A Times article by Dalya Alberge discusses the sad state of movie subtitling:

Films are being lost in translation because subtitling is increasingly being done in countries such as India and Malaysia to cut costs.
British subtitlers say that the original dialogue in some films is being distorted so badly by bad translations that they do not make sense.
They cite examples such as My Super Ex-Girlfriend, starring Uma Thurman, whose line, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for [sexual harassment]” was translated for Taiwanese audiences as, “We hold the highest standards for sexual harassment”. In The Princess Diaries 2, which stars Ann Hathaway, a reference to Sir David Attenborough during a discussion on insects was subtitled for Chinese speakers as Sherlock Holmes…
Britain’s subtitlers, who are compiling a list of errors, say that their job is not straightforward translation, but involves editing and rephrasing dialogue succinctly and with flair. They say that the domestic industry is in crisis, claiming that film studios are putting pressure on them to accept lower rates of pay or leave the industry altogether.

The article has further horrid examples, like a film where the line “Jim is a Vietnam vet” became “Jim is veterinarian from Vietnam.” Shame on you, movie industry cheapskates! (And thanks for the link, Pat!)


  1. “…because subtitling is increasingly being done in countries such as India and Malaysia to cut costs.”
    Somehow I don’t think the location is the source of the errors. I suspect they run the scripts through machine translators and then have proofreaders “fix” the mistakes on the assumption that they are minor, with metrics for how many words per hour must be covered.
    Worst case, maybe three people work in tandem and don’t have time to figure out context.
    That could conceivably produce the errors mentioned in the article.

  2. I wasn’t aware that India had enough Chinese speakers to produce a subtitling industry aimed at the market.
    Malaysia has plenty of Chinese speakers, however. In that instance, I suspect they’re simply hiring the cheapest help they can find — students who speak Chinese natively and took some English at school. I’m sure if you hired Canadian high school students to subtitle French movies into English, you’d end up with similarly awful results.

  3. Boo is incorrect, but I suspect using unqualified native subtitlers and forcing people to be sloppy by cutting rates is more important than outsourcing, even in the bigger language markets.
    LH, did you read the comments saying it was the same thing in regular translation?

  4. I’m a Swedish subtitler.

  5. michael farris says

    Mistakes I come across in Polish subtitles would seem to indicate they they’re not using a printed script but listening and transcribing. At least a lot of mistakes seem to be caused by a translator mis-hearing the original.
    And there’s the question of cultural/knowledge background. Recently on an Invasion dvd I saw the phrase “kool-aid swiggers” translated as “oranżada swiggers”. Oranżada is a swett fizzy drink fixed in people’s minds with the communist era. In terms of physical properties, close enough to kool-aid (which doesn’t exist here).
    But … this ‘translation’ gives no hint of the irrational fervor or horror of Jonestown or other cults-gone-wrong. It would have been better to just translate it as ‘some kind of cult’ maybe ‘jakaś sekta’.

  6. I will never forget watching a Hong Kong martial arts movie when one character barked at another:
    “I challenge you – to a duet!”

  7. I remember seeing a war film in Paris in VO with French subtitles.
    In one scene an Irish squaddie spotting an approaching Panzer division jumped down into his foxhole, exclaiming “tanks! tanks!”
    This was duly rendered as “merci! merci!”
    Can three people work in tandem? I merely ask.

  8. I downloaded Romanian subtitles for “The Royal Tenenbaums” to watch it with a friend whose English isn’t so good. When a character points to a beat-up car and says “There’s a dent. And there’s a dent there, too.”, the Romanian was “There’s a dentist, and there’s another dentist, too.”

  9. Jackie Chan film, lyrics of a song translated as “Love is a conveyor belt of warmth.” I never want to know the original, honestly.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Does anyone know what percentage of films are simply subtitled as opposed to dubbed? I know that some of them are available in both versions. When I was a student of English in Paris (a long time ago), the new American films came out in expensive theatres on the Champs-Elysées, dubbed, but I used to go see old English and American films in the Latin Quarter, much cheaper, with subtitles. At the present time you can often see the same film in different theatres (and at different prices), one version dubbed and one subtitled.
    I suspect that people interested in languages prefer to see the subtitled versions – at least you get to hear the languages and match the gestures and expressions to the voice – even though there might be some howlers in the translation. It is also great if the language of the film is one that you are learning – the titles help you keep track of what is happening if you don’t understand everything. People who are not comfortable with other languages usually dislike subtitles, and slow readers or those who can’t see very well spend too much time trying to read to really enjoy the pictures. But if poorly subtitled versions are all that is available, then there is a real problem.
    I once saw a Russian film with Hebrew subtitles – I did not know either language but still enjoyed the film. Another highlight of my movie-going history is the time I dragged some of my friends to go see Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with John Barrymore, at the Cinémathèque (a movie library – it keeps copies of films and shows them singly – you have to be there at the proper time or you might never get to see the film – at least that’s how it was then): the name of John Barrymore and the date (1920) should have warned me that this was a silent movie – fine, but the titles came up in an unknown language! I suspect it was Serbo-Croatian or at least something South Slavic. My friends were not impressed.
    On a related topic (poor quality of language work farmed out to unqualified personnel), there was an item on Language Log in January about abysmally written short biographies (paragraph size) of Republican presidents, found on a party website: at first they seemed to be written by a non-native speaker, and there was discussion about what the original language could have been; there was also a suggestion that the texts had been run through a computerized translator, but the final conclusion was that the writing must have been entrusted to a very poorly skilled student who had taken bits and pieces from other sources and tried to camouflage this plagiarism by taking potential synonyms from a thesaurus. The question was: why couldn’t the Republican party (which had spent lots of money on publicity) hire someone with at least a basic level of competence? (on Language Log, search “presidential biographies”).

  11. Some Canadian high-schoolers are native bilinguals.

  12. David Waugh says

    Has anyone besides me had the irritating experience of watching a film in English with foreign language subtitles and found their eyes constantly straying to the incomprehensible subtitles. This has happened to me more than once – e.g. with Finnish which is totally opaque and also apparently very longwinded – the subtitles sometimes occupied half the screen.

  13. David: I had to train myself not to read them when watching a foreign movie in a language that I speak. In my case I do speak Finnish natively, so it was different.
    But I’m pretty sure they only use two lines at a time. And in movies shown in theaters they often have two sets of subtitles, adding Swedish. Because, you know, there are quite a few Swedish-speaking Finns too.
    And yes, the Finnish orthography likes its double letters too much to be as brief as possible, but I think the situation is more general in translation: if you want to keep any of the nuances, you need to make it longer in target language most of the time.

  14. I can’t speak for cinemas (since I’ve only been some three or four times as a kid), but on the telly here in Denmark almost everything is subtitled that isn’t aimed at kids (with the exception of animation where lipsyncing is less of an issue).
    As a result I find myself missing the subtitles when watching English television. I’m fairly fluent in English, but am in the habit of still scanning the text to make sure I’m not missing anything.
    Which brings me to the quality of the subtitling. I find that it’s generally quite good, and more than once have I found myself congratulating the translator on a well-handled pun, reference or other wordplay. And more rarely shouting at the screen for the utter stupidity displayed.
    The one example that used to annoy me most (because it was a recurring joke) was from Keeping Up Appearances, when Hyacinth would shout down the hall (upon having picked up the telephone): “It’s my sister Violet, the one with {insert indications of moderate wealth in an annoying manner} and room for a pony“, which consistently was translated as “stable” (“stald”) in Danish, completely missing the joke.

  15. I often find myself wishing for subtitles in the language used in the film, rather than in English. Prompted by glimpses of such a shortened text (even inaccurate) one can often grasp the whole spoken version with crystal clarity. DVDs sometimes provide such an option, which is wonderful for those wanting to appreciate the original language without resort to English at all.

  16. Michael Dunn says

    A couple old memories returning…
    Decades ago in Egypt seeing the Arabic subtitles for an American movie, with much of the American dialogue mangled. The only one that sticks is “Up yours” being translated as “Raise your hands!”
    Watching a Russian movie (again in Egypt when the Russians were still there; the Russian films were dirt cheap admission) with English subtitles. Unfortunately it happened to be a Russian version of King Lear, and the subtitler had not gone to Shakespeare for his text but retranslated from the Russian, so like the parlor game, the translation was fairly far removed from the English original. I can no longer reproduce exactly how “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” came out, but it was enough to cause the English speakers(at least those who knew the play) to break out laughing in the theater.

  17. Kathleen Fuller says

    Some of the companies that license Japanese anime and manga for American release have apparently decided to cut costs by hiring American college students with a year or two of Japanese experience to translate rather than professionals. The difference in quality is conspicuous.

  18. Long ago, in the 1970s, living with my parents in the former Yugoslavia … watching a spaghetti western subtitled into Serbo-Croatian. I remember my mother commenting that the insult “fat people are stupid” was rendered in the subtitles as “red-headed people are stupid”!?

  19. Just now Snoop Dogg was on Dutch TV, and “George Bush can go f*ck himself” was subtitled “George Bush can drop dead” (doodvallen).

  20. Ginger Yellow says

    OK, maybe I’m missing something really obvious, but I don’t understand why a film would be subtitled into Chinese in Malaysia, as opposed to China. Surely the labour would be cheaper and the pool of translators bigger? I suppose Malaysia has a much higher proportion of English speakers, but brute numbers would weigh in favour of China.

  21. Ginger Yellow says

    John, how did they subtitle “Bill O’Reilly is a motherfucking prick?”

  22. Well… to drop dead is idiomatic in Dutch, while to fXXX one’s self is not ( je kan jezelf neuken?…), and sounds very much literaly translated from English.

  23. Funny though. Hiphoppers who hiphop in Dutch could very well say it seriously. Everyone else would think it was a joke.

  24. Translating cultural references and idioms is obviously one of the hardest things to get right in this sort of thing. I remember watching a subtitled DVD version of The Right Stuff in Spain which had hits and misses in this respect: they managed to find a Spanish referent for the line “We were competing with Archie and Jughead”, but punted on trying to translate “Fuckin’ A, bubba!” (rendered as “Tienes razón” = “you’re right” — which gets the gist across, but totally misses the profanity and what it implied about the character who said it).

  25. I ended my research with “doodvallen”. The video was up on Matt Yglesias’s site a day or two ago.

  26. Sili,
    As a native English speaker, I often turn on Closed Captioning (subtitles added for the benefit of deaf viewers) when I’m watching TV. Part of it is because I keep the volume low so as not to wake up the kiddo, but part of it is just that I like reading!
    Also, this is part of the reason why I don’t like watching foreign films. Part of my mind is always wondering just how much nuance and subtlety I am missing with the subtitles. I just watched “Control” — a Hungarian film — and I noticed several typos in the subtitles, which did not make me optimistic about the translation quality. It was a good film, though.

Speak Your Mind