The Obnoxious Menace of Subtitled English: Mandated Hullabaloo, or Xenophobic Condescencion?
August 2, 2008 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Why do many TV shows subtitle people that are speaking completely understandable english?

Sometimes, it makes sense, like if there's lots of background noise... but it seems that over the past few years more and more solidly clear english is being subtitled. Is this a US thing? Is there some new law? Do TV producers or executives just have a decreasing opinion of their audience's ability to understand spoken english? It's usually furriners so it's hard not to see this as some expression of xenophobia... it's obnoxious. Does this bother you?
posted by ulotrichous to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
For people not exposed to certain accents it can be hard to follow. Besides the background noise issue, I generally find it annoying. My Dad probably wouldn't understand a word though without them.
posted by sanka at 10:32 PM on August 2, 2008


Captioned for the deaf/hearing impaired?
posted by k8t at 10:38 PM on August 2, 2008


I've noticed this too and it strikes me as insulting.
posted by davebush at 10:58 PM on August 2, 2008


I would guess that people whose first language is not English might find it helpful, eeffen ben jou hab no progleng unnerstannen, perhaps when an Asian immigrant can't sort out what a Mexican-American person might be saying.
posted by longsleeves at 11:01 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've never seen this happen either, unless you mean closed captioning. Is there a good example of a show that does this?
posted by mto at 11:25 PM on August 2, 2008


I'm with mto -- what shows are you watching that do this?
posted by jjg at 12:04 AM on August 3, 2008


People who have not grown up exposed to a particular dialect or accent are likely to have trouble understanding it. I screened a documentary that had people who spoke in a Deep East Texas African-American accent. My British friends and especially my friends who were not native speakers of English could not understand these people. I imagine that with all the exposure to this accent in Houston, it would have seemed silly to put subtitles on their speech if on a news program, and maybe a little bit racist. But elsewhere there are a lot of people who would benefit from it.
posted by grouse at 12:09 AM on August 3, 2008


Best answer: Interesting observation from China - here, everything on TV is subbed, except live news coverage. There are SO many mutually unintelligible dialects in this country that they almost have to. Another thing they do, half the time (that really pisses me off) is dubbing. Very often an actor's pronunciation won't be up to par. The voice acting is horrible, but very understandable. I imagine for a lot of Americans who aren't native speakers appreciate it, although I wish they were more comprehensive with their subtitling, because it does seem a little xenophobic to me.
posted by saysthis at 12:17 AM on August 3, 2008


Are you watching with captioning turned on on your TV? I have no clue what you're describing, if not.
posted by Nattie at 12:19 AM on August 3, 2008


I've also noticed this happening more often recently. I'm not sure what exactly has made the networks start doing this, but I personally find it rather useful. Oftentimes I have a hard time understand people with thick accents, and I am a native born American English speaker. I imagine it must be even harder for those who speak English as a second language. It doesn't really hurt anything; when you do understand what they are saying, it's no problem ignoring the subtitles.

It does not bother me. It never would have struck me as xenophobic or insulting.
posted by wigglin at 1:19 AM on August 3, 2008


I used to think this was a US thing, but recently even the BBC has been doing it. It bothers me no end.

For those looking for an example, check The 7 Year Old Surgeon. The kid, his mother, and in fact just about everybody with an Indian accent in the film get subtitled. They are perfectly understable throughout.

The irony is thickest in one scene where this genius kid talks to British medical students and obviously he's much more well read and informed than the lot of them, but he gets subtitled, and they don't.
posted by dydecker at 1:28 AM on August 3, 2008


If that's not insular and xenophobic, I don't know what is!
posted by dydecker at 1:33 AM on August 3, 2008


We get almost all our TV from the US and the UK, and I have noticed this sub-title trend quite a lot lately. The show I can think of that does this all the time is Air Crash Investigation (called Mayday or Air Emergency in the US, apparently.) If the speaker is not a native English speaker, even if the accent is completely clear, she or he is always sub-titled.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:46 AM on August 3, 2008


I actually don't read it as xenophbic or insular - quite the opposite. I think it's a genuine attempt to help non-standard dialects get understood.

Lets use the example of the Indian accent above. I'm sure pretty much every native English speaker in the UK could understand an Indian English accent without subtitles. I'm also pretty sure that every English-speaking Indian in the UK could understand it. So, no subtitles would be needed if it were a bi-racial Indian/White-British country. Obviously, it's not.

Things get more complex when you take into account that there are people with a thousand different variants of English accent and English fluency watching television. Subtitling the accent helps to ensure that, for example, the Chinese guy down the street can understand and Indian English accent and the Polish girl at school can follow the plot.

Put more simply, I suspect with the BBC at least, the subtitles aren't so much for you (as a white, native UK english speaker,) but for everybody else.

Maybe I'm just an optimist, though.
posted by generichuman at 2:54 AM on August 3, 2008


Best answer: It's actually called "open captioning," and I've always/only seen it used for thick accents.
posted by rhizome at 3:10 AM on August 3, 2008


the subtitles aren't so much for you (as a white, native UK english speaker,) but for everybody else.
Heh. I saw Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels in 35 mm, in the US. Subtitled.

from China - here, everything on TV is subbed, except live news coverage
Here in Japan, too, mostly. I suspect that contrary to China's unintelligible dialects, this may be tied more to the large number of homophones. And the freaky design sense that demands everything. everywhere. must. be. blinky. at all times.
posted by whatzit at 4:14 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is happening way too much. It's another crutch preventing people from at least doing their best to LISTEN to what others are saying. This isn't about turning on or off captioning for those that need it. For example, there are a series of promotional ads on the Discovery Channel running in China about how the rich became rich, and so on. One in particular is a clip of a Singaporean businessman that made it. He's obviously speaking English, but he's been dubbed and subtitled!

It's happening in Australia in some cases as well, with Aboriginals being subtitled who are speaking perfectly good English.

It detracts from what's being said and the person saying it. It's insulting.
posted by michswiss at 4:50 AM on August 3, 2008


Occasionally it is used on reality TV as a way to make fun of someone's accent. Two prominent examples are the Gotti family where the kids were often subtitled (though the accent was definitely heavy at times - particularly for the resident handyman Luigi). The second instance was on the VH1 dating show "Rock of Love", where one of the strippers had a heavy French accent, and they subtitled in a "French" accent for comedic effect - "Dees ees what I zee happening" for "This is what I see happening".
posted by shinynewnick at 7:01 AM on August 3, 2008


I've noticed it on some reality shows once in a while as well if they want to make sure that you've picked up on a piece of dialogue that will be important later on in the show.
posted by briank at 7:54 AM on August 3, 2008


The irony is thickest in one scene where this genius kid talks to British medical students and obviously he's much more well read and informed than the lot of them, but he gets subtitled, and they don't.

What does well read and informed have to do with the strength of his accent? It seems people are reading more into this then is intended, that it's an insult to their intelligence rather than their intelligibility.
posted by smackfu at 8:43 AM on August 3, 2008


I watched the movie Gosford Park the other day, and I almost had to turn subtitles on because I couldn't understand what any of them are saying. Even though my own step-father is British, their accents were just too thick for li'l American me to follow their quick, British dialog.

It's not that I hate British people, nor is it that I think all people should sound the same way I do when speaking English, nor is it even that I haven't spent enough time trying to understand British accents... I just didn't have enough practice with their particular accent to be able to follow them at the needed pace to keep up with the plot of the movie.

I don't see why people are seeing it as some sort of personal affront if television producers are aware of these sorts of issues.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:21 AM on August 3, 2008


I remember the Daily Show joked about this, having the subtitle-ee noticing the subtitles and getting really offended because his (generic Middle-Eastern slightly accented) English was perfectly fine and he spent years learning it.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:25 AM on August 3, 2008


I've seen it in programs of all kinds, and yeah, it's bullshit. I make a point of not reading it.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:46 AM on August 3, 2008


Without specific examples, all these responses are a bit speculative, but I'll add to the chorus of "completely understandable to you," ignoring of course the cases where it's obviously being used for humor/mockery that have been pointed out.
I grew up in a very racially-mixed area, worked in call centers, watch a bunch of British TV, etc. so learned to adapt to accents easily, but realize it's not so for a lot of people. I do sometimes think that a particular instance might not be entirely necessary but overall I don't assume there's some xenophobic intent.
posted by Su at 9:49 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


My Canadian ex husband couldn't order food in Georgia without pointing to items on a menu. There are plenty of people for whom accents are difficult. I agree that overdubbing sucks, but making sure people are understood is a good thing, yes?
posted by Gucky at 9:56 AM on August 3, 2008


What does well read and informed have to do with the strength of his accent? It seems people are reading more into this then is intended, that it's an insult to their intelligence rather than their intelligibility.

I just remembered another example. Check out Beyond the Limit: Everest, which is about mountaineers from the US, New Zealand, China, etc climbing Mt. Everest. In this show, all of the New Zealand accents are subtitled, and none of the American accents are. How ridiculous is that?

Now you might say that the subs are for Joe Sixpack in West Virginia, who has never heard a kiwi accent before and might have troubles. Well, if that's the case, they shouldn't distribute the film outside the US this way.
posted by dydecker at 9:57 AM on August 3, 2008


Sorry if this makes me seem lowbrow, but Unique Whips, which is a show about car customizers on Long Island does this. One of the employees (Buju) is from the Carribean and has that accent. I find that if I watch for more than a few minutes my ears sort of get recalibrated and I don't have any problem understanding him, but right there on the screen are the open cations: "OK, so now I get to work on the upholstery..." I dodn't think its racst or xenophopic, it seems like the producers are making a decision here. They don't always caption when he is speaking, but if an air compressor is running in the background, fo example, they will use the captions.

IIRC, there might have bee an episode or two of No Reservations where cooks and chefs from Pueblo, Mexico who spoke with accents were open captioned.

So no, it doesn't bother me.
posted by fixedgear at 10:04 AM on August 3, 2008


I think it would certainly bother people in this thread if it was their accent being subtitled.
posted by dydecker at 10:06 AM on August 3, 2008


I think it would certainly bother people in this thread if it was their accent being subtitled.

No, it wouldn't. I've spoken to enough people from different parts of the planet to know that I am not easily intelligible to all of them, despite having a pretty standard General American accent.
posted by grouse at 10:17 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that you brought this up. I was just noticing this yesterday and I have to admit it did bother me at the time. I felt it was a little insulting that only the non-American was subtitled when his accent sounded perfectly understandable to me. But as other have pointed out, while it may have been understandable to me I suppose others might have a problem with it. It still rubs me the wrong way but perhaps I am being a bit oversensitive.
posted by lysistrata at 10:19 AM on August 3, 2008


It wouldn't bother me in the least. I'm from Philadelphia, where it's well documented that we call H20 'wudder' and street comes out something like 'schtreet.' In the highly unlikely event that I were being interviewed on BBC and they subtitled it, so what?
posted by fixedgear at 10:19 AM on August 3, 2008


"Ice Road Truckers", a History Channel reality-mentary show captions people speaking Canadian. Honest! Not all the time, not all the Canadians, not always a certain driver. But it's very odd to have one person captioned, who seems to be no less intelligible than any of the other drivers. It's not like he's Manitoban or anything. :)

I, too, find it odd and disturbing. The most likely answer is that a portion of the target audience doesn't have experience in listening through accents for content. However, it seems that anyone who finds Canadian "exotic" will also not be likely to be reading subtitles.
posted by lothar at 10:28 AM on August 3, 2008


Best answer: I have a hard time understanding people with accents. I think this is a good policy and people are being way too touchy over it.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:42 AM on August 3, 2008


I would guess that people whose first language is not English might find it helpful, eeffen ben jou hab no progleng unnerstannen, perhaps when an Asian immigrant can't sort out what a Mexican-American person might be saying.

The networks may be justifying it as such, as this seems common-sense logical, but interestingly, non-native speakers, even those who's native languages are different, understand each other's English better. (I cannot find the articles to cite, sorry.)

I find it offensive when it's done so unevenly -- mumbling white folks don't get subtitled and perfectly articulate foreigners do. I have a fair amount of practice at understanding English spoken with an accent, and find the subtitles distracting.

But it's not uncommon for people who aren't used to listening to accented English (I see this in my older relatives) to have a truly hard time understanding it -- it seems to me like their comprehension shuts down when they hear unfamiliar sounds and they assume that they won't be able to parse the words.
posted by desuetude at 10:49 AM on August 3, 2008


In the highly unlikely event that I were being interviewed on BBC and they subtitled it, so what?

Personal feelings aside, why would this be highly unlikely? Because the BBC assumes (correctly) that the American accent is generally intelligible to other native speakers of English.

So in the case of Beyond the Limit, why is Discovery Channel allowed to make the (incorrect) assumption that a NZ accent is not generally intelligible to American audiences?
posted by dydecker at 10:51 AM on August 3, 2008


I have a hard time understanding people with accents.

All people have accents.
posted by dydecker at 10:57 AM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]




I meant it would be highly unlikely that I'd be interviewed on the beeb. It does seem rather unevenly applied, though. I just spent three weeks watching two Brits and two Yanks call the TdF. In the dozens of interviews that they conducted with Danish, Spanish, German, Norwegian, French, Italian, Swiss, Basque and Belgian riders, most of whom spoke English as a second language, there were no subtitles to be seen. Even the Aussies and Kiwis got a pass ;-) Different standrd for sporting events?
posted by fixedgear at 11:34 AM on August 3, 2008


Maybe sportsmen just speak more simply! ;)

I dunno. I guess annoyed is the wrong word; maybe baffled is more appropriate. Obviously the line has to be drawn somewhere - BBC World Service radio has a huge problem with impenetrable accents: they tend to voice over the tapes of poor old Nigerian/Kenyan English speakers, and they often cut people off and lie to them with "We seem to have a bad line..." if a speaker's accent is too strong. But on the other hand, subtitling someone like Benazir Bhutto with her beautiful old school Indian accent just because it's Indian seems...a bit provincial.

Also besides, I think it can be kind of fun picking up on difficult accents, especially for movies. It's quite common to start out watching a film like Trainspotting or a Ken Loach flick or (for me) a hip-hop video and not understand a word, and then half an hour in you get into the swing of things and suddenly you're doing okay. It's kind of part of the grain of the movie, and it's okay not to quite get it for the first little while - with a film director like Ken Loach it's almost intentionally so - getting to know the dialect is part and parcel of getting to know the characters.
posted by dydecker at 2:36 PM on August 3, 2008


im an australian in north carolina and i have to ask my southerner brother-in-law to repeat pretty much all of what he says to me because i DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT! same goes for him--->me. we both speak good english, just very different accents.
posted by beccyjoe at 10:50 PM on August 3, 2008


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