Why are movie captions sometimes inaccurate?
June 9, 2019 11:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm fluent in Russian, and I've long noticed something strange about movies and TV programs that show English captions when characters speak Russian. Often, the translation isn't accurate.

I'm referring here to movies that are primarily in English and are meant for speakers of English, but where verisimilitude requires that certain scenes show characters speaking in Russian. Some examples are the TV series The Americans, and the movies The White Crow and White Nights.

I've noticed that the English-language captions often don't match what the character is actually saying in Russian. Sometimes, I can see that the translation was altered a little for brevity, or to conform to idiomatic speech. And those edits makes sense. But sometimes there is no apparent reason why the translation couldn't have been made accurately. I've collected some specific examples (most of these come from The Americans):
Character says in Russian: What do you think I’m guilty of?
English caption: Do you want me to apologize?

Russian: She gets herself worked-up.
English: She likes to pick fights.

Russian: It’s complicated.
English: It’s difficult.

Russian: Our people are in the minority.
English: People like me are losing out.

Russian: Ivan writes that Kincaid is still alive.
English: Ivan writes that Kincaid is on the move.

Russian: Let’s turn around, I’ve seen enough.
English: Let’s go back to headquarters.

Russian: I never heard of him.
English: I was never told of him.
I don't get it. Why not translate the speech accurately?
posted by alex1965 to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is a guess, I don't know for sure, but: maybe the scene got rewritten, and for the sake of saving money, they figured rather than reshoot, they'd just change the subtitles, since a safe assumption can be made that the majority of the audience wouldn't speak Russian?

I've noticed the same thing with a different language (Italian) captioned to English, incidentally, so it's not just Russian.
posted by sailoreagle at 11:16 AM on June 9, 2019

But sometimes there is no apparent reason why the translation couldn't have been made accurately.
I don't know if this is the case here, but sometimes movie/TV translations are not accurate because the translators are crap, or are working under a ridiculous deadline.
posted by adamrice at 11:22 AM on June 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

None of those examples seem way out of left field to me. It seems like any of them could be conveying a nuance to the conversation that is present in the wider context that is being omitted by lifting a single sentence out of a larger conversation.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 11:41 AM on June 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

To me, this looks exactly like the difference between closed caption and spoken dialog on SNL: the first script isn’t the final script isn’t the directed script isn’t the improvised script. Only one of these is captioned and whether it matches the spoken is not a high priority.
posted by Sterros at 11:42 AM on June 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

I have no real knowledge here, so this is just a guess: since these are primarily in English, perhaps the screenplay is just written in English, and then the lines in English are badly translated into Russian (and, as sailoreagle says, the majority of the audience won't ever notice).
posted by number9dream at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Why not translate the speech accurately?
Because they'd have to pay more for it.

sometimes movie/TV translations are not accurate because the translators are crap, or are working under a ridiculous deadline.

I have worked as a translator and a transcriptionist and can confirm that both of these things are frequently true. Few content creators/providers are willing to pay for professional-quality work these days. Many professional services have closed up shop, and forget about in-house positions. Nearly all translation/transcription work is outsourced via online freelance platforms, now -- the industry's been shifting for a decade or more. Increasingly, these platforms are trying to drop their prices further by forcing translators/transcriptionists into basically just proofreading computer-generated work, and results are... mixed. (The end goal, of course, is to have the whole thing done via AI, reducing costs further -- we're really working to train the robots that will replace us.)

These services don't always do a great job of vetting their workers, and they don't pay enough to attract and keep the best. People with higher skill levels, who have been properly vetted, will sometimes take every job they can grab on the platform and then subcontract them out to people who wouldn't necessarily qualify for the gigs on their own. Speed is always pushed over accuracy. Plus payscales have collapsed, meaning people have to take on more and more jobs just to keep getting by and don't have the time to properly check their work. It's a race to the bottom, and content creators/providers simply aren't willing to wait and then pay for quality work when they can get "good enough" work faster for a fraction of the cost. And frankly there's just so much dang content in the world that a lot of people aren't watching closely enough and paying enough attention to even be irritated by the shoddy results -- I'm not even sure the companies paying for the work always realise what poor quality they're getting.
posted by halation at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2019 [26 favorites]

Speaking as a lay-person but ardent subtitled anime fan (often fan-subtitled) the phenomenon you describe would, I think, fall under the umbrella of issues is known as localization. The contentiousness of it is touched on in this subsection of the dubbing article but it also applies to subtitling as well.

Speaking personally now, I find it pretty annoying when the sub and the dub for a particular show do not correspond closely. I've seen some cases where the sub and the dub are hardly telling the same story, as if the dub writers have created an entirely new script to match up with the images. I don't speak Japanese myself but I often prefer fansubs over localized official subs, which are again superior to localized official dubs. Fansubbers that I like generally minimize localization effects, render things full of interesting cultural references and don't bulldoze over a Japanese idiom that might not make any sense at all in English because American English speakers lack the familiarity with a particular Japanese folk tale that is being referenced. My favored fansubbers leave the cultural nuances in place and allow the viewer to do their own homework to appreciate or understand an interesting turn of phrase.

I feel that often the guidelines for official localization boil down to just dumbing down everything as much as possible in order to maximize the cultural accessibility of a given story and reach the widest potential audience. While many of your examples aren't as extreme rewrites as the kind I'm highlighting, I suspect that an entrenched, daily-grind localization worker might find it attractive to just rewrite sentences to be more straightforward or grammatically less-complex and the sort of dialog you posted would be more of this type.

Finally, my apologies to anyone working as a translator or localizer if what I said above is inaccurate or misrepresentative of the job. It's merely my personal opinion as a viewer and I defer to any professional perspective.
posted by glonous keming at 11:44 AM on June 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

Some of this might fall into flavoring the Russian translation so it sounds sufficiently foreign. You don't want a Boris-and-Natasha style dropping all the articles, but if you translate it so that it reads like they're speaking like Americans, it can undercut the point of the scene.

But many of your examples don't fit that theory. I wonder if the captions are re-translated from the Russian words spoken, or (I would guess more likely) taken from the script which is written in English (in which case the funkiness would be in the Russian translation process).
posted by rikschell at 12:17 PM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Based on my experiences watching closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing - sometimes it's definitely from using a script rather than watching the film/tv show. I distinctly remember watching an episode of the X-Files back when it was new and there was a scene with a whole bunch of captioning (an apparent voiceover) but for whatever reason, the creators decided not to use the voiceover but never informed the captioner. So a bunch of forlorn shots of Mulder and Scully, some sad music, and captions on the screen for a non-existent voiceover. It was so weird. But I've seen similar (but not to that degree) things happen many times. And that's captioning within the same language! No translations needed!
posted by acidnova at 1:04 PM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might find this Guardian article on the subtitles in Roma interesting. In addition there are some comments below the line from professional translators, specifically one from someone who sat the Netflix English-Spanish test.
posted by tavegyl at 4:22 PM on June 9, 2019

A lot of these seem reasonable if you're going from English to Russian. Translations often lose slang or colloquialness-- e.g. "losing out" > "in the minority". "I was never told of him" is clunky in English and rather than reproduce the clunkiness the translator made it smoother. I'm not sure why they went "difficult" > "complicated", perhaps the literal translation would sound odd? "On the move" > "alive" sounds like an error, but who knows.

Some seem close but strangely off-- e.g. the "headquarters" and the "apologize" ones-- so there I'd expect they changed the subtitles later without re-recording the audio.
posted by zompist at 5:20 PM on June 9, 2019

The Americans is different from other inaccurate subtitle situations like Roma and Anime because its dialogue is written in English and translated into Russian by an award-winning author. I don't know whether they use their original English script for the subtitles, but unless you're really cherry-picking divergent examples (and I don't think you are), it seems likely that they are. (As opposed to retranslating the Russian script back into English for the subtitles).

So when the Russian translator does her work, she's probably not going for "this word choice will seem accurate to the subtitles when people who speak both languages watch this." She's probably going for "this is how an actual Russian person (or this specific Russian person, in this particular time and place) would say this."

And even if she were going for the former, you'd still get discrepancies when one person translated it from English to Russian and then another person translated back to English, which is what is happening here.

It's also possible that the subtitles are redone, but the English-language writers make changes for context or nuance or brevity or something else at that stage. But either way, in this case it does seem deliberate rather than careless, unless the Russian words for "I've seen enough" sound really similar to "to headquarters."
posted by lampoil at 6:31 PM on June 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

"...unless you're really cherry-picking divergent examples"

Yes, I was cherry-picking the divergent ones. I'd say 90% or more of the captions are pretty accurate.

The example with "headquarters" in it came from the movie White Nights. It's been some time since I saw it, and I may not have remembered the exact wording. But I do remember the scene, and I remember that the English caption was quite a bit different from what the person actually said in Russian.
posted by alex1965 at 6:58 PM on June 9, 2019

Fansubbers that I like generally minimize localization effects, render things full of interesting cultural references and don't bulldoze over a Japanese idiom that might not make any sense at all in English because American English speakers lack the familiarity with a particular Japanese folk tale that is being referenced.

There's a long-standing joke about how 'nakama' is used in the anime One Piece, where fansubbers will treat it as a word that has to be brought across literally because it has a special meaning, while the official translators will render it as e.g. 'crewmate' and make clear in the dialogue that the main characters are loading the word with meaning not in the dictionary definition.

Often anime fansubbers aren't native Japanese speakers, and their exposure to Japanese is through their favourite Japanese works. A good translation will try and reverse-engineer the effect the original author was going for, then work out how to recreate that effect in English, without introducing things the original author may not have intended. For instance, it's typical for Japanese video game characters to break the fourth wall to explain controls or mechanics, while in English it's seen as gauche. Japanese translators will frequently rewrite these lines entirely to try and communicate the same information (and have the same effect) without bothering the Western audience.

When the original authors get more control over localisation, there can be problems. For instance, Final Fantasy XIII and Metroid: Other M were both strictly and literally translated, and relied on character tropes that exist in Japanese that have very different connotations in English (respectively, the 'genki girl', a teenage girl who's bubbly and excitable, reads as adorable in Japanese and airheaded in English; and the 'warrior poet', which reads as contemplative and thoughtful in Japanese, and passive and unfocused in English).

A translation that translates just the words and leaves the cultural references intact has done an incomplete, and quite likely misleading, job. My favourite example is this exhaustive breakdown of the various translations of Final Fantasy VI, which compares one of the first moderately successful (though, as it points out, quite flawed) translations of a Japanese game, its revised translation used in modern remakes, a popular 'literal' fan translation that proves to be quite inferior, and the results of translating the game's script through Google Translate. Final Fantasy VI is a great example of the issues with localisation: its main protagonist is supposed to have a weird, unfamiliar name - it uses the 'ti' sound which is not natively used in Japan. The problem is: in Japan, her name is 'Tina'.

(There's an even longer-standing joke at fansubbers' expense: when the villain protagonist of Death Note is gloating that everything is going according to keikaku, the fansubber helpfully explains that keikaku means 'plan')
posted by Merus at 12:36 AM on June 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm assuming that the scripts are written entirely in English and then sent to a translator for the text of the final script, but the subtitles are based on the original English script.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:04 AM on June 10, 2019

There may also be reading speed and line length constraints that the translator is working under, and they may have had to word something differently to make it fit, even if a more literal translation would have also worked.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 6:26 PM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just a data point - this happens with subtitles even when no translation is involved. I've seen english-language subtitles for english-language dialog that has very similar issues.

Sometimes the subtitles are different for brevity, but sometimes they use different wording for no discernible reason.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:55 PM on June 12, 2019

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