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On The Letter Ё in Russian Subtitling

There is a tradition in Russian writing that invariably confuses language students. Its utility, or the lack thereof, has been the subject of heated debate for many years among both laymen and academics, and now that subtitling is finally gaining traction in Russia, the controversy has found a new form.

The Tradition

In the Russian alphabet, there are two letters — е and ё — that look rather similar, except one has an umlaut. They are pronounced, correspondingly, /je/ and /jo/, and these are different letters used in different words. For example:

food

hedgehog

spear

palate

wheat

grandfather

еда

ёжик

копьё

нёбо

пшеница

дедушка

English
Russian

The tradition is as follows:

In writing — but not in speech — if a word contains the letter ё,

we use е instead, except for when it leads to ambiguity.

Going back to the examples above, this means you would write ежик instead of ёжик for "hedgehog" and копье instead of копьё for "spear". However, the word нёбо does not follow the same logic, because there is also the word небо meaning "sky". So, whenever you want to write "palate" in Russian, if the context makes it obvious that it's not "sky", you write небо, but if it is not clear, you go with нёбо, just to avoid ambiguity. A bit confusing, isn't it?

Speaking of ambiguity, it can take different forms. In passports and other official documents, using е instead of ё in your name can lead to legal problems, because technically these are different letters which produce different first and last names. In dictionaries and children's books, substituting one letter for the other can be misleading for the readers trying to learn new words. In uncommon words and proper nouns, this practice can lead to misunderstanding of how they should be pronounced.

A Little Bit of History

Now you can ask: but why does this tradition exist? Why use one letter instead of another? Well, there are historical and linguistic reasons for that. Initially, more than two hundred years ago, using ё was associated with a low social class, it was "in the speech of peasants", whereas е was considered part of the "sophisticated language of the church", which spawned opposition to using the letter in writing. Another reason for such treatment was that ё was — and still is — difficult to write, as it takes three pen strokes compared to one stroke for е. After the invention of the typewriting machine, the letter was out of favour, because for a long time Russian typewriters did not have a key for ё. Operators had to type е with a quote mark on top (using the carriage return), which was awkward and quite laborious, so they started typing е instead of ё — a practice that survived for many years after the letter was finally added to the typewriter. Later, with the advent of computers, the situation did not get better: the first keyboards did not have the corresponding key, and the modern ones do have it, but in a remote location far from the other letter keys. And so, this practice endured through time and became a tradition.

However, some time along the way, language academics realized that this practice can sometimes lead to confusion, which is why the classic publication The Rules of Russian Orthography and Punctuation issued in 1956 included a section about the letter ё. The prescription was to use ё in writing

  • To prevent the misreading and misunderstanding of ё-ambiguous words.

  • To highlight the correct pronunciation of little-known words.

  • In special texts such as Russian language textbooks, speller books, etc.

 

In 2006, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) issued an update to this ruleset. The update offered more examples and additional usage recommendations.

Nowadays, there are proponents and opponents of the tradition. The former think that the consistent use of ё for ё hinders the reading process and makes typing text harder, while the latter believe that it eliminates all related ambiguity in texts and, on the contrary, improves their readability. There are more arguments for and against offered by both sides, but I'll skip them for now.

Current Situation

So, remember I wrote "now that subtitling is finally gaining traction in Russia, the controversy has found a new form"? Well, yes, turns out subtitlers and agencies have their own idea about whether ё should be used on each occurrence or only when there's ambiguity in subtitle text, and the reason I wrote this blog article was to share my thoughts on the issue. But first, let's review the existing situation:

TV

A handful of television channels in Russia are partially captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing. While doing research for this article, I watched eight hours worth of TV programming with sound muted, and here's what I found:

1. Captions in adult-oriented programmes never use ё.

2. Captions in children's programmes use ё on each occurrence.

3. Tickers in news and sports programmes use ё on each occurrence.

I noticed that occasionally this practice of not using ё in TV captioning impacted my understanding of the programmes. For instance, in one film, a character's name was Petr (he was Czech), and I kept thinking it was Pyotr until his nationality was revealed. This is because these two names in Russian are Петр and Пётр correspondingly. With sound muted, I couldn't hear his slight accent or the other characters say his name, and the context didn't help either — I had the wrong idea for a good part of the film. Theoretically, if the word Петр were part of a wordplay in the dialogue — say, for example, Петр протопал километр ("Petr walked a kilometer", where "Petr" and "meter" rhyme in Russian) — I would miss it entirely.

On the other hand, captions for children's shows were free of this issue, and the use of ё made reading them subjectively easier.

Web

Russian Platforms

Movie streaming services in Russia — which we call "internet cinemas" — are quite numerous. To name a few, we have ivi, MEGOGO, tvzavr, Mosfilm, Tvigle, Okko, Zoomby, ITV, Amediateka, Molodejj.tv, 1tv.ru and many more. Because Russia is a dubbing country, most of them offer only dubs, but some also have subtitled films in their library. The three services with the largest number of subtitled productions on offer are ivi, Mosfilm and MEGOGO:

  • ivi is the most popular internet cinema in Russia, with a seemingly endless library of subtitled films. Some subtitle files never use ё, some use it only when there's ambiguity, some use it sporadically, but most use it on each occurrence.

  • MEGOGO boasts a fairly large collection of subtitled films and shows. The situation with the use of ё is similar to ivi's.

  • Mosfilm offers only SDH subtitles for classic Soviet films. I watched 5 hours worth of content but didn't see a single ё.

Foreign Platforms

Except for one notable example (TED Talks), foreign video sharing websites and streaming services don't use ё on each occurrence:

  • Netflix lets its NPVs decide, which leads to inconsistency across shows.

  • Daisuki never uses ё in Russian subtitles for its anime shows.

  • YouTube and Vimeo channels vary in how they approach this issue.

The other web platforms I have reviewed, including Funimation, Crunchyroll and Hulu, don't offer Russian subtitles for their shows. Amazon Video does have some content with Russian subs, but it's hidden behind a serious paywall.

Cinema

There're a number of cinemas in Russia that offer subtitled productions, including Dome Cinema, Pioner Cinema, Fakel Cinema, Cinema Park, Formula Kino, Baltika and the renowned 35MM. Most of them screen the same subtitled movies from a wide variety of distributors — 20th Century Fox Russia, Central Partnership, UPI, Volgafilm, Karo Premiere, Paradise Group, Russian World Vision, Megogo, etc. — each of which has their own localization vendors with their own ideas of how to best use ё.

DVD and Blu-ray

From what I could find, DVD and Blu-ray distributors don't cover the use of ё in their style guides and let their localization service providers decide.

To sum up, the use of ё is inconsistent across different distribution channels and content types. The decision is made by the vendors — subtitlers and agencies — who all have their own opinion on how to best manage this letter.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Ё in Subtitling

Now let's theorize a bit. What pros and cons using ё on each occurrence can have? Here are the ones I can think of:

Pros

1. It eliminates ambiguity, thus improving readability.

As opposed to regular text, subtitle text has a temporal dimension: you only have a handful of seconds to read a subtitle before it disappears from the screen. Yes, you can rewind if you are using a video player or a VOD service, but for TV shows and cinema this is not the case. Subtitling is a neverending battle against high reading speeds, it's already hard enough, and the last thing you need is another issue that makes reading and understanding your subtitles harder.

Consider this example:

Они все пытаются переехать в Италию.

Since both words все and всё exist, the sentence can be interpreted in two ways:

[ with е  ]    They are all trying to move to Italy.

[ with ё  ]    They keep trying to move to Italy.

Unless the polysemiotic context makes it absolutely clear which option is the right one, if the first version is correct and it should be е, the viewer is presented with a dilemma: "Did the subtitler use е because it is actually е or because it is obvious from the context that it is ё and I'm missing something?" Figuring that out and making the mental substitution takes time, which hinders the reading process and decreases the viewer's reading speed, and that is something we want to avoid. By consistently using ё and thus teaching the viewer that e is e and ё is ё across the board, we can achieve that.

Now, even though this issue's main perpetrators are the words все and всё, other words with ё can also sometimes cause confusion. This is why the title of the 1998 film A Perfect Murder  was translated to Russian as Идеальное убийство and not Совершенное убийство (these two words are synonyms in this case) — because many people would think that the second е in совершенное is ё, which would turn A Perfect Murder  into A Committed Murder.

2. It brings consistency to how subtitle text is formatted.

As discussed earlier, the use of ё is inconsistent across distribution channels and content types: some subtitlers never use the letter, some use it sparingly, some use it frequently, and some use it on each occurrence. This means the Russian viewer doesn't know in advance what to expect in terms of the letter's treatment, which can make deciphering subtitles with ё a bit hard at first. Plus, different subtitlers have different ideas of what is (and isn't) obvious in a given context — even in the Optional Use Camp the letter is used incosistently in similar contexts. This makes it even harder for the viewer to make sense of what's written in the ё-ambiguous subtitle at hand, and using ё on each occurrence would fix that.

3. It signals the correct word pronunciation.

More often than not, the sound track gives away which letter — е or ё — is used in the word at hand, whether it is the name of a location, brand, model or character. However, this is not always the case: for example, the German city Cologne is called Кёльн in Russian, which means the English and Russian pronunciations are rather different — /kəˈloʊn/ vs /ˈkjoln/. Should this word appear as Кельн in a sub, some viewers — kids, RFL students, people with literacy needs and those who have simply not stumbled upon it in their life — may misread it and learn to pronounce it incorrectly. This is why, I imagine, the Disney localization style guide prescribes using ё on each occurrence — because most of their productions are aimed at kids and teenagers.

For Russian SDH subtitles, as mentioned previously in the example with the name Петр, this argument also holds true.

4. It helps language students learn Russian.

In addition to educational programmes, films too can be used for learning a new language. Many people do this — they watch foreign shows with same-language subtitles to improve their vocabulary and pronunciation. A recent study confirms that this practice has a positive effect on language learners. Because the tradition of substituting е for ё can be rather confusing and misleading to RFL students, it is better to use ё consistently in subtitles created for them.

By supplying accessible Russian subtitles, producers and distributors can expand their audiences with people trying to learn Russian via watching subtitled films.

5. It simplifies the ruleset.

Instead of having a number of ё-rules to memorize and follow, we would have just one: use ё for ё on each occurrence. I personally don't think this is a strong pro, since the existing set of rules is rather small and easy to remember. In addition, the argument doesn't concern the viewer experience, so it's not all that relevant.

Cons

1. It makes subtitles more difficult to read.

Some claim that the umlaut makes reading subtitle text harder due to visual noise. Ostensibly, because only two letters in the Russian alphabet have a diacritic, the viewer's eye "stumbles" upon the umlaut, which disrupts the reading process. This hypothesis has not been researched, and so it remains speculative. Others suggest that the opposite is true: umlauts serve as anchors for saccadic eye movements, which makes subtitle text easier to read. Here, proper research via eye tracking is required.

Subjectively, having more than 7 years of experience creating, editing and reading Russian subtitles for a variety of content types and target audiences, I believe that the umlaut itself makes no tangible difference in terms of subtitle text readability.

 

Here's a little experiment for those of you who can read Russian. In the blank video below there are two sets of six subtitles. They are the same subs except the first set (white) doesn't use ё and the second one (yellow) does on each occurrence. Which set do you think reads better? Please share your opinion in the comment section under the article.

Chances are, you read the word Ленька wrong on the first try.

2. The umlaut obscures part of the image.

Of course, the extent of this depends on the font, style and positioning used, but, in my experience, this is a non-issue. The obscured area is so minuscule that it should make no difference to the viewer, as can be seen in the video above.

3. It's harder to type due to the remote placement of the keyboard key

While being true, this concerns only the subtitler. The focus of this analysis is the viewer experience, which means the argument is not as relevant as the other ones.

Conclusion

Because the pros outweigh the cons, I recommend consistently using ё for ё in all Russian subtitling, for any content type, distribution channel and target audience. For a definitive conclusion, further investigation via the eye tracking technology is required.

P.S. Big thanks to Ekaterina Petrova for valuable ideas for this article.