Thursday, June 25, 2009

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.)
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?
Reeds—ritz. And of course it makes nonsense of the next line, when Mark quips, “Technically that would be keeping it Old Testament.”

(The baby’s father, Bleeker, is the recipient of some envious/admiring comments about his virility from his schoolmate Vijay.)
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.
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.

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?


At June 26, 2009 12:52 a.m., Anonymous sylva said...

an interesting post!
there are so many cases of bad subtitles in Czech and the reasons?? as you say: money. "everyone can translate subtitles, right?"
the worst subtitles can be usually found in the cinemas - then it's a job of other subtitlers to correct them before they're burnt on DVDs (keeping the name of the original translator in the credits, of course - strange? well, yeah).

At June 26, 2009 2:17 a.m., Anonymous Jan Valenta said...

I have a friend who works for a DVD distribution company and whose job involves outsourcing Czech subtitle translations for DVD releases of Hollywood blockbuster movies. They pay about USD 150 per movie. Flat rate. And the deadline is always tight. I would love to translate movies myself but I have to pay the bills. No wonder the quality of the (Czech) translations is as low as it is.

At July 14, 2009 1:10 p.m., Blogger David Smith said...

That's funny, I was watching the same film in English. I was trying to avoid reading the Chinese subtitles, but I caught a few. They were simple generic insults rather than her smart acidic remarks.

Actually I watched drag me to hell, and they subtitled "I hear you" as "I hate you". I guess the subtitler misheard the line.

At July 27, 2009 3:05 a.m., Blogger Elizabeth said...

I do subtitles and I've certainly misheard my fair share of dialogue. But I work with a partner who is a native speaker of the source language. He checks my work and we catch the nutty mistakes before he burns the DVDs.

I don't know why the subtitler doesn't usually get a script to work from, but when I do get a script I notice that it often differs from the actual dialogue.

At August 09, 2009 10:43 a.m., Anonymous Margaret said...

Very interesting! I see the same ridiculous subtitling errors into Spanish all the time.
Another thing that hasn't been mentioned is the censorship that goes on in subtitles. I have to giggle every time some character goes off the deep end screaming Bull**** and the subtitle comes up "basura" (garbage)!

At January 12, 2010 12:00 p.m., Anonymous Heidi said...

The poor quality of subtitles baffled me, too, until I found out what it takes to do them right.

My translation partner and I (one francophone, one anglophone) do occasional work for a transcription and subtitling company. We don't see scripts because the final version of the film /documentary /television program has diverged far from what the scriptwriter originally put on paper. The editing process also makes huge changes. So all subtitle translations are based on transcriptions of the final cut.

The transcription work pays a pittance and often requires a ton of repeated, careful listening to sort out who said what. Even then, it is hard to be sure sometimes.

In our case, we only take on the transcription work if we also handle the translation for subtitles. We do this because we have seen highly inaccurate transcriptions (we get the QT or MP3 version of the film).

I feel that we do quality work, but it is only worthwhile taking it on during a slow period in our other translating work. And the company we work for often loses out on contracts to cheaper subtitling operations that don't put in the same time and effort (and money).

At February 26, 2010 2:56 a.m., Anonymous Translation Agency said...

I would say spotting make a difference.. Translation is not a problem i believe.

At February 26, 2010 7:54 p.m., Blogger Mago said...

@Translation Agency:
…whatever that means. I’m baffled.

At October 30, 2011 11:09 p.m., Blogger 1381100 said...

Hi! I´m writing about poor subtitling and I think your post could help me as a source of information, so I would like to know your real name and when did you write this post.
Thank you

At November 03, 2011 7:09 p.m., Blogger Mago said...

This was posted on 6/25/2009 and you can send me an email at my e-address of “”.

At June 12, 2012 4:04 p.m., Blogger Unknown said...

Unfortunately, subtitling profession is poorly payed and many "translators" offer their services by a low rate cost, this means a poor subtitling quality and an unfair competition... Until costumers don't realize this is also a specializing profession we will continue having this kind of "translations".

At January 21, 2018 7:58 p.m., Blogger James Andrew said...

One thing that's affecting the industry might be the Turnover time which affects the quality of the subtitle translation.


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