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.
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.