Surtitles in Theatre

Af Birgitte Prins, actor at Teater FÅR302

There are various options to communicate the linguistic content of the theatre in international collaborations and guest performances:

One can ensure that the audience have read a concentrated description of the performance to enhance the understanding of the experience.

Live interpretation is a possibility that is implemented in places like Russia, where audiences are used to dubbed movies. Only the sounds can be disturbing in the auditorium.

One can chose to perform the piece in a language understood by many, such as English.

Finally one can implement surtitles, which is the main focus of this text. 

The challenges of surtitling theatre

Surtitling theatre has developed greatly over the past 15 years. Text based theatre has moves vastly beyond the limitations of language due to phenomena such as festivals and co-productions.

In Finland and Sweden extensive effort has been put into inventing technical and practical solutions for surtitling, also in collaboration with organisation for those with hearing disabilities.

Germany has considerable experience with surtitles in theatre for instance in Berlin, where houses are dealing with a growing audience on non-Germany speakers. This is a new challenge for translators. The most consistent researcher in the areas is probably translator Yvonne Griesel, writer of Die Inszenierung als Transalat – Möglichkeiten und Grenzen der Theaterübertitlung (2007).

Surtitling may sound simple to do:

  • Translate
  • Compress the text to sentences of one or two line pr cue.
  • Enter the cues into a powerpoint presentation
  • Display the text on a screen and let the actors get on with their business

But realistically it’s a rather complicated area. It is very important that the surtitles don’t contradict the artistic expression of the performance and the experience of the audience. For this reason some considerations must be taken, as a poor surtitling can ruin the experience of the performance completely.

Good surtitling

The producer needs to be aware of the advantages of letting the surtitler being an integrated part of the artistic process. For this reason one can give the person a responsible for surtitling the opportunity to work on a professional, disciplined level equivalent to for instance light and sound.

A regular translation of a play is made to be performed on stage. But surtitling is a translation of what we actually hear on stage. A pragmatic, literary and short translation has to be made to corresponds with the limitations of time and space that surtitling requires from the translated text.


Surtitles are written language that must be easy to understand, and therefore they have simple sentencing and a clear structure - and must be flawless. As a rule, they are shortened, and one shouldn’t be afraid to edit the text. The meaning is naturally the important thing to convey. It’s an informative text. Emotions are projected from the stage. The degrees of abbreviations vary greatly and depend on the amount of spoken text and pace of speech.

It can be an advantage to find out in advance - maybe in collaboration with the stage director - what should be emphasized in the translation, as editing is a process of interpretation. It’s important to ensure a good translation. One must not forget that theatre audiences are most often well educated and will notice if the language is poor.

Circumstances in the North are particular, as audiences between countries will often be partially proficient in the language spoken on stage, and many performances will use translations as a support to ensure audiences can keep up. In some cases surtitling isn’t an option, for others it’s a necessity. For some surtitling is crucial, for others it’s an option. Therefore it must be taken into account that the surtitles are the best quality, because spotting errors and inaccuracies may be very upsetting.

When dealing with the classics it may be beneficial to start out with a good translation of the piece. A reinterpretation of classic work requires that the translation doesn’t appear out of date in comparison with the actions on stage.

Methods of translation and implementation

The translator often works from a DVD recording of the performance. They need to work with the entire performance and the source text, above the written text.
If you haven’t previously been part of the production it can be demanding work to hear/ understand every detail. Furthermore there can be a risk that the material has been altered since the recording of the DVD. A new actor might make different pauses than on the DVD so that the surtitling no longer can fit two phrases together on the screen. Finding an ally in someone who knows the show well will help you greatly.

The technician in the theatre must be very responsive to the fact that timings may change. Improvisation may occur, which means that some lines can be skipped, and other unexpected circumstances. Unlike the opera where surtitling is easier and can be run on the basis of a score.
Often there can be up to thousand cues in a show, so it's obviously the job of running the surtitles is demanding on the concentration skills. It’s a great advantage to know both languages fluently, so it’s possible to navigate during the show progresses.
If a sentence is wrongly timed, the response from the audience will also be wrongly timed, which can be quite disturbing and confusing for the actor on stage. So the technician is very important for actor. The greatest tribute to a technician / translator is when no one feels the urge to comment on the surtitles, as it has served as an integral part of the performance.

Of course the ideal situation is when the translator / technician is part of the process from the beginning. It’s important to know the performances and the “music” of the actors and other quirks, so that the text doesn’t interfere. Belgian Need Company's show "Marketplace 76" solved the issue by including into the dramaturgy of the performance that a musician on stage was able to run the cues with his foot. There are many options depending on the conditions and uniqueness of the performance.

Technical solutions

The simplest and cheapest technical solution is projecting the text with Powerpoint on a screen on stage. LED-displays have advantages such as that they don’t affect the light setting and can be used outdoors in sunlight.

Sweden’s Riksteatern has developed the app “Riks text” created in the Surtitling Project – accessible performances with apps and display that is run by Riksteatern and Dogood IT. Depending on the performance this app offers the audience the possibility to follow the dialogue on their smart phones, there are several language options, or a selection for people with hearing impediments. Riksteatern collaborated on this with Tutkivan Teatterityönkeskus (Centre for Practise as Research in Theatre) at Tammerfors University in Finland that has worked on various projects developing practical and technological solutions for surtitling theatre.

Surtitling theatre can be a complex and rewarding challenge that should be addressed if one wants to unravel certain language barriers. In particular the visual solutions can cause issues, as the surtitles can disturb the scenic images and complicate light setting. There is not one easy solution, as each production has an individual life and conditions. Technological developments can speed up the process. And due to digitalisation the audience is used to using several media at the same time on stage, due to the use of video on stage etc. Today theatres are increasingly including solutions for surtitling in the set design as part of the visual expression. Naturally this requires theatre to chose options that can include these solutions in the creative process, whether it is an integrated part of the production or added on for a specific occasion (festivals, guest performances, tours). In this manner surtitling becomes an artistic approach, depending on the character and conditions of the performance.


Brady-Brown, Annabel: A sur-thing

Griesel, Yvonne: Surtitles and Translation Towards an Integrative View of Theater Translation

Griesel, Yvonne: Surtitling: Surtitles an other hybrid on a hybrid stage 

Read about Dogood IT

Read about 'Scen utan gränser' (Stages Without Borders) – platform for collaboration and exchange within Nordic stage arts.

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