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Subtitles and cinematic meaning-making: Interlingual subtitles as textual agents

Thomas C. Messerli ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Multilingua


This theoretical paper adopts the point of view of the audience of subtitled films and outlines a theory of subtitles as communicative agents within the participation structures of film reception. Based on examples from three Swiss fiction films – Heidi (2015), Heimatland (2015) and Der Goalie bin ig (2014) – the following communicative effects are found and illustrated: uniformity, authorisation, foregrounding, aestheticisation, foreignisation. These effects are conceptualised in terms of Constitutive Communication theory and textual agency (Cooren. 2004. Textual agency: How texts do things in organizational settings. Organization 11(3). 373–393. doi:10.1177/1350508404041998), which describe that by communicating with audiences, subtitles animate into being other participants in film discourse and contribute to what viewers take away in terms of characters, stories, the cultural aspects they represent and the source culture(s) from which the text is perceived to communicate.

Funding statement: This work was supported by Swiss Association of University Teachers of English, Grant Number: SAUTE Travel Award.

Appendix. Transcription conventions

//Line break in two-line subtitles
italicsItalics in subtitles
00:00:00Start time of the subtitle, rounded to the next full second


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Published Online: 2019-08-21
Published in Print: 2019-09-25

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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