitles 57% and faster subtitles 68%. Furthermore, another study [
the four-, six- and eight-seconds rules among Dutch viewers and found that the proportional
reading time decreased linearly with longer display times: fast, four-second subtitles were
looked at for 28% of subtitle display time, six-second subtitles for 23% and slow, eight second
subtitles for 21%. Two years later, in what is probably the most often cited study in support of
the six-seconds rule, d'Ydewalle and colleagues [
], using the same materials as [
that the shorter the display time of subtitles, the more complaints subjects had about the speed.
The subjects also experienced one-line subtitles as faster than two-line subtitles. The authors
then tested the correlation between the number of lines (1 vs. 2) and the three speeds (4-, 6-,
and 8-seconds) and found that ªthe only combination where subjects report an appropriate
timing is two-line/six-seconds ruleº [
]. This statement has often been taken as the empirical
validation to support the six-seconds rule that pervades the subtitling industry until now.
The role of film soundtrack
The reading process of subtitles is dependent on whether viewers can understand the language
of the film soundtrack. If they do, it is plausible to assume they would spend less time reading
the subtitles, as they would largely draw on the auditory information in their processing of the
film dialogue. However, should viewers be unfamiliar with the language of the film
soundtrack, we may expect that they would rely more on the subtitles and their subtitle reading time
would be longer.
Investigations into the role of the language of the film soundtrack and the language of the
subtitles on the processing of subtitled videos and viewers' visual attention have produced
conflicting results [40±46]. On the one hand, some studies [
] found that time spent gazing at
subtitles does not change when the soundtrack is muted or when viewers know the language
of the soundtrack. Others, on the other hand, reported that less time was spent in the subtitles
when the audio was present compared to the no audio condition [
], and found a more
regular subtitle reading pattern in videos with interlingual native language subtitles where the
soundtrack was in a foreign language unknown to the viewers than in the case of foreign
subtitles with the soundtrack in viewers' native language [
]. Viewers watching intralingual
subtitles in their mother tongue skipped them more often than interlingual subtitles with the
soundtrack in a foreign language [
]. Finally, watching a film in an unknown language was
reported to involve more cognitive effort than watching a film in a familiar language but found
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no differences in the time spent in the subtitle area as a function of the presence of the
soundtrack or the proficiency in the language of the soundtrack [
Given that European TV channels and cinemas are largely dominated by English-language
], a large volume of subtitles on the audiovisual translation market are
translations from the English language [
]. English is also the best known and the most studied
foreign language in the EU [
]. Taken together, this means that many viewers are not only able
to understand what is being said in the film without any translation but can also compare the
original English dialogue with subtitles. Yet, although in theory such viewers do not need
subtitles to follow the dialogue, it has been found that they read subtitles anyway [
phenomenon has been attributed to the dominance of the visual modality , the dynamic
nature of moving subtitles as they quickly appear and disappear on screen [
] and to the
attractiveness and saliency of text even if it is presented in an unfamiliar language .
Considering the ubiquity of subtitled content in the world today, it is important to determine the
exact role of the language of the film soundtrack on the processing of subtitled videos.
Experience with subtitling
Previous experience with subtitling±as opposed to other types of audiovisual translation such
as dubbing or voice-over±may also affect the way people process subtitled videos.
Traditionally, some countries such as Spain, Germany or France have used dubbing to translate foreign
films, whereas in others, such as Belgium or Sweden, the preferred mode has been subtitling
]. However, even in traditionally dubbing countries like Spain, the preference for subtitling
against dubbing is now increasing, together with proficiency in foreign languages [
Given that, unlike dubbing, subtitling involves dividing viewers' attention between
following the action in the center of the screen and reading the subtitles at the bottom, it may seem
that subtitling would be more cognitively taxing for viewers, especially those who are not
accustomed to it. However, research has demonstrated that dubbing and subtitling are both
effective and enjoyable [
], that there is no trade-off between processing images and
subtitles  and that the reading of subtitles is automatic [
]. The question remains, however,
whether people from what are traditionally considered to be dubbing countries have different
strategies to cope with subtitles compared to people more accustomed to subtitling.
Overview of the current study
The primary goal of the current study is to investigate whether people can keep up with fast
subtitles. Therefore, we presented participants with videos subtitled at different speeds and
assessed the effects of speed on comprehension, cognitive load, enjoyment, scene and subtitle
recognition, reading patterns, preferences as well as reading experience. We were also
interested in whether the processing of videos is related to viewers' knowledge of the language of
the film soundtrack as well as their previous experience with subtitling. With these goals in
mind, we conducted two experiments with three groups of subjects from different linguistic
backgrounds: Spanish, who come from what is traditionally considered a dubbing country;
Polish, who are familiar with subtitling; and English, with not much experience in interlingual
subtitling. In Experiment 1 we showed people films with the soundtrack in Hungarian to
encourage them to read the subtitles. We chose Hungarian as a language dissimilar to any of
the native languages of the study participants, who were pre-screened not to know any
Hungarian. We used videos dubbed into Hungarian, but originally made in English in order to be
able to control the content of subtitle translation into Polish, Spanish and English. Experiment
2 compares the same dependent variables and participants but uses films in English, a language
that participants could understand.
4 / 30
We hypothesized that with higher subtitle speeds (20 cps), people may experience increased
cognitive load, resulting in more effortful viewing experience, lower comprehension, higher
frustration and less enjoyment. To measure cognitive load, we used two types of data: self-reports
and eye tracking. Self-reported cognitive load was dissected into three indicators: difficulty, effort
and frustration [
]. We expected that fast subtitles would be deemed more cognitively
demanding, i.e. more difficult, effortful and frustrating, than slow and medium-paced subtitles. In terms
of eye tracking, if subtitles are (too) fast, viewers may spend an excessive amount of time in the
subtitle area at the cost of on-screen action, which should be evidenced by longer mean fixation
duration, more fixations and longer time spent in the subtitle. On the other hand, extensive text
editing, which is inextricably linked with the process of creating slow subtitles, may lead to
missing cohesive links and high text condensation, and in consequence may result in additional
cognitive effort ªto make assumptions to fill in what is missingº [
]. This could, paradoxically,
contribute to higher cognitive effort necessary to process slow subtitles.
If±as suggested by literature [
]±fast subtitles do not leave viewers sufficient time to watch
the images, we might expect them to achieve low scores in the scene recognition test. It is also
possible that with fast subtitles, viewers will not be able to read all the words in the subtitle and
therefore miss some information from the dialogue, which will be evidenced by their being
unable to recognize subtitles in the post-test questionnaire. If subtitles are too slow, however,
viewers may end up re-reading them, possibly resulting in confusion, frustration and less
enjoyment. In our study, following [
], we conceptualized enjoyment not only as ªthe sense
of pleasure derived from consuming media productsº [
], which relies mainly on the
satisfaction of hedonic needs, but also on other, nonhedonic needs [
], including the satisfaction
with basic subtitle parameters such as the optimum subtitle speed. We assumed that if viewers
cannot keep up with fast subtitles, their enjoyment of the clip will be adversely affected.
When it comes to the differences between the videos in a language that is familiar (English
in Exp. 2) and unfamiliar (Hungarian in Exp. 1) to viewers, we hypothesized that because
people support their viewing with auditory information from the soundtrack, the preference for
faster speeds and unreduced text may be more discernible when they understand the language
of the film dialogue, whereas it may be less pronounced in the case of a language that viewers
have no knowledge of. Furthermore, the analysis between different groups of subjects
(Spanish, Polish and English) enabled us to consider the impact of experience with subtitling on the
processing of subtitled videos. We expected that people who are familiar with subtitling may
have developed certain strategies allowing them to process subtitles more efficiently, possibly
evidenced by higher comprehension and lower cognitive load.
A powerful combination of different research methods: eye tracking, questionnaires and
semi-structured interviews, has enabled us to isolate the impact of speeds on the processing of
subtitled videos modulated by different linguistic backgrounds of viewers. To the best of our
knowledge, no work to date has investigated subtitle speeds using such mixed methods
approach. Our approach provides a unique research opportunity to determine whether
modern viewers are able to keep up with fast subtitles and to measure their viewing experience in
relation to different speeds, the language of the soundtrack and their familiarity with subtitling.
Investigating these issues is particularly useful in the context of the multiplicity of subtitled
content and current subtitling practices.
Participants. A total of 74 participants (aged 19±42, M = 26.55, SD = 5.86) took part in
the study, of whom 27 were native speakers of English, 26 Spanish and 21 Polish (see Table 1).
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Participants were recruited from the UCL Psychology pool of volunteers, social media
(Facebook page of the project, Twitter), and personal networking. They were pre-screened to be
native speakers of English, Polish or Spanish, aged above 18 and to have no knowledge of
Despite our expectations prior to the study and the linguistic background of the
participants, when asked about the preferred type of audiovisual translation, the vast majority stated
they prefer subtitling. This, on the one hand, may reflect changes in audiovisual translation
landscape, and on the other may be attributed to the fact that the participants were living in
the UK at the time the study was carried out. Finally, the preference for a given type of
translation is not synonymous with its prevalence in a country; this is to say that although some
participants may prefer subtitles now, they still grew up in a non-subtitling country.
The experiment was approved by the UCL Research Ethics Committee. Prior to testing, all
participants received information sheets and provided written informed consent. In
accordance with UCL hourly rates, each participant received £10 for taking part in the experiment.
Stimuli. Three self-contained dialogue-based clips, each lasting 4±6 minutes, from two
films and one television series were used in the study: Blue Jasmine (2013, dir. Woody Allen),
Inside Out (2015, dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen), and Mad Men (2007, creator:
Matthew Weiner). All the three clips were fast-paced and dialogue-heavy, mostly featuring two to
four characters engaged in a conversation. Each clip was subtitled at three different speeds: 12,
16 and 20 cps. Each participant watched three clips, one from each film. The order of
presentation was counterbalanced following a Latin square design. Participants were allocated to one
of the three groups: Group 1 saw Blue Jasmine subtitled at 20 cps, Inside Out at 16 cps and Mad
Men at 12 cps; Group 2 saw Blue Jasmine subtitled at 16 cps, Inside Out at 12 cps and Mad Men
at 20 cps; and Group 3 saw Blue Jasmine subtitled at 12 cps, Inside Out at 20 cps and Mad Men
at 16 cps. The order of presentation of the clips in each group was randomized.
Subtitles were prepared in three language versions: English, Polish and Spanish, separately
for each group of participants. The time codes (i.e., the subtitle display times) were identical
for all the three languages±the translation was prepared in such a way that the number of
characters in each version was carefully matched to the reading speed requirements, with 2-frames
tolerance. Participants watched the clips with Hungarian audio and with subtitles in their
mother tongue. All subtitle files are available in [
6 / 30
16 cps (medium-paced)
Duration (ms) Subtitle text
2480 I can't wait for you
to show us New York.
1520 Take our car and driver!
2800 I hope you're gonna come.
How often am I here?
2600 - I will definitely make some time.
1360 Where are you staying?
3040 We thought about asking
if we could stay with you,
3720 but we didn't want to impose.
We got a room at the Marriott.
20 cps (fast)
I can't wait for you
to show us New York.
Why don't you take our car and driver?
I hope you're gonna come.
I mean, how often am I here?
- I will definitely make some time.
Where are you staying?
We thought about asking
if we could stay with you,
but we didn't want to impose,
so we got a room at the Marriott.
Below we present an English-version sample from Blue Jasmine (Table 2), showing the
differences between the three conditions in terms of subtitle duration (to match exactly the
reading speed requirements) and text condensation (if necessary).
Procedure. Participants were tested individually in a lab. They were informed they would
take part in a study about the quality of subtitles. The details related to the subtitle speed were
only revealed during the post-test interview. Each experiment started with a training session,
the results of which were not recorded, to familiarize the participants with the experimental
procedure. The experiment, including all the instructions, subtitles and questions, was
presented in English for English participants, in Polish for Polish participants and in Spanish for
Spanish participants. Each experiment ended with a semi-structured interview to elicit
viewers' opinions and preferences on subtitle speeds.
Apparatus. An SMI RED 250 mobile eye tracker was used in the experiment. Participants'
eye movements were recorded with a sampling rate of 250Hz. The velocity-based saccade
detection algorithm was used with the minimum duration of a fixation set to 80 ms.
Participants with tracking ratio below 80% were excluded from the eye tracking analyses (but not
from comprehension or self-reported cognitive load assessments). We used SMI software
package Experiment Suite to create and conduct the experiment, and SPSS v. 24 to analyze the
Design. A 3x3 mixed ANOVA was used with subtitle speed (with three levels: 12, 16, 20
cps) as a within subject factor and native language (English, Spanish, Polish) as a
Dependent variables. The dependent variables were: comprehension score, three
indicators of self-reported cognitive load (difficulty, effort, frustration), enjoyment, scene
recognition, subtitle recognition, and five eye tracking measures. We also collected categorical data on
reading experience. Similarly to subtitles, all the questions were presented to the participants
in their native languages.
Comprehension. Comprehension was measured after each clip as the percentage of
correct answers to a set of multiple-choice and true/false questions related to the clip content.
Below we present examples of multiple choice comprehension questions:
Example (1) from Blue Jasmine
What does Augie do for a living?
■ He does furniture moving and repairs
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■ He is a musician and has his own band
■ He has his own company
■ I don't know
Example (2) from Inside Out
What does Riley's father threaten her with if she doesn't eat her vegetables?
■ Not to let her go play hockey
■ Not to give her any dessert
■ Not to let her play with her best friend
■ I don't know
and two examples of true/false questions:
Example (3) from Blue Jasmine
Ginger and Augie left the kids with Augie's parents.
Example (4) from Mad Men
Dr Guttman told many people in the office about her report.
Self-reported cognitive load. Participants self-reported their cognitive load using three
indicators: difficulty (related to the characteristics of the task: Was it difficult for you to read the
subtitles in this clip?), effort (related to the participant's mental work invested in following the
task: Did you have to put a lot of effort into reading the subtitles in this clip?) and frustration
(related to the participant's feelings during the task: Did you feel annoyed when reading the
subtitles in this clip?). They were assessed on 1±7 scale, where 1 meant ªvery lowº and 7 ªvery
highº cognitive load.
Enjoyment. Enjoyment was measured using the first item from Intrinsic Motivation
]. The item was modified to reflect the nature of the task, focussing specifically
on subtitles. Participants were asked to relate to the following statement: I enjoyed watching the
film with these subtitles, using 1±7 scale, where 1 meant ªnot at allº and 7 means ªvery muchº.
Scene recognition. After watching each clip, participants were presented with pairs of
screenshots and asked to click on the one they had watched [
]. In each pair, both screenshots
came from the film, but only one was taken from the scene presented to the participants (the
left/right presentation order of screenshots was counterbalanced). The scene recognition
variable was calculated as a percentage of correctly recognized scenes.
Subtitle recognition. Viewers were asked to recognize the phrasing from the subtitles in
multiple choice questions in English, Polish and Spanish respectively (with three options: one
correct answer, one distractor and I don’t know). The phrasing mostly differed at the end of
the subtitle, the assumption being that if a subtitle is too fast, the viewer would not have time
to read it until the end. Here is an English-language sample subtitle recognition question from
Which subtitle was used in the film?
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Dwell time, i.e., the sum of durations of all fixations and saccades in an AOI starting with
the first fixation. Longer reading time may be related to processing difficulties.
The percentage of dwell time a participant spent in the AOI as a function of subtitle display
time. For example, if a subtitle lasted for 3 seconds and the participant spent 2.5 seconds in
that subtitle, the percentage dwell time was 2500/3000 ms = 83%, i.e. while the subtitle was
displayed for 3 seconds, the participant was looking at that subtitle for 83% of the time.
This measure allowed us to compare the proportion of time spent in the subtitles between
different conditions. If proportional reading time approaches 100%, it means that
participants spent most of their time reading subtitles and did not have time to look at
The number of glances a participant made to the subtitle AOI after visiting the subtitle for
the first time. Revisits may indicate a more disruptive reading process, as the participant
goes back to read the AOI they had already read, for instance because of text difficulty or
because the subtitle is displayed for too long.
■ I don't see that in a TV commercial.
■ I don't see that on a billboard.
■ I don't know.
Subtitle recognition score was calculated as a percentage of correct answers.
Eye tracking. Table 3 presents the description of the eye tracking measures. We drew
individual areas of interest (AOIs) on each subtitle in each clip (see .xml files with AOIs
available in [
]). The results reported here are averaged per clip and per participant.
Reading experience. To assess how participants coped with different subtitle speeds, we
asked them if they had enough time to read the subtitles, if they re-read subtitles, if they missed
words from the subtitles, if they had enough time to read the subtitles and follow the on-screen
action and, finally, what subtitles they prefer: verbatim or condensed.
All the questionnaires, results and raw data from both experiments are available in the
Repository for Open Data (RepOD) curated at the University of Warsaw [
Comprehension. Subtitle speed did not have an effect on comprehension, F(2,140) =
0.114, p = .892, Z2 = .002 (see Table 4 for descriptive statistics). There were no interactions.
We found a main effect of language on comprehension, F(2,70) = 6.07, p = .004, Z2 = .148.
Post-hoc comparisons with Bonferroni correction showed that Polish participants achieved a
Note. Effort is reported with Greenhouse-Geisser correction as sphericity assumption was violated (Maunchly's Test of Sphericity, p = .003).
higher comprehension score compared to the Spanish (p = .003, 95% CI [3.01, 18.01]); they
also had a tendency to have higher comprehension than the English (p = .063, 95% CI [-0.28,
14.45]). English and Spanish participants did not differ from each other, p = .707, 95% CI
Self-reported cognitive load. Expecting that fast subtitles would be more difficult,
effortful and frustrating for viewers to process, we asked the participants to assess the difficulty of
the subtitles in the clips as well as the effort they had to expend in watching them, and the level
of frustration they experienced. We found the main effect of speed on difficulty and effort but
not on frustration (see Table 5). Participants generally declared the lowest cognitive load in the
case of slow subtitles (12 cps). There were no interactions.
There was a main effect of language on all the three indicators of cognitive load (see
Table 6). Post-hoc Bonferroni tests showed that in difficulty, English participants declared
highest cognitive load, which differed from that declared by the Polish participants (p = .058,
95% CI [-0.2, 1.46]) and by the Spanish (p = .051, 95% CI [.00, 1.41]). In effort, English
participants also had higher load compared to Polish (p < .000, 95% CI [0.56, 2.23]) and to Spanish
(p < .000, 95% CI [0.62, 2.21]). Similarly, English participants reported higher frustration
compared to Polish (p = .007, 95% CI [0.21, 1.68]) and to Spanish (p = .057, 95% CI [-0.2,
1.38]). Polish and Spanish participants did not differ from each other in any of the indicators.
Enjoyment. Predicting that subtitles that are too slow or too fast may negatively affect
viewers' enjoyment, we asked the participants to assess their enjoyment of the clips. Despite
our predictions, however, subtitle speed did not affect enjoyment (see Table 7), nor did the
language, F(2,70) = 1.108, p = .336, Zp2 = .031, which shows that participants enjoyed the clips
equally, regardless of their native language and subtitle speed.
However, following the reviewers' suggestions, we also examined potential differences in
enjoyment depending on the films genres, predicting that viewers may simply have enjoyed
certain films more than others independently of the subtitle speed. Indeed, we found a main
effect of film on enjoyment, F(2, 140) = 25.196, p < .000, Zp2 = .265. The highest enjoyment was
declared by participants in the case of the cartoon Inside Out (M = 5.89, SD = 1.23), followed
by Blue Jasmine (M = 5.07, SD = 1.35) and the lowest enjoyment level was found in Mad Men
(M = 4.66, SD = 1.54). There was no effect of language, F(2, 70) = 1.108, p = .336, Zp2 = .031,
which means that all participants enjoyed the films similarly regardless of their mother tongue.
Scene recognition. To verify whether fast subtitles hinder viewers' ability to follow
onscreen action, we administered a scene recognition test. Contrary to expectations, scene
recognition was not affected by speed, F(2,140) = .038, p = .963, Zp2 = .001 (see Table 8 for descriptive
statistics), or by language, F(2,70) = 1.707, p = .189, Zp2 = .046. This means that all groups of
participants could recognize the scenes equally well in all speed conditions.
Subtitle recognition. Based on the assumption that if subtitles are too fast, viewers may
not be able to read them, we asked the participants to recognize phrases from subtitles. We
predicted that if people did not manage to read a subtitle in its entirety, their ability to
recognize the subtitle wording would be hampered. However, the impact of speed on subtitle
recognition did not reach statistical significance, F(2,140) = 2.529, p = .083, Zp2 = .035 (see Table 9).
There were no interactions.
We found a main effect of language on subtitle recognition, F(2,70) = 3.458, p = .037, Zp2 =
.090. Post-hoc Bonferroni tests showed that English participants had a significantly higher
subtitle recognition compared to Spanish, p = .035, 95% CI [0.65, 23.97], who in general had the
lowest scores. Polish and English participants did not differ significantly.
Eye tracking measures. Owing to poor quality, some data had to be removed, leaving 22
English, 16 Polish, and 22 Spanish participants included in the eye tracking analyses.
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Subtitle speed had an effect on all eye tracking measures (Table 10). There were no
interactions. Slower subtitles induced more fixations and higher mean fixation duration than faster
subtitles. The absolute reading time was longest in the 12 cps condition, whereas the
proportional reading time was highest in the 20 cps condition. Fig 1A shows that an increase in
subtitle speeds resulted in an increase in the percentage of time spent in the subtitle area, relative to
subtitle duration. Subtitles in the slowest condition (12 cps) triggered the largest number of
revisits, which may mean that participants read the subtitle, looked at the scene and gazed
back at the subtitle area, only to find the same subtitle there. We discovered a trend, depicted
in Fig 1B, that the longer the subtitle duration, the more revisits to the subtitle area. When
watching slow subtitles, viewers re-read two out of three subtitles, but when watching fast
subtitles, they re-read about one in five.
There was a main effect of language on all dependent variables apart from revisits
(Table 11). Post-hoc Bonferroni tests showed that Polish participants spent the least amount of
time in the subtitles and differed significantly from Spanish participants in all eye tracking
measures (fixation count, p = .029, 95% CI [-1.26, -.05]; mean fixation duration, p = .001, 95%
CI [-56.23, -11.34]; absolute reading time, p < .000, 95% CI [-491.85, -156.68] and
proportional reading time, p < .000, 95% CI [-.20, -.06]) and from English participants in the case of
absolute reading time (p = .027, 95% CI [-351.12, -15.96]). Overall, Spanish participants
dwelled longest in the subtitle area and their fixation duration was the longest, indicating
highest effort among all the groups.
Reading experience. Reading experience questions showed that participants in general
could cope well with all the three speeds. Most participants declared that subtitles were
displayed for the right amount of time (Fig 2) and that they had sufficient time to read them as
well as to follow the on-screen action (Fig 3).
Most people also declared that when reading the subtitles, they did not miss words
(Table 12). They also stated that they re-read subtitles more often in the slow subtitles
condition (12 cps) compared to the fast subtitles. When asked about text condensation in subtitles,
most people±regardless of subtitle speed±declared they would prefer subtitles to contain less
text so that they have more time to read them.
Correlations. In order to gain insights into participants' cognitive load experienced when
watching clips subtitled at different speeds, we correlated the results of self-reports with eye
tracking data. Using Spearman's rank correlation, we found that in the 12 cps condition, there
was a significant correlation between the self-reported difficulty and revisits to the subtitle:
rs(64) = .352, p = .004, and between the self-reported effort and absolute reading time, rs(64) =
.253, p = .043. This means that the more revisits participants made to the slow subtitles and the
longer they read them, the more cognitive effort they reported. Self-reported difficulty was also
negatively related to comprehension, rs(74) = -.331, p = .004, and to enjoyment, rs(74) = -.441,
p < .000, indicating that the more difficult the participants found the clip, the lower their
comprehension score and enjoyment. In the 16 cps condition, the self-reported difficulty was
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Note. Mean fixation duration and absolute reading time measures are given in milliseconds.
significantly related to the absolute reading time, rs(63) = .300, p = .017, and to fixation count,
rs(63) = .282, p = .025. Self-reported effort was also related to absolute reading time, rs(63) =
.343, p = .006, and to fixation count, rs(63) = .317, p = .011. The more difficult the participants
Fig 1. Reading measures in clips with an unknown language soundtrack (Hungarian). (A) Proportional reading time (percentage of time spent in
the subtitle relative to the total subtitle display time). (B) Mean number of revisits to the subtitle.
13 / 30
found the clip, the more time they spent reading the subtitles. At the same time, the more time
they spent reading the subtitles, as shown by their absolute reading time, the less enjoyment
they reported, rs(63) = -.403, p = .001, and the lower their comprehension score, rs(63) = -.709.
Enjoyment was also negatively correlated with revisits: the more revisits the participants made,
the lower enjoyment they reported, rs(63) = -.327, p = .009. There was also a significant
relationship between self-reported frustration and mean fixation duration, rs(63) = .297, p = .018.
Finally, in the 20 cps condition, enjoyment was negatively correlated with all indicators of
selfreported cognitive load: difficulty, rs(74) = -.457, p < .000; effort, rs(74) = -.412, p < .000; and
frustration, rs(74) = -.508, p < .000, showing that the more cognitive effort the participants
expended, the less enjoyment they reported.
Discussion. Contrary to our expectations, subtitle speed did not affect comprehension,
scene recognition, or enjoyment. As demonstrated by reading experience questions,
participants were equally satisfied with the speed of subtitles in the slow, medium and fast conditions.
In all speeds, participants declared to have had sufficient time to read the subtitles and to
follow the on-screen action.
The slowest subtitles displayed at 12 cps induced most re-reading, as shown by the highest
number of revisits to the subtitle area in eye tracking data as well as by participants' own
declarations on re-reading. At the same time, however, the slowest subtitles were deemed the least
difficult and effortful to read.
Overall, the highest cognitive load was reported by English participants, who are generally
not accustomed to subtitling. In contrast, Polish participants declared lowest frustration
among all the three groups. The self-report results were confirmed by eye tracking as they also
spent the least amount of time in the subtitles and had lowest mean fixation duration,
indicating lowest cognitive load. Despite the results from the self-reported cognitive load and
enjoyment, eye tracking data showed that Spanish participants may have experienced higher
cognitive load as they had highest mean fixation duration and spent the highest time reading
the subtitles, as shown by both the absolute and proportional reading time. Their
comprehension results were also the lowest.
Participants. For Experiment 2, Polish and Spanish speakers self-reported their
proficiency in listening to English using the Common European Framework of Reference for
Languages (from A1 to C2). Among Polish participants, 4 declared to be at the C1 and 17 at C2
level, whereas for Spanish, 1 person said to be A2, 2 people at B1, 3 people at B2, 7 people at C1
and 13 people at C2 level. We need to note that the English proficiency of our sample was high
as at the time the study was taking place, participants were living in the UK. Given their high
proficiency, with most participants at the C1 and C2 levels, we could not analyze the data
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Fig 2. Perceived subtitle duration in clips with an unknown language soundtrack (Hungarian).
Fig 3. Perceived time to follow the action in clips with an unknown language soundtrack (Hungarian). Participants had to choose one of two
options: (1) I had enough time to read the subtitles and follow the action on screen, (2) I didn’t have enough time to follow the action on screen as I was
reading the subtitles.
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Note. The data are given as a percentage of the people who selected a given answer
using English proficiency as a factor, as we simply did not have enough participants with
limited knowledge of English. We acknowledge this as a limitation of the study.
Stimuli. In this experiment, for clarity reasons, only two subtitle speeds were tested: slow
(12 cps) and fast (20 cps). A set of two clips in English, lasting approximately 5 minutes each,
from two TV series was used, one from Gilmore Girls (2000, created by Amy
Sherman-Palladino), the other from Grace and Frankie (2015, created by Marta Kauffman and Howard J.
Morris). As in Exp. 1, the stimuli were fast-paced, dialogue-heavy scenes featuring two to four
characters engaged in a conversation.
Similarly to Experiment 1, subtitles were prepared in three language versions: English,
Polish and Spanish, separately for each group of participants. The time codes were identical for all
the languages. We used Latin square design and divided participants into two groups: Group 1
saw Gilmore Girls subtitled at 20 cps and Grace and Frankie at 12 cps, whereas Group 2 saw
Gilmore Girls subtitles at 12 cps and Grace and Frankie at 20 cps. Unlike in Experiment 1, this
time the clips were shown with their original English soundtrack.
Design. A 2x3 mixed ANOVA was used with subtitle speed (with 2 levels: 12, 20 cps) as a
within subject factor, and first language (English, Spanish, Polish) as a between-subject factor.
The dependent variables were the same as in Exp. 1. Because in this experiment the
participants were familiar with the language of the soundtrack, we wanted to see if they noticed the
edits made to subtitle text in slower subtitles. For this reason, we added the measure of
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Perceived Mismatch between the dialogue and the subtitles (Did you notice any mismatch
between the spoken dialogue and the subtitles?), reported on 1±7 scale, where 1 meant ªno
mismatchº and 7 ªa lot of mismatchesº.
Comprehension. Similarly to Experiment 1, we found no main effect of subtitle speed on
comprehension, F(1,66) = .012, p = .913, Zp2 = .000. There was no main effect of language on
comprehension, F(2,66) = .080, p = .923, Zp2 = .002. There were no interactions. Descriptive
results are depicted in Table 13.
Self-reported cognitive load. There was no main effect of subtitle speed on difficulty or
effort, but we found a significant effect of speed on frustration (see Table 14). Frustration was
lower in the 20 cps condition for all groups of participants.
We also found an interaction between speed and language in effort, F(2,71) = 6.935, p =
.002, Zp2 = 163) and in frustration, F(2,71) = 4.658, p = .013, Zp2 = .116). We decomposed these
interactions with simple effects with Bonferroni correction and found a main effect of subtitle
speed on frustration in the English, F(1,26) = 16.980, p = .000, Zp2 = .395, and Spanish group, F
(1,25) = 4.355, p = .047, Zp2 = .148. Frustration was lower in the 20 cps condition compared to
12 cps. For Polish speakers, there was a main effect of subtitle speed on effort, F(1,20) = 14.134,
Fig 4. Perceived mismatch in clips with a known language soundtrack (English). Self-report on a scale 1±7, where (1) meant ªno mismatchº and (7)
ªa lot of mismatchesº.
p = .001, Zp2 = .414 but not for frustration. Polish participants declared to expend more effort
when reading faster subtitles displayed at 20 cps compared to the slow subtitles.
We also found a main effect of language on effort, F(2,71) = 12.442, p = .007, Zp2 = .130, and
on frustration, F(2,71) = 7.060, p = .002, Zp2 = .166. English participants experienced highest
frustration than other groups. Post-hoc tests (Bonferroni) showed that in the case of effort,
English participants differed from Spanish (p = .007, 95% CI [0.21, 1.67]) and in the case of
frustration, they differed from both Spanish (p = .007, 95% CI [0.23, 1.89]) and from Polish
participants (p = .005, 95% CI [0.3, 2.05]). Spanish and Polish participants did not differ from
Enjoyment. Unlike in Experiment 1, we found a main effect of speed on enjoyment and
no main effect of language on enjoyment, F(2,71) = .857, p = .429, Zp2 = .024. There was an
interaction between speed and language approaching significance, F(2,71) = 2.809, p = .067,
Z2 = .073. For English and Spanish participants, enjoyment was higher for the faster subtitle
speed, while for the Polish participants enjoyment was the same for both speeds (see Table 15).
Similarly to Exp. 1, we wanted to see whether enjoyment declared by participants depended
on the film itself. In contrast to Exp. 1, we did not find a main effect of film on enjoyment, F
(1,71) = 2.784, p = .100, Zp2 = .038. Polish and English participants enjoyed Grace and Frankie
(MPol = 5.52, SD = 1.24; MEng = 5.00, SD = 1.68) slightly more than Gilmore Girls (MPol = 4.66,
SD = 1.82; MEng = 4.70, SD = 1.63), whereas Spanish participants enjoyed both clips nearly
equally (MGG = 5.34, SD = 1.32; MGF = 5.26, SD = 1.58), but the differences did not reach
Perceived mismatch. Given that the participants could understand the language of the
soundtrack and given the differences in subtitled content resulting from text editing in the two
speed conditions, we expected participants to notice discrepancies between the spoken
dialogues and the text in the slow subtitles. Indeed, we found a strong main effect of the speed on
the degree of perceived mismatch between the dialogue and the text in the subtitles, F(1,71) =
84.115, p < .000, Zp2 = .542. Slow subtitles were declared to have a considerably higher degree
of mismatch (M12 = 4.22, SD = 1.95) than fast subtitles (M20 = 2.28, SD = 1.31) by all groups of
participants (see Fig 4). The median values were 4.50 for the 12 cps condition and 2.00 for the
20 cps condition.
We found a significant effect of language on perceived mismatch, F(2,71) = 5.269, p = .007,
Z2 = .129. English participants noticed more mismatches than Polish and Spanish people, but
only with the Spanish was the difference significant, p = .006, 95% CI [0.26, 1.98]. This result is
not surprising given that English participants were watching clips in their mother tongue.
Scene recognition. There was no main effect of speed on scene recognition (see Table 16),
but we found a main effect of language, F(2,71) = 26.742, p < .000, Zp2 = .430. Post-hoc tests
with Bonferroni correction showed a significant difference between English participants on
the one hand and Polish and Spanish on the other hand, ps < .000. English participants had a
significantly lower scene recognition score than Polish participants, 95% CI [-24.25, -10.71],
and Spanish, 95% CI [-22.51, -9.72], suggesting they focused more on comparing the subtitles
with the dialogues rather than on the visuals.
Subtitle recognition. While speed did not affect subtitle recognition (see Table 17), a
significant interaction was found between speed and language, F(2,71) = 4.096, p = .021, Zp2 =
.103. There was a main effect of speed in the case of English participants F(1,26) = 5.603, p =
.026, Zp2 = .177 but not in the case of Polish, F(1,20) = .604, p = .446, Zp2 = .029, or Spanish
participants, F(1,25) = 1.997, p = .170, Zp2 = .074. For English participants, subtitle recognition was
higher in the 20 cps condition compared to 12 cps, whereas for Polish and Spanish people it
was slightly lower for the 20 cps subtitles.
There was a significant main effect of language on subtitle recognition, F(2,71) = 6.443, p =
.003, Zp2 = .154. English participants recognized a significantly higher number of scenes than
Spanish participants, p = .002, 95% CI [4.24, 22.77].
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Note. Mean fixation duration and absolute reading time measures are given in milliseconds.
Eye tracking measures. Due to data quality issues, several participants had to be excluded
from eye tracking analyses, leaving a total of 23 English, 19 Polish, and 22 Spanish participants.
Fig 5. Reading measures in clips with a known language soundtrack (English). (A) Proportional reading time (percentage of time spent in the subtitle
relative to the total subtitle display time). (B) Mean number of revisits to the subtitle.
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Similarly to Experiment 1, we found the main effect of subtitle speed on all eye tracking
measures (see Table 18). The slow subtitles induced more fixations than the fast ones. In all
groups of participants, the mean fixation duration was lower in the 20 cps condition. Absolute
reading time for the 20 cps condition was lower than the 12 cps condition. Proportional
reading time, however, was higher for faster subtitles.
There was an interaction between speed and language in the case of revisits, F(2,61) = 3.172,
p = .049, Zp2 = .094, which we decomposed with simple effects using Bonferroni correction.
There was a main effect of speed on revisits in the English group, F(1,22) = 47,039, p < .000,
Z2 = .681, Polish group, F(1,18) = 102.364, p < .000, Zp2 = .850, and Spanish group, F(1,21) =
89.796, p < .000, Zp2 = .810. English people had the lowest number of revisits in the 12 cps
condition and the higher number of revisits in the 20 cps condition compared to Polish and Spanish
people (see. Fig 5).
The implication of the number of revisits to the subtitle area for the subtitle reading process
is that when watching slow subtitles, viewers re-read every second subtitle, whereas in the case
of the fast subtitles, only one in five or one in six was re-read. This may be taken to mean that
slow subtitles resulted in a more disrupted reading process.
We also found a main effect of language in all eye tracking measures except for revisits (see
Table 19). Spanish people made significantly more fixations on subtitles than English people,
p = .001, 95% CI [.31, 1.46], and had a significantly longer mean fixation duration than Polish
people, p = .025, 95% CI [2.73, 52.20]. They also dwelled the longest in the subtitle, as shown
by their longest absolute reading time compared to the English, p = .007, 95% CI [49.88,
389.01] and to the Polish, p = .006, 95% CI [57.46, 413.62]. Their proportional reading time
was longer than analogous time spent by English, p = .002, 95% CI [.03, .17] and Polish
participants, p = .005, 95% CI [.02, .17], see Fig 6.
Polish participants had a shorter mean fixation duration than English, p = .045, 95% CI
[-49.37, -.4], and Spanish participants, p = .025, 95% CI [-52.20, -2.73]. They also spent less
time with the subtitles than Spanish, as shown by their absolute reading time, p = .006, 95% CI
[-413.62, -57.46], and proportional reading time, p = .005, 95% CI [-.17, -.02].
Reading experience. Most participants declared that in both conditions the subtitles were
on the screen for ample time to be read (Fig 6), allowing people to read them and to follow
onscreen action (Fig 7).
Interestingly, in contrast to Experiment 1, more people declared to prefer subtitles
containing as much dialogue as possible rather than condensed subtitles (see Table 20), although the
difference in preference was only about 10%.
Correlations. Triangulating the self-reports with eye tracking data, we found that in the
12 cps condition, there was a significant relationship between self-reported effort and mean
fixation duration, rs(64) = .296, p = .002. The effort reported by participants correlated with
mismatches they noticed, rs(74) = .296, p = .010. There was also a strong correlation between
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Fig 6. Perceived subtitle duration in clips with a known language soundtrack (English).
frustration and mismatches, rs(74) = .579, p < .000, indicating that the more mismatches
noticed, the higher the frustration. We also found a negative relationship between the declared
enjoyment and mismatches, rs(74) = -.396, p < .000, and with frustration, rs(74) = -.344, p =
.003. In the 20 cps condition, mismatches were correlated with self-reported difficulty, rs(74) =
.352, p = .002, effort, rs(74) = .231, p = .047, and frustration, rs(74) = .422, p < .000. Mismatches
were also negatively correlated with enjoyment, rs(74) = -.307, p = .008. Overall, this means
Fig 7. Perceived time to follow the action in clips with a known language soundtrack (English). Participants had to choose one of two options:
(1) I had enough time to read the subtitles and follow the action on screen, (2) I didn’t have enough time to follow the action on screen as I was reading
22 / 30
Note. The data are given as a percentage of the people who selected a given answer
that the higher the number of mismatches noticed, the lower the enjoyment and the higher the
cognitive load reported by the participants.
Discussion. Similarly to Experiment 1 and contrary to our predictions, speed had no
effect on comprehension. It also did not affect effort, difficulty, or scene recognition.
Participants declared to have had enough time to read the subtitles and to follow the on-screen action
in both conditions. In contrast to Experiment 1, however, more people wanted to have a full
version of the dialogue in the subtitles rather than reduced one.
Slower subtitles displayed at 12 cps were found to be more frustrating and less enjoyable.
Participants noticed more mismatches between the dialogue and the subtitle text in the 12 cps
condition. Slow subtitles also induced more fixations and higher mean fixation duration,
implying more processing effort than faster subtitles.
Interviews. Many participants stated that rather than speed, the most important aspect of
subtitle quality for them was synchronization: subtitles should appear on the screen
synchronously with the onset of speech and disappear when the characters stop talking. In slow subtitle
speeds, synchronization is often compromised to allow viewers sufficient time to read the
subtitle, which means that subtitles sometimes precede the onset of speech and remain on the
screen slightly longer than the actual utterance. In consequence, although the participants did
not relate their remarks directly to subtitle speed, they expressed most reservations on slow
subtitles, which were perceived as badly synchronized with the dialogue, and in Experiment 2
as not fully reflecting what was said. This also shows a general lack of awareness of professional
subtitling rules, where text condensation plays a key role [
], and a popular±yet misguided±
perception of subtitles as containing a verbatim version of the dialogues. In fact, a few people
voiced their annoyance at text reduction in slow subtitles, saying: ªwhen I hear English, then I
actually do compare and I'm getting annoyed when I see too much editing because, to me, it's
cheating people out of the information given, you know, what actually is being saidº and ªthey
annoyed me because the subtitles didn't match with the text, so it felt there was a conflict when
I was reading the subtitles and it was just that it annoyed me so much that I stoppedº. This, of
course, was the case only in Exp. 2 where the clips were in English. Some people suggested that
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condensation of text in subtitles should be dependent on genre, with documentaries requiring
less condensation and more detailed information than feature films.
With regard to the differences between clips with a soundtrack in a familiar and unfamiliar
language, the following quote from an English participant best captures the views expressed by
many people from all language groups: ªWhen I'm watching something I understand I'd like
to be able to read exactly what I'm hearing, and when I'm watching something that I don't
understand I prefer there to be minimal words in the subtitles so that I can get a gist of what's
being said and still be able to follow the scenes of the movie.º
By conducting the two experiments reported in this paper, we examined the following
questions: (1) Can viewers keep up with fast subtitle speeds, (2) What is the impact of the language
of the soundtrack on subtitle processing, and (3) How does experience with subtitling affect
the way viewers from different countries watch subtitled videos? Several novel effects were
Impact of subtitle speeds
One of the most important findings of this study is that viewers were able to cope even with
very fast subtitle speeds: they had sufficient time to read the subtitles and to watch the
onscreen action, as evidenced by their comprehension scores, scene recognition results and
selfreports on reading experience. As these results were found in all groups of participants in the
current study regardless of their native language, we believe that this may be taken to confirm
the subtitle effectiveness hypothesis [63±65], according to which subtitle viewing is cognitively
effective and there is no ªtradeoff between image processing and subtitle processingº [
The fact that slower subtitles did not result in higher comprehension may be somewhat
surprising but possibly suggests that viewers can cope well with reading subtitles irrespective of
their speed. Our results are consistent with the prior work on SDH, which showed that slow
edited subtitles did not result in higher comprehension than fast unreduced subtitles [
Tracing people's eye movements allowed us to discover that slow subtitles induced higher
mean fixation duration, which is an indication of higher cognitive load [
]. This result may
stem from at least two factors. Firstly, it is plausible that slow subtitles±owing to the higher
extent of text reduction±were less internally cohesive than fast subtitles and, as such, more
difficult to process. This finding is supported by [
], reporting that ªsubtitles containing more
cohesive devices may be easier to process because of their linguistic coherence as well as their
cohesiveness with the film textº, as well as by a study on SDH, which found that text editing
was associated with less explicit coherence relations and changes in implied meaning [
Secondly, longer mean fixation duration in slow subtitles may also be attributed to the
discrepancies between the text in the spoken dialogues and the text in the subtitles, particularly in
Experiment 2 with English clips. This is because the participants were comparing the subtitles
with the dialogues, trying to map the sounds onto the words and to integrate the auditory
information with the written text. Upon encountering a mismatch between the two, their
cognitive effort increased. As there were more mismatches in slow subtitles compared to fast ones,
this negatively affected the mean fixation duration in the 12-cps condition. Mismatches also
negatively affected enjoyment and increased frustration levels reported by participants.
The analysis of subtitle reading times with eye tracking has revealed that faster subtitles
were read more efficiently than slow subtitles. The reason for this is that even though slow
subtitles were displayed on the screen for a longer time than fast subtitles, people did not seem to
benefit from the extended display times. For instance, slow subtitles (12 cps) from Mad Men
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were displayed on screen for the total time of 270,520 ms, whereas the medium-paced 16 cps
subtitles for 252,800 ms and the fastest 20 cps subtitles for 216,480 ms (when we add up the
durations of all the subtitles in the clip). Taking the total clip duration (308,000 ms) as 100%,
12 cps subtitles were on the screen for 88% of clip duration whereas 16 cps subtitles for 82%
and 20 cps for 70% of the clip. In other words, slow subtitles stayed on the screen for a longer
time than fast subtitles even though they contained less text. At the same time, proportional
reading time, i.e. the percentage of time people spent on reading the subtitles as a function of
the subtitle display time (taking as 100% the total duration of the subtitles, not the clip), has
shown that people spent about 50% of the subtitle display time reading slow subtitles, about
55% reading medium-paced subtitles and about 60% on reading fast subtitles in Experiment 1,
and about 40% reading slow subtitles and about 45% reading fast subtitles in Experiment 2.
This means that as slow subtitles were displayed longer, people did spent more time reading
them in absolute terms, but they still did not look at the subtitles for about 50% of the time the
subtitles were on screen. We think the reason why people did not look at the subtitles for
about half of the time is that they did not need them to be displayed for that long, as they
managed to read them faster. Previous research has shown that subtitles are great gaze attractors
] and that reading subtitles is automatic [
], so when subtitles are displayed on screen,
people automatically look at them (and slow subtitles were there for a long time, attracting
people's gaze for longer). The fact that when watching clips with fast subtitles, people generally
spent about half of their time on the subtitles means that they could use the remaining half to
follow on-screen action. This seemed to be sufficient for them, as declared in the reading
experience questions as well as shown in the subtitle and screen recognition questions. Finally, eye
movement analyses also enabled us to discover that slow subtitles triggered more revisits to the
subtitle area, which we believe can be attributed to the fact that many slow subtitles were
ªhangingº on the screen for too long. Viewers re-read slow subtitles much more often than the
fast ones±a result also reported by a study on SDH [
]. The number of revisits observed in the
slow subtitles was also negatively correlated with lower enjoyment and higher difficulty
declared by the participants. Our interpretation of this findings is that when viewers make
more revisits, i.e. when they keep moving their eyes down to the subtitle area only to find the
same subtitle there, the subtitle reading process may be disrupted and viewers' suspension of
disbelief may be negatively affected.
The results of the current study did not confirm the predictions that fast subtitles would
make people spend too much time reading the subtitles to the detriment of the images. This
issue ties up with the concept of viewing speed [
] with regard to SDH. Viewing speed is
directly determined by the subtitle speed: the faster the speed of subtitles, the more time is
spent on reading them. According to Romero-Fresco [
], a subtitle speed of 120 wpm (10±11
cps) will result in approximately 40% spent on subtitles and 60% on images, whereas with fast
speeds like 200 wpm (17±18 cps) viewers will spend approximately 80% time on subtitles and
only 20% time on images. These predictions were not confirmed in the current study. In
Experiment 1, people spent about half of their time reading subtitles and the other half
following the filmic image in the 12-cps condition, and about two-thirds of the subtitle display time
reading the subtitles in the 20-cps condition. In Experiment 2, possibly because they could
understand the language of the soundtrack, viewers spent less than half of their time reading
the slow subtitles, and about half of the time reading the fast subtitles. Our results converge
with those reported in [
], where the proportion of time spent in the subtitle area during the
subtitle display time varied between 32%-66% (M = 44%). All in all, these findings suggest that
fast subtitle speeds do not necessarily hold viewers back from watching the filmic image.
Similarly to Koolstra et al. [
] and d'Ydewalle et al. [
], we found that absolute reading time
was longer in the case of slow subtitles and that proportional reading time increased together with
25 / 30
a rise in subtitle speed. One possible interpretation of this is that viewers adjust their reading to
the speed of the subtitles: the slower the subtitles, the slower the reading, and vice versa: the faster
the subtitles are displayed, the faster the viewers will read them, provided that the speed remains
constant throughout the clip: ªIf the ratio between the amount of text and the time of exposure
remains constant, the resulting reading speed will also remain constantº [
Subtitle speed did not have any effect on enjoyment in clips in a language unknown to
participants. However, when watching English clips, participants' enjoyment was generally higher
in clips with faster unreduced subtitles. Although we asked the participants specifically to
focus on the subtitles, it is possible that their enjoyment was influenced by ªaffect-driven
affiliations with media charactersº [
], i.e. the way they felt about the characters and the plot as a
whole. Given that the notion of enjoyment is very subjective, the differences we observed may
be attributed to film genre rather than speed, which was indeed the case in Exp. 1. We
acknowledge that it may be difficult to disentangle the effects of enjoying particular films from
enjoying clips with a particular subtitle speed.
Post-test interviews with participants allowed us to discover people's opinions and attitudes
towards subtitle speed. Contrary to our expectations, most people were not bothered by the
speed of subtitles but instead cared more about subtitle synchronization and subtitle content
reflecting the dialogue.
Taken together, our findings on subtitle speeds suggest that the long display time of slow
subtitles in this study, equivalent to the six-seconds rule, is unnecessarily long for modern
viewers. This carries direct implications on current subtitle practices and subtitle training in
Impact of the soundtrack
To explore the differences in subtitle processing depending on the film soundtrack, we showed
people clips in a language they did not know (Exp. 1), and in a language they were proficient
in (Exp. 2). Admittedly, subtitles are traditionally geared towards people who do not
understand the language of the soundtrack, but the reality of the audiovisual translation market is
that a vast majority of theatrical productions are released in English [
], which makes Exp. 2
particularly relevant and ecologically valid. Important differences that we observed between
the two experiments bring us closer to detangling the relationship between film soundtrack
and subtitle reading. First, after watching clips in an unknown language, our participants
achieved lower results in the comprehension test (on average 80%) compared to clips with the
soundtrack in a language they could understand (88%). This shows that viewers integrate
information from multiple sources to make sense of subtitled videos and points to the
importance of sound in processing. Second, when watching videos in Hungarian, participants
declared a slightly higher cognitive load (difficulty and effort) than in the case of videos in
English, which means their cognitive processing was more effortful, as they were trying to
make sense of the film without the support from the soundtrack. Finally, the fact that people
spent more time reading subtitles in the case of clips in Hungarian than in English indicates
that viewers support their viewing by making sense of the comprehensible auditory
information from the dialogue. On the one hand, given an increasingly high proficiency in English
among audiences around the globe, one may argue that ªpartial knowledge of English
mitigates losses resulting from subtitle condensationº [
]. On the other hand, as viewers are
mapping the sounds from the dialogues onto the words in subtitles when they know the language
of the soundtrack, any discrepancies between the two may disturb their viewing process. This
was also demonstrated in a study where viewers made more revisits to the subtitle in the clip
using non-literal translation of the dialogue [
26 / 30
The implication our findings may have on current subtitling practices is that with films
whose language is well understood in the target country, subtitles could contain more text and
be displayed at faster speeds, whereas in the case of films with lesser known languages, more
text reduction and slower speeds may be necessary.
Impact of experience with subtitling
Our findings demonstrate the previous experience with subtitling may affect the way people
process subtitled videos. For example, Spanish participants, who had been most exposed to
dubbing, dwelled longest in the subtitle area in both experiments and had longest mean
fixation duration±a measure usually attributed to ªmore effortful cognitive processingº [
Together with longer absolute reading time and higher fixation count, it is plausible that
Spanish people had to expend more effort into reading subtitles than the two other groups. On the
other hand, Polish people spent the least amount of time reading the subtitles, indicating they
read them faster. English participants declared to experience a much higher cognitive load
compared to Polish and Spanish people, which we believe can be attributed to their smallest
previous exposure to subtitling. Yet, despite the above differences, all groups seem to have
processed subtitles fairly efficiently, showing that subtitles can be used ªeven with populations
who are less familiar with itº [
The current article examined the effects of subtitle speed on viewers' processing of subtitled
videos. The most important result was that people could cope well with fast subtitle speeds and
that they preferred them to slow ones in English clips. These results provide empirical grounds
for revisiting current subtitling guidelines and audiovisual translation industry practices.
Further research is required to fully understand the nature of the impact of the soundtrack
and of previous experience with subtitling on subtitle processing observed in the current
study. Other issues that need to be addressed include disentangling the impact of subtitle
speed from that of text editing, investigating the role of language proficiency [
], film genre
and film complexity [
] in subtitle processing, examining audience preferences on the
faithfulness of subtitle translation [
] as well as replicating our results on speakers of other
languages and age groups. Examination of these issues will allow a greater understanding of the
subtitle processing and the development of empirically grounded subtitling rules, meeting the
needs of a dynamically growing number of subtitle end users.
Conceptualization: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
Data curation: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
Formal analysis: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
Funding acquisition: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
Investigation: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
Methodology: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
Project administration: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
Resources: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
Supervision: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
27 / 30
Visualization: Agnieszka Szarkowska.
Writing ± original draft: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
Writing ± review & editing: Agnieszka Szarkowska, Olivia Gerber-MoroÂn.
28 / 30
29 / 30
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