Bad subtitles: A case report
It’s not uncommon to see queries from experienced translators and beginners alike, as well as non-translators, about how to get into the field of subtitling films. When we watch a movie with poor subtitles, we can’t help thinking we could have done it better.
Bad subtitles are legendary among translators and movie fans alike. This Times article describes some examples, and blames it on cut-rate outsourcing. It’s hard to imagine that the money saved on cheap subtitling is more than a tiny fraction of the total budget for distributing a film in a foreign language, so it seems like a short-sighted way to save money.
One commenter on the Times article urges consumers to write a letter of protest when they pay to buy or rent a movie with poor subtitles. But if they are watching the subtitled version because they don’t understand the original, how will they recognize mistakes? Another commenter points out that it’s not overseas outsourcing of subtitling per se that is the culprit. Indeed, since translators should translate into their mother tongue, it is not inappropriate that the subtitle translator of an English-language film is “overseas” from the point of view of the English speaker.
However, the subtitler needs to understand the original to do a competent job. Most of the mistakes cited in the article pointed to a faulty understanding of the original: the subtitlers simply didn’t understand some lines of dialogue in the film. (Why are subtitlers not provided with a written script?)
All this is leading up to my report on a poorly subtitled film I saw last week. The film was Juno, and I watched it on DVD in English with subtitles in Spanish. It was clear that the subtitler was out of their depth in understanding English. Here are some examples. I compare the original dialogue to my translation into English of the Spanish subtitle.
In some cases, mis-hearing a crucial word caused the translation to say something quite different; sometimes even the opposite of the original.
(Juno sardonically lauds her actions in giving up her baby to a childless couple.)
Original: Maybe they’ll, like, canonize me for being so selfless.
Subtitle: Maybe God will punish me for being so selfish.
(Juno explains why she doesn’t feel ready to be a teen mother.)
Original: I’m ill equipped.
Subtitle: I’m well equipped.
(Juno is asked about the dates of her pregnancy.)
Original: Apparently I’m due on May 4.
Subtitle: Apparently, I’m going into my fourth month.
In other cases, it seemed that the translator understood next to nothing, and, seizing on a single word they thought they recognized, used it as the basis for a completely invented dialogue that had nothing to do with the actual script.
(Meeting Mark and Vanessa, the prospective adoptive parents of her baby in their home, Juno is asked what she’ll have to drink, and cracks a joke.)
Original: I’ll have a Maker’s Mark.
Subtitle: Just sit down next to Mark.
(Juno expresses her preference for a closed adoption.)Reeds—ritz. And of course it makes nonsense of the next line, when Mark quips, “Technically that would be keeping it Old Testament.”
Original: Can’t we just, like, keep this old school? You know, like I just stick the baby in a basket, send it your way like Moses in the reeds?
Subtitle: You know, can’t we just do this the old-fashioned way? Put the baby in a basket and hand it over like a Ritz gift?
(The baby’s father, Bleeker, is the recipient of some envious/admiring comments about his virility from his schoolmate Vijay.)You can see how all the subtitler understood in this sequence was, “You should”—“I can’t”—“underpants,” and made up the rest out of whole cloth to fill in the gaps. The point of the scene was entirely lost.
Original: [Vijay] You should grow a mustache. You’re a real man now.
[Bleeker] I can’t grow a mustache. It never comes in evenly.
[Vijay] Me neither. But I’m going to stop wearing underpants in order to raise my sperm count.
Subtitle: [Vijay] You should go see her.
[Bleeker] I can’t.
[Vijay] When I think of her in underpants, it drives me crazy.
Another example where the subtitler understood nothing, and in this case, lost a joke that also sheds light on the character’s feelings and attitude:
(At an ultrasound, Juno reacts to her friend jokingly calling the fetus ‘Baby Big Head’ and calls for a little more respect.)
Original: Hey, I’m a sacred vessel!
Subtitle: I ate too much!
It’s incredible and disappointing that this film, the recipient of much critical acclaim and numerous awards, wasn’t better served in translation. Was it really that hard to find someone fluent in Spanish who also understands English? I wonder how the film fared in other languages. If you saw Juno subtitled in some other language, how was the quality of the subtitling?