#227: Toward Better Subtitles

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #227, on the subject of Toward Better Subtitles.

Decades ago I saw a joke birthday card.  On the face it raved about how it was the first perfect birthday card, designed and printed entirely by a computer so nothing could possibly go wrong.  Inside, it said in Courier Block lettering, MERRY CHRISTMAS.

It came to mind recently because I have come to watch television with the subtitles activated so that if somehow I miss what someone says I can read it and keep up, and sometimes they can be rather silly.  In a recent time travel movie I analyzed, Paradox, one of the characters at one point asks what it is they are seeing, and another reasonably clearly says, “Quark gluon,” but the person writing the subtitles apparently had insufficient education in advanced particle physics to recognize those as words, and so subtitled it “[Speaks Indistinct]”.  My wife recently reported watching a British mystery series and seeing the name “Wetherington Perish Church” as the local parish church.

Image captured by Gwydion M. Williams

The reason I thought of the birthday card is upon reading some of these I began to wonder whether someone was experimenting with speech-to-text software, feeding the soundtrack into a computer and getting it to figure out what everyone is saying.  I somehow doubt it–speech-to-text software has its limitations, but some of the mistakes I’ve seen could only be made by a human.  The kind of mistakes I see strongly suggest that someone is sitting at a keyboard listening to the soundtrack and typing what they hear, and that no one is proofreading the finished product.  Yet it strikes me that the people who do these subtitles are missing an obvious aid in their efforts.

I once watched an excellent Spanish-language time travel move, Los Cronocrimines a.k.a. TimeCrimes, which was both subtitled and dubbed in English, and it was intriguing to me to notice that the subtitles did not always match the dubbing.  My conclusion was that the subtitles were probably the more accurate rendering of the original Spanish.  My reasoning was that the dubbed text had to be adjusted so that the words we heard in the audience credibly matched the movement of the lips of the speakers, but the subtitles would be a direct English translation of the original Spanish dialogue.  Therein lies my solution:  use the script.

It wouldn’t work for a lot of programs–news, reality shows, talk shows–but the majority of the television I watch is scripted.  The people on the screen aren’t making up their lines; they’ve memorized them (or sometimes are reading them from a teleprompter).  The script is available, and given the ubiquity of computers it’s almost certainly available in an electronic file format.  So the obvious fix is for those who write the subtitles to start with the script, copy/paste the text into the subtitle program, and then simply adjust it whenever the actor got the line wrong–or not.  I often see subtitles in which the actor actually said about twice as many words as the subtitle, but didn’t really change the sense.

This solution seems so obvious to me that I find myself swithering between two conclusions.  It may be that the people responsible for the subtitling just aren’t bright enough to realize that they have an available resource for any text of which they are not certain, or to recognize that what they typed can’t possibly be right.  On the other hand, maybe the attitude is based on that corollary to the familiar law, Anything not worth doing is not worth doing well.  After all, how many of us out here really rely on subtitles?  Why spend a bit more time, a bit more money, a bit more effort on getting them right?  I’m constantly reading and reviewing books which are poorly edited; should I expect better of television and movies?  Does the subtitle audience really matter?

Maybe we don’t–but we aren’t all hard of hearing.  Some of us use subtitles because we watch late at night and don’t want the television to be so loud that it disturbs the sleep of others in the house.  Some use subtitles because we’re watching at work, such as night security, and we don’t want the noise of the television.  Some use subtitles to get past character accents that are sometimes challenging to understand (oh, that’s what she said!).  They’re a convenience–but an annoying one when they make stupid mistakes.

I don’t have much influence in the film industry.  I write a few articles about time travel in movies, and I’m aware that a few independent film producers have read them, but in the main I’ll probably be ignored.  However, it would be nice to have the subtitles match the dialogue, or at least accurately represent it, especially if the people typing them can’t understand what the actors are saying–that, after all, is when many of us most need to have the written form.  So here’s hoping that those who provide the subtitles can do a bit better for those of us who use them.

2 thoughts on “#227: Toward Better Subtitles”

  1. What you’re watching are typically not subtitles, but closed captioning, which is mandated by the FCC for certain kinds of programming. This distinction is important because subtitles, which you might see on a Blu-Ray with language options, are provided by the production and are part of the value of the program. There is a great deal of time between the final mix and the release of a disc in which the subtitles can be produced, and they likely do have access to the script.

    Closed captions, on the other hand, are a service provided by post-production companies for the purpose of compliance with regulation. The budget for captioning is typically *very* low because it is of little importance to the production. There is little to no QC done on the captions, and they frequently have to be done within a quite small window between delivery of the final cut and upload to the satellite services. It is not unheard of for a production to deliver their program within minutes of the upload deadline. The captioner is therefore often working in a situation that is similar to “live to tape” recording. They get one chance to get it right and few opportunities to correct an error.

  2. Subtitles can be interesting to say the least. I’ve heard of a situation where a native English speaker was watching a well know movie (IIRC one of the Star Wars franchise) in a theater in someplace like Hong Kong or Singapore. The movie was dubbed into the local language but subtitled in English. But the English subtitles ended with some outrageous lines that were clearly not what was originally said. Obviously, it was a translation of a translation by at least one translator who did not have a good grasp of the language.

    And then, subtitles can be very educational. I once was in a PBEM with a Swedish fellow whose English was perfect (written anyway, never actually talked to him) AND he had an excellent grasp of American idiom to the point that he could actually mimic some regional dialects. I asked how it was that he could do this and at first stated something like “There are 6 million Swedish speakers and 2 million of them live in Finland, so it makes sense to have a second language and English is the most useful.” Which was fine, but it still didn’t explain his grasp of the idiom. And then it came out that they watch a lot of movies in Sweden and, like most places other than the US, they are subtitled rather than dubbed, so they hear a lot of American English.

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