Why Subtitles are Awesome

shut up flower boy band Kim myung soo L infinite i can make it without your song
K-drama characters are always bragging like this…

Subtitles have an appeal of their own.

The ways they change the viewing experience aren’t always obvious, which is why I started this site for people watching K-dramas with English subtitles.

Disadvantages of subtitles:

  • Need to keep paying attention so you don’t miss stuff.
  • Need to read uses brain.
  • You might start muttering the lines along with the cast.
  • Occasional moments of confusion about oddly translated words. A nagging feeling that you’re missing deep stuff, or at least some good puns.

Advantages of subtitles:

  • Need to keep paying attention so you don’t miss stuff.
  • Need to read uses brain.
  • You might start muttering the lines along with the cast.
  • The obvious: you can watch shows from cultures other than your own.
blade man episode 3 shin se kyung can't change dream
…or defying the world. When you read subtitles, it’s like you’re saying it, too. You don’t just hear the line, you read it, putting you inside the character’s P.O.V. for a moment.

Yes, subtitles can be a pleasure or a pain depending on how you feel about reading—and how good your television screen or device is. Your grandmother’s old television with a picture tube might not work well with subtitles. Then again, if you’re watching something on your mobile phone on a noisy subway car, subtitles might be the only way to understand.

The bigger picture is that your experience of a show might be different with or without subtitles. You can test this out for yourself with popular animated series that are available dubbed and “subbed.” (To try this experiment, watch at least a full episode in each format. Funimation has a detailed search feature, so you can search for shows in your preferred rating, genre, etc., available both subbed and dubbed.)

Watching a show dubbed into English, you take in all the dialogue through listening. The visual part of your brain is busy, too. Whether or not you’re conscious of it, some part of your brain is imagining that you’re seeing the image on the screen from your own point-of-view. That makes you, the viewer, like an extra character, an observer.

Then watch the show subbed and read the subtitles. Once you get past the shock of the characters becoming fluent in Japanese, you’ll get used to reading while watching. And then you might notice that you’re involved in the story in a different way. You’re still using the listening and visual parts of the brain. But you’re reading, too, and each time you read a line, you’re inside that character’s head for a moment. Similar to when you’re reading a novel, you’re caught in the “dream” of fiction. Briefly, you are the character saying those words. You aren’t just a neutral observer anymore.

personal taste episode 6 son ye jin i'm living well subtitles
So the pleasure of subtitles is that when characters make a stand, we’re making a stand with them. Like here…

Subtitled TV uses the brain in a hybrid way that isn’t the same as “just reading a book” or “just watching a movie.” You do both at once. You get the emotional connection possible in reading fiction, together with the visual pleasures of film. Reading comics or manga is a similar hybrid experience, though it doesn’t involve the sense of sound. A subtitled video gives you additional information like tone of voice, soundtrack, etc.

The extra reading involved in subtitles doesn’t make a show “better” or “worse” for your brain, but I think the brain stuff explains why people love or hate subtitles. Other observations:

  • I’m more tempted to binge-watch subtitled TV because it draws me in deeper. “Regular” TV is more passive and I get bored quicker.
  • For better or worse, it takes me longer to notice whether the acting is good or bad. When I suspect the acting is good, I make a special effort to pay attention to characters’ faces. When the acting is bad, I’m enjoying the show anyway, because the characters are saying the lines in my head.
  • It’s particularly fun to be reading subtitles when the characters are saying something really cool. Because you’re saying it along with them in your head. The opposite goes for when they’re embarrassing themselves.
  • I’m aware I’m missing the subtleties lost in translation. Learning a few words of Korean has added to my enjoyment of subtitled shows, but I’ll always miss stuff. (Puns, sigh.)
personal taste episode 6 son ye jin don't delude yourself subtitles
…or here.

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