The Surprising Power of Subtitles

From Jesus on a bed sheet in Tagalog to Rasputin rapping in Ukrainian


The 1979 movie Jesus features an English actor you've probably never heard of in the title role. Its special effects are amateurish. But in the 35 years since it made its debut, Jesus has achieved an impact far greater than other more celebrated 1979 releases, such as Alien and Apocalypse Now. The secret to its success? Two years after an initial run in theaters, its producer, a former gourmet food entrepreneur named Bill Bright, had the movie translated into Tagalog.

Other translations followed, and soon missionaries were lugging portable generators and projectors to remote African villages and screening the movie on bed sheets in India. Jesus has now been translated into more than 1,100 languages, and because of this accessibility, it has been viewed an estimated 6 billion times.

Evangelists aren't the only ones who have long recognized the virtues of cross-lingual engagement. By the end of World War II, the U.S.-funded Voice of America radio network was producing more than 1,000 different programs for worldwide broadcast in over 40 languages. In the late 1950s, the CIA had thousands of copies of a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago printed, which it then surreptitiously distributed to Soviet citizens.

And then there was Hollywood. While Tinseltown earned a reputation as the 20th century's greatest manufacturer of soft power, even its arsenal was relatively limited. As recently as 2001, the Los Angeles Times was reporting that studios generally dubbed films for distribution in just 10 major markets and subtitled copies for around 40 smaller ones. Just two local companies, it said, handled "most of Hollywood's subtitling work."

These days, you no longer need missionaries with bed sheets or CIA operatives to connect with audiences in far-flung locales. Anyone with a webcam and an Internet connection can do it. But as the story of Jesus and its myriad translations attests, the physical distribution of media is just one aspect of accessibility. Your grout-cleaning tutorial may be easily viewable in Sri Lanka now—but will viewers there truly comprehend it? To take full advantage of global video distribution platforms like YouTube, it's best to be a cat. Failing that, you need your work translated into lots of foreign languages.

As video content creators with global aspirations proliferate, subtitling services proliferate as well. But subtitling can still be somewhat pricey, particularly for amateurs on a shoestring budget. "A 3 minute video with two speakers and average speech density (100-150 spoken words per minute) will cost about $200-300 to subtitle for the first language," a service bureau called advises. "Translation subtitling cost for additional languages will be lower."

There are alternatives, however. "Our goal is to help make all of the world's video accessible to anyone," says Dean Jansen, executive director of, a website that aims to be "the Wikipedia of subtitling." An offshoot of a nonprofit called the Participatory Culture Foundation, Amara has developed a Web-based editor that makes it easy to subtitle videos in multiple languages. Content creators can do the work themselves or allow others to help. "There's a full history of every edit that happens in every language," says Jansen. "People who are working on a specific project can be notified if there's a new addition or change of some sort."

The basic service is free, but Amara also offers paid services for organizations that need more functionality. One early Amara adopter was a popular YouTube series called Epic Rap Battles of History, which features hip hop showdowns between such pairings as Pablo Picasso and PBS painting instructor Bob Ross. (Sample lyric from the latter: "You're a moody little genius, always so serious. I know, you must be on your Blue Period.")

"When the creators heard about the potential for doing crowd translation, they were really interested in it, but they were nervous too," says Jansen. "They were wondering if it was a good idea to turn the show's fans loose on content."

Indeed, if you were setting out to test the potential for verbal pranks and sabotage in the realm of collaborative subtitling, you'd be hard-pressed to identify a better test case than a venue for outlandish satire that targets young males. "They started with an internal test," says Jansen. "They put some videos in an unlisted channel and did one tweet about it."

Greg Beato translating things.

According to Jansen, the show's creators were surprised both by the number of people who ended up participating in the test and by the number of language translations they created. The quality pleased them as well. "They had some people on staff who spoke some of the languages, and they found that the fans were really doing spot-on translations. They got the tone right and the humor right, because they knew the content so well."

To date, nearly 4,000 volunteers have added subtitles to two-dozen Epic Rap Battle videos. An episode starring Rasputin and Stalin has been translated into 59 languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Estonian, Korean, Icelandic, and Norwegian Bokmal.

Volunteer armies offer a clear economic advantage over other potential solutions, but they arguably offer a performance advantage as well. "Speech-to-text is one of the hardest artificial intelligence problems in the world and it's been that way for decades," says Roger Macdonald, who heads up the television division at the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based digital library. "It's gotten better, but our lead engineer still describes most speech-to-text as 'craptioning.' And it really is. With captioning, the best way to do it is still human."

Even with human beings at the helm, the potential for error remains high when trying to reduce wordy soliloquies into caption-friendly soundbites, or when translating highly localized idioms from one language to another. That's why fans are such a valuable resource. A professional translator may have sufficient mastery of Estonian but lack the fluency in Epic Rap Battle's brand of humor. Not so the site's army of fans.

In other words, collaborative, fan-driven subtitling doesn't just promise cheaper and more ubiquitous subtitling—it promises better subtitling, subtitling that more accurately conveys the unique tones and meaning of the source material. And that, in turn, could lead to greater cross-cultural engagement.

As the parable of Jesus shows, massive global audiences await those who make the effort to make their content more accessible through translation. TED, the annual "ideas" confab, has embraced this notion whole-heartedly. The conference started encouraging volunteers to translate TED Talk videos in 2009, and began using Amara as its platform for doing so in 2012. During this time, approximately 27,000 volunteers have provided translations for more than 33,000 videos in more than 100 languages.

But the most profound effects of ubiquitous, crowd-sourced subtitling may derive not from content providers who are large enough to dream of international audiences that number in the millions or billions, but from those who amass audiences in the dozens or hundreds. Fifty-eight years ago, at the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower convened a gathering dubbed the People to People Conference. "If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace," he said, "then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments—if necessary to evade governments—to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other."

The president was hoping to usher in a new age of democratized, peer-to-peer diplomacy, but he was ahead of his time—all he had at his disposal were sister city programs, pen pal exchanges, and book drives. Now our tools for leapfrogging governments and making direct personal contact with others around the globe are far more powerful. Services like Amara, which make our most immediate and personal medium even more immediate and personal, are just one more sign that we're heading toward a utopia of connectedness and greater understanding, where little is lost in translation.