Subtitles and Surtitles

 (SUBtitles appear on a TV or cinema screen BELOW the image;  SURtitles appear on a screen ABOVE the stage during a live opera performance.  Some companies, including Glyndebourne, call them SUPERtitles, which I think is a bit snobby, although it’s nice to be called a ‘supertitler’.  Glad we’ve got that sorted out!) 


My first experience of subtitling was at Southern Television in the 1970s, cueing opera subtitles for their opera recordings.  They were written by the late Spike Hughes, another inspirational figure and a dear Sussex friend:  I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the art.  My first surtitling experience consisted of adapting Spike’s titles for Così fan tutte for The Royal Opera. For the subtitling company Screentext (and others) I have subtitled numerous opera recordings and TV transmissions, from the late 1980s to the present.  I subtitled every Channel 4 live opera relay from the new Glyndebourne theatre for several years, beginning with Le nozze di Figaro on the opening night in 1994 – all subsequently released on video and many now on DVD.  I also subtitled La traviata ‘live’ from locations in France for Channel 4 in June 2000. 

I am responsible for all the subtitles on the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which is held every two years.  25 singers from all over the world turn up with a programme of four or five songs each, plus a second programme up their sleeves in case they reach the final (and a third one for the Song Prize final);  so I have to arrive in Cardiff with a memory stick containing every possible subtitle that might be required during the week of the competition!  For this mammoth task I am aided by a team of translators – sometimes from unfamiliar languages such as Romanian, Korean or Chinese – feeding me texts which I have to tidy up and edit together in a ‘house style’ ready for me to press the button on the laptop each evening. 

I have subtitled several choral works on TV, including Orff’s Carmina Burana, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from Salisbury Cathedral, and John Eliot Gardiner’s six-part cycle of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. As part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 I am involved in the subtitling of a number of Shakespeare’s plays recorded at the Globe Theatre in performances by companies from all over the world — each in a different language…

If you are interested in commissioning me to provide English subtitles for operas, concerts or song recitals on TV, video or DVD, please contact me at .  


My career as Surtitler for live opera has proceeded in parallel with my TV subtitling work, beginning with the Così fan tutte mentioned above.  At The Royal Opera, I have provided new surtitle translations for numerous operas including Turandot, Aïda, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, Berg’s Wozzeck, Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.  Besides providing translations, at The Royal Opera I was also responsible for editing existing texts and cueing the titles ‘live’ during performances. I also provide surtitles for Garsington Opera in Oxfordshire in June and July – an idyllic summer pastime!   Operas in recent years have included Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo and Die Schweigsame Frau.  My titles have also been used by various touring companies, and at Glyndebourne, Opera Northern Ireland, Grange Park Opera, and Les Azuriales in France (surtitled in English!);  and for concert performances of opera and other works at the Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall, Symphony Hall Birmingham and elsewhere, for Opera Rara, Chelsea Opera Group, the LSO, LPO, BBC Scottish SO and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  I have regularly provided titles for the National Opera Studio’s annual showcase of operatic excerpts. 

I have now subtitled or surtitled well over 100 operas. 

I am a musician, not a linguist (though my A-level French and O-level German, Latin and Russian do come in very handy), but I am happy to translate from Italian, French and German.  I have also translated from Russian, Czech and mediaeval Latin (Carmina Burana)!  I am at home with PowerPoint and FOCON, POLYCOMP and VISIONTEXT surtitle systems, as well as POLISCRIPT, SPOT, PU2020 and FAB for subtitles, and the Royal Opera’s own in-house setup (Diamond Credit). 

Please contact me at if you are interested in commissioning me to write and/or operate subtitles or surtitles for you.

3 Comments on “Subtitles and Surtitles”

  1. […] Subtitles and Surtitles August 2007 Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized […]

  2. alireza Says:

    I need subtitles in italian and english for some of famous operas to put over the movies i have downloaded from internet.

  3. jonathanburton Says:


    Sorry, this is not a service I can provide. If there were no subtitles on the movies you downloaded, you will have no alternative but to find existing DVDs or videos which are already subtitled.

    Sorry that I am unable to help.
    – Jonathan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: