Subtitling Is a Craft.

Back in 2010 I said “Movie subtitles have been a perennial topic of discussion here at LH (e.g., 1, 2, 3)”; it’s been a while since the subject has come up, so it’s with pleasure that I present Anne Billson’s piece for the Guardian (which, I was glad to read recently, has actually turned a profit for the first time in its history):

The perfect subtitle is one you don’t notice. Occasionally, you might thrill to Anthony Burgess’s English subtitles in alexandrine form for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), or marvel at the bravura way Timur Bekmambetov threads animated subtitles into Night Watch (2004), or chuckle at the gaffes on old Hong Kong movies (“I have captured you by the short rabbits”). But mostly you just speed-read and move on.

This year, however, subtitles have been attracting more attention than usual. In January, Alfonso Cuarón condemned Netflix’s decision to add Castilian-Spanish subs to his film Roma as “parochial, ignorant and offensive to Spaniards”, who presumably couldn’t be trusted to understand the Mexican accent. Two days later, the Castilian subtitles were removed.

But criticism of Roma’s subtitles didn’t stop there. In February, the ATAA (Association des Traducteurs/Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel) pointed out that the film’s French subtitles were full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and mistranslations. The ATAA’s chairperson, Ian Burley, who has been subtitling French, Belgian and Italian movies for more than 30 years, also took a look at Roma’s English subtitles, and found them riddled with stylistic inconsistencies, sloppy synchronisation and clumsy line breaks or punctuation, all of which are liable to distract or discombobulate the viewer. And in the riot scene, a woman’s desperate exhortation of “Vamos!” (“Come on!”) to a dying man whose head she is cradling is clumsily translated as “Let’s go!” – as though she thinks he is dawdling.

Concerned not just by the problems with Roma, well publicised because of the Oscar-winning film’s high profile, but by a more general decline in subtitling standards, AVTE (AudioVisual Translators Europe) is collaborating with its member associations (including the British Subtitlers’ Association, Subtle) in a call for film-makers to cooperate more closely with professional subtitlers, reminding them that subtitling is a craft – an art, even – that ought not to be left to amateurs or automatic translation software.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the history and technology involved, as well as things I wouldn’t have thought of (“A knowledge of the plot is essential; when space is tight, you can’t cut dialogue about a gun if someone is going to be firing it in the third act”). And I highly recommend Roma, whatever subtitles it’s stuck with. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I’ve watched a lifetime of Japanese productions with English subtitles, running quite a gamut in quality. Among the best I’ve seen is for the film Letters from Iwo Jima, which I blogged about here. I much prefer subtitles to dubbing, especially if I know enough of the original language to pick up nuances, divergences, or learn new words.

    On a long flight, I once watched some of an English-language movie too stupid to listen to, just to see what I could pick up from the Chinese subtitles. I learned that the ubiquitous OMG can be translated into Chinese as wo de tian (omitting tone marks).

  2. John Cowan says
  3. AJP Crown says

    What you need is Language Learning Through Netflix. I’ve hooked up this app but I haven’t yet used it. It sounds good though.

    Although I can read Danish I can’t understand it spoken. Half the enjoyment in Danish TV is the homophonic translations in the English subtitling that I get via google.

  4. David Marjanović says

    I learned that the ubiquitous OMG can be translated into Chinese as wo de tian

    I’ve read they’ve started saying ōumǎgā in real life.

    In German, people my baby sister’s age and younger say o(h) mein Gott a lot. That comes straight from dubbing on TV – and filled a lexical gap created by the disappearance of o(h) Gott at least a generation earlier.

  5. To David’s comment about ōumǎgā, in the 2010-2012 range when I lived in China off and on, “Oh My Lady Gaga” was the in vogue exclamation.

    My favorite one to say, though, was āiyā wǒ de dàyímā ya! – Oh my menstruation!

  6. When I had access to French-language TV in Canada I used to love to watch classic films. If the movie was in English they would dub it, but otherwise it would have subtitles. I watched a lot of Swedish, German, Italian, Japanese, etc. films this way.

    I must mention, for those who don’t know it, the classic work of subtitling. The Dove

  7. De Düva! I’ve loved that movie for half a century now.

  8. Although not exactly pertinent to subtitling, this makes me think of the related issue of audio description. Blind scholar Georgina Kleege makes the point that filmmakers ought to attend to audio description as part of the production process rather than relegating it to an outsourced afterthought in the post-production process. Accommodations for disabled people have often enriched media and other technologies for the benefit of everyone, she argues. It’s a great read despite its rather boring title, “Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications.” Representations 135. Summer 2016.

  9. Thanks! Here‘s a link to the article.

  10. Here’s the conclusion:

    Whether or not experiments such as YouDescribe will have an impact on the professional services remains to be seen. Joel Snyder, who literally wrote the book on audio description expresses defensiveness and a certain condescension: “This crowdsourcing idea — ‘Y’all come [try it], you don’t need to know how’ — that’s just crap.…Josh might say, ‘Well, crap’s OK!’ and God bless him, but being blind doesn’t make you an expert in audio description.”

    In Snyder’s comment I hear a tone familiar from decades of encounters with professionals in special education and rehabilitation, who are benign as long as their methods and assumptions are unquestioningly appreciated, but become hostile when a recipient of their services critiques, complains or suggests another way. For my part, I recognize that crowd-sourcing has its pitfalls: for instance, people might add ironic description, deliberately misrepresenting or Exaggerating what’s going on, for the amusement of sighted viewers, thus destroying the utility for blind audiences. Nevertheless, new voices and new eyes have something to contribute. I have devised writing exercises using YouDescribe to develop students’ critical thinking and interpretative skills. My goal is not to inspire them to seek careers in audio description. It is not currently a particularly lucrative or stable profession, though if demand increases this might change. Still, many of my students enjoy the exercise and have taken up YouDescribe as a kind of hobby. Beyond these experiments, I imagine a future where filmmakers, screenwriters and actors collaborate on an audio description track that is more in keeping with the film’s aesthetics, and film scholars and critics contribute descriptive commentary that enriches anyone’s viewing experience. In other words, I hope that audio description can be elevated from its current status as a segregated accommodation outside the general public’s awareness, and launched into the new media—a literary/interpretative form with infinite possibilities.

  11. vrai.cabecou says

    One of my most enjoyable experiences with Shakespeare was watching the Ian McKellen “Richard III” at a cinema in Paris. I could ignore the French subtitles most of the time, but when the characters said something too Shakespearean to readily understand, I could peek at the modern French and get the meaning.

    (It was also a pleasure to see a non-superhero, non-action English-language movie there — the French complained about the quality of American films, but what they seemed to import were always movies in which things blew up. And movies starring Harvey Keitel.)

  12. To be honest, a lot of stuff also blows up in Ian McKellen’s Richard III, including Battersea Power Station, inexplicably relocated to Bosworth, which is inexplicably relocated to somewhere on the south coast.

  13. I see quite a lot of subtitles in Swedish intended for the hard of hearing crowd. For me I don’t feel insulted, actually I feel they are useful since a lot of movies have music and sound effects that threaten to drown out the dialogue, especially when showed on tv as opposed to a cinema (my tv doesn’t have a great sound system compared to cinemas). Audio description, on the other hand, makes it hard for me to follow the movie. It’s just too much information at once!
    I’m often amazed by the skills of the translators, especially when it comes to translate jokes about foods or cultural things, where they often choose to change the reference to something more Swedish.
    Also here in Sweden the quality is declining becaues of the low cost subtitling companies. I often see a better quality in public service tv and movies shown at the cinema compared to commercial tv.

  14. I just wanted to relate a strange experience I had with subtitles. So I am commenting here.

    While I was waiting for my dinner order to be ready, one if the televisions above the bar was showing one of the Hunger Games movies (the second one, I think). At one point Donald Sutherland’s character started talking agitatedly, and I thought to myself that it was a poor casting decision to use an actor with his pronounced Canadian accent for an American villain. Then, I realized that the sound on the television was off. I had just been reading the subtitles and hearing them in my mind spoken in Sutherland’s normal speaking voice.

  15. David Marjanović says


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