Very generally, subtitles are used in film and TV for translating foreign or indistinct speech and closed captions are for providing the hearing-impaired viewer with the audio information they are missing. As I said in the first article of this series, subtitling must not distract from the film experience, so titles or captions both require judicious choice of wording.
There are many variables involved in subtitling that aren’t evident when we watch a subtitled foreign film or closed-captioned TV show. As in many areas, projects are usually not adhering to their projected timeline, and titlers (like book proofreaders) are at the end of the process; read: rush job with no rush-job fees. Subtitling and captioning have many spatial and temporal requirements; some are based on government standards, others on average reading rates, on industry-wide conventions, and so on. Pop-ons and roll-ups use different production models. And cost is affected by companies using international roster or tender systems for finding the most cost-effective labour market they can. So it’s not always fair to complain about subtitle quality but, reasons or excuses aside, they do get noticed and it does matter.
The reason [Sadly go-karts] is lamentable is that there is a finesse to captioning and subtitling in knowing what needs to be written and when. Paul Aaron (above) is neither saying that he is sadly go-karting, nor is that a sound that must be replicated for the viewer: it’s a visual, and it’s self-evident.
Let’s look at some other problematic subtitles and captions.
I’m sure you can discern the utter uselessness of this one:
Or this one:
But what about this one?
It is sort of funny, and it does the trick. But “sissy” is a subjective description, and it’s likely a localized idiom that may not communicate to people of all ages or all cultures. An editor should have flagged this caption as problematic because it could put up a potential barrier between the medium and some viewers.
Here’s an easy one:
It’s obvious, it’s visual, and anger itself is not a missed sound.
And here’s one for the “intensity” sub-genre of bad captions:
You can’t steal intensely; you can only steal with intense emotions. Even then, this is not a word or sound to be communicated aurally.
Just as you can’t loudly imply cannibalism:
You could perhaps convey that there is a loud gnawing sound, but if it’s cannibalistic eating, that’s either known to the viewer or will be, but cannibalism is not inherently aural, nor is implication loud.
Here’s another inaccurate one that a caption editor would have re-written:
I saw this episode of Orange Is the New Black, and Piper is not urinating forcefully, as if she were straining with a kidney stone; she had been desperate to go for hours and was finally allowed to but only with a male guard present. A more accurate title would have said [Urgent stream of urine]. That’s a sound and that fills in the missing information more correctly. Her face conveys her disgust.
This isn’t the worst caption in the world:
But in best practices, it might have been better to write something like “Expresses indecision” (if that were the case; I don’t know the scene) because the “I don’t know” sound is a culturally differentiated mannerism.
There are others which can be trickier, however.
[Not as good as drugs]? I don’t recall this Breaking Bad scene. But the square brackets indicate Paul Aaron is not speaking those words; perhaps he is otherwise communicating that the food he is accepting is not as satisfying as a drug high. We don’t know what is not as good as drugs (we can only assume from the visual cue that it is food) and again it’s not a sound that needs captioning. If he were eating but really wanted drugs, a correct caption might be [Grunts resignedly].
My final example is not from a subtitle or caption but could easily be. A fellow editor told of a South African correspondent who was talking about a "toot" which, to her, meant a drink. My colleague commented that "toot" means something very different to us in North America (and she didn’t mean a cute car-horn sound). This demonstrates the need to have an editor review the text for idioms appropriate for the intended market. Sometimes idioms must be retained to convey cultural richness and idiosyncrasies in the story, but it is important to have someone who is aware of potential stumbling blocks (and riotous audience laughter) and who is capable of supplying synonyms that will still work with the film. The Harry Potter books were Americanized for this continent’s market (and some would argue unnecessarily), but there are times when professional copy editing of the subtitles can prevent gaffes, offence or derision and—ultimately—loss of post-distribution revenue.
Subtitlers and captioners have to work at unbelievable speeds and too often with insultingly low pay. It's not always their fault if the titles we see are poor or just plain wrong. But a subtitling editor can check the work with a lot less hassle than your production team would have going back down the pipeline to get the errors dealt with. Then, when your film is received with popular and critical acclaim, you can pop that bottle of bubbly and have a toot to celebrate!
This is the second of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The first addressed proofreading as a basic component to post-production and the final one will deal with inadequate translations. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors' Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers' Association.
The balance of the photos used in this post were retrieved on July 7, 2016 from here.