Subbtittles (sic)
January 25, 2004 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Why are there so many misspellings in movie subtitles? I have no troubles with subtitles that contain poor translations or poor grammar, but misspellings/typos bug me greatly. They even pop up in big budget movies. Doesn't the subtitling system have some sort of spell check?
posted by gluechunk to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
No idea, but after having seen (no spoiler) "ALLCOM UNVEILS IT'S NEW BLAH BLAH PRODUCT" in a huge newspaper closeup that lingered for a few seconds in Paycheck, my faith in humanity has been completely shattered.
posted by danhon at 2:11 AM on January 25, 2004

maybe they're differences in uk/american spelling?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:15 AM on January 25, 2004

I went to a lecture by Japan's leading subtitle scribbler last year, and she indicated that subtitles are very often a rush job, and are farmed out rather than being part of the movie studio's "system," so I would suspect that, just as in the office, stuff done at the last minute is a bit sloppy.

The last movie I went to was Last Samurai, and I didn't notice any typos. Which movies are you referring to?
posted by planetkyoto at 4:55 AM on January 25, 2004

Fast turnaround stuff shouldn't be sloppy planetkyoto, not if you go to a decent translation vendor anyway. From what I can tell, the translation industry (which is the industry I work in, albeit as a geek rather than a translator) is just like any other industry, in that you generally get what you pay for. The fact that there are spelling errors indicates to me simply that the studio has used a really bad translation vendor in order to save a few quid.
posted by chill at 5:28 AM on January 25, 2004

"Total Recall" was on TV last night, and in the opening credits - to the filmmakers' undying shame - the story upon which the movie was based was attributed to "Phillip" K. Dick, twice as large as life. Shame! I say.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2004

I understand Spanish French and Italian and unfortunately good translation seems to be the exception. Most Almodovar movies for example are raunchier in the original, with dialog that is often muttered and thus, untranslated. Also I recently saw Fellini's La Strada and the translation job just seemed not wrong but wooden and uninspired.
posted by vacapinta at 9:21 AM on January 25, 2004

On a (sort of) tangent, I really really like to watch TV with subtitling on. I notice TONS of errors, constantly.
The top three types of errors I see:
1. Misspelling/misunderstanding of the words/phrases used and/or dropped phrases. I see this kind on TechTV a lot. The person who is translating appears to have about a 6th grade understanding of spelling and grammar and doesn't understand a lot of technical phrases. And is not capable of typing fast, so they drop entire sentences.
2. Phonetic spelling when they don't know what the word is, or the pronounciation makes it sound like something else. This happens on CNN and those morning news/talk shows all the time. I think, because it's "live", they don't use an actual person to translate but a machine. Sometimes, it's so horrible, I can't figure out what they're trying to say from the text on the screen (have to actually listen to the people).
3. The dialogue has changed after the subtitling has happened. This happens a lot on the big network channels with shows like Will and Grace, Friends, etc. and MTV (where they've bleeped out phrases that are 'inappropriate'). This can be very interesting/informative sometimes.

I wonder if deaf people ever really get anything out of some of the shows (esp. CNN sometimes).
posted by j at 10:05 AM on January 25, 2004

I remember seeing Ken Loach's Riff-Raff back in 1990. Because they felt that a mainstream audience might have trouble understanding the regional accents, the distributors decided to subtitle the movie. So I watched an English-language movie with English-language subtitles...

...they still weren't 100% accurate. While others may have had a problem understanding the accent, I certainly didn't. Comparing the two: whole lines of dialogue were left out, some of the coarser language was toned down and entire sentences were rephrased.

So if they can't even get the non-translated subtitles right for a movie, I can only imagine the hack-job that gets made of foreign films.

That said, would A Chinese Ghost Story be half as enjoyable if the subtitles didn't contain so many hilarious mistakes?
posted by filmgoerjuan at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2004

I have a friend who is a subtitler, for a company she describes as "the gourmet subtitling company." I gather there are many different companies that networks, dvd producers, cable channels and movie makers can contract out to. Anything two hours long is likely to have a few errors -- we're all just human after all, and the work is generally done on a tight deadline.

But cheap subtitlers do crappier jobs. Some of this has to do with the people involved, I'm sure. Some of it must have to do with the software they use. There are different subtitling software packages out there, with different features, probably some have bulkier spellchecks than others.

There's not a lot of financial incentives for networks and movie makers to pay for a gourmet job.

Also, sometimes the subtitlers are required to work from a script. Even though they may know the script contains a grammatical error or a bad translation, they are hired to make sure what they have been given appears on the bottom of the screen in sync with whoever said it. For someone who prides herself on mastery of spelling and grammar, this is a painful task. But it's what they are getting paid for.

Finally, there is a big difference between subtitling of live shows or nearly-live shows and subtitling of movies or documentaries that have a long production process. Why don't you try to accurately type what someone is saying as they say it without making any mistakes and without knowing what is the third syllable of the word is going to be while you're typing the first syllable. If you got the beginning of the word wrong, do you go back and try to fix it, and risk missing the rest of the sentence, or do you let it go?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:46 PM on January 25, 2004

To me, CNN's live subtitles seem to be generated by voice recognition software, a different deal entirely.
posted by planetkyoto at 4:01 PM on January 25, 2004


1) Star Trek: The Next Generation had top-notch captions, including all the Klingon being done with canonical spelling, etc. The attention to detail really showed.

2) Hey, broadcasters, you might want to check the captions when broadcasting a bleeped movie. Or not. Personally, I laughed my ass off when, in Aliens, Private Hudson silently but very clearly told Burke: "Fuck! You're dead, you're dogmeat pal!"
posted by NortonDC at 9:33 PM on January 26, 2004

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