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It is quite conspicuous how differently German and English is subtitled, in that commercial or professional English language videos are almost always exactly subtitled, whereas the German videos I have seen struck me by how loosely the subtitles matched the actual speech. It is my suspicion that at least some of this difference has to do with a fundamental difference in how the native speakers view their languages. I think this might be an interesting manifestation of a fundamentally greater flexibility and variation that the German language has compared with English. German thereby intrinsically encourages native speakers to paraphrase to a greater extent than does English. Does this notion have any validity?

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    I'm a bit confused here, you mean English dubbing vs. English subtitles for a show originally in a foreign language, or English subtitles for a show originally in English? In any case, it is annoying if you're a learner trying to practice listening your skills. I've noticed that, for whatever reason, this doesn't seem to be an issue in video games
    – RDBury
    Jul 29, 2022 at 1:20
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    I've been complaining about this endlessly. I think user44591 means that in standard English language series/movies (i.e. originally made in English, subtitled in English), the English subtitles are typically exactly the same words as those coming out of the actors' mouths, with only very occasional and minor exceptions. When German movies/TV are subtitled in German, it's very common for things to be rephrased - usually, as far as I can tell, simplified..
    – cruthers
    Jul 29, 2022 at 2:20
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    Listening and understanding German is faster than reading and understanding German for most native speakers. I believe German subtitles are optimized for people with hearing problems and disabilities. They are not aimed at people who are learning German. This might be different for English, which after all is the global language. The audience of pretty much any TV production with English language will include a good proportion of people speaking English as a second or third language. For productions with German language that proportion is tiny in comparison.
    – user6495
    Jul 29, 2022 at 5:10
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    @Roland: that comment could be an answer, don't you think?
    – HalvarF
    Jul 29, 2022 at 6:40
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    @HalvarF If I had any references ...
    – user6495
    Jul 29, 2022 at 6:46

1 Answer 1

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English texts are shorter than German equivalents, as many multilingual texts (e. g. CD-booklets) show easily. (I18N experts translating GUI texts can surely confirm this.) Since length of text requires screen estate in subtitles, there is a strong urge to simplify texts, so not too much of the picture is covered.

I found a nice article on Science Advances by Christophe Coupé, Yoon Mi Oh, Dan Dediu, François Pellegrino: "Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche", see especially figure 1, lines marked DEU, where it is shown, that German has a significantly lower communication rate in bits/s (IR, right column) than English (marked ENG).


Due to comments: I do not claim that this is the only reason, but have some doubts, that a single reason can be found. Everybody may feel free to contribute by adding a further answer.

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    The problem with this answer is that subtitles do not consistently apply the principle here asserted. Some complex and lengthy dialog is exactly transcribed, and some brief dialog is considerably paraphrased, while still briefly transcribed. Furthermore, the lengthy dialog that is transcribed is done so in logical pieces so as not to take up excessive screen space, just as in English. It is a neat theory, but I do not believe it entirely explains the phenomena.
    – user44591
    Jul 29, 2022 at 18:46
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    I'm skeptical in line with @user44591. If it's true that German uses more words or syllables to get its point across, it also presumably uses more time, so there should accordingly be more time to display the subtitles to match the text. But perhaps the Germans speak their syllables particularly fast. I don't know. I just think the people writing the subtitles are bored.
    – cruthers
    Jul 30, 2022 at 23:52

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