Subtitle First Aid, Part III

Four boys lead a smaller one by the ear down a dimly lit institutional hallway; a still from the movie The Tribe.

Parts I and II discussed the need for filmmakers to incorporate proofreading and copy editing respectively into their post-production plans. I also wrote about some of the technical difficulties titlers and captioners face, including time and space, which are connected to fonts and the languages themselves. For instance, French text is typically 20% longer than English, so if titling for an English-to-French film, you'd have to take all of these things into consideration to keep the titling up to speed with the English actors' speech.

In this final piece, I'll discuss issues of translation for subtitles, and you'll note complicating crossover problems. I picked a random foreign film to examine its subtitles' translation. (I'm not going to name the film because my aim is not to shame anyone making mistakes, for reasons outlined in Part II). I'll simply outline typical problems I found in it.

First some good points: the translator used slang such as "gonna" appropriately, based on character. They correctly ignored a lot of background chatter that was intended to establish setting elements and that was not integral to the plot or action. For the most part, idioms were correctly used. I bristled a little at the choice of US over UK/World English spelling but, looking at the secondary releases, I see that it had greater American than European distribution, so fair enough. (Although I still believe that World English is preferable because it prevents reader stumbling for more viewers worldwide.)

As in any copy editing job, there are stylistic choices decided on by the higher-ups which must be respected. Just as in editing an author's book, you can't hijack their style and have it your way, unless you can demonstrate your concerns about potential problems the reader may encounter and provide workable solutions. So this film used some editing choices in the subtitles that I found a bit clunky for continuity, such as capitalizing a new phrase following an ellipsis from another frame, when I would have used less distracting commas and lower-case letters, as it befitted the grammar. I found my eye jumping to the upper case and wondering if I'd lost the train of conversation from the last title. However, this is a grey area.

But my encounters with inconsistencies, treatments of numbers, expressions and, most egregiously, omitted titles were problematic.

Aside from the above regarding caps following ellipses, there were too many inconsistencies in punctuation treatment. Numerous clauses and sentences were incorrectly elided, either with too many or incorrectly placed commas, so that some sequences of subtitles should have been self-contained sentences and some should have been restricted to fewer clauses. Good writing in the script was misrepresented as long strings of spoken clauses.This sloppiness loses the reader, whose focus is returned to concentrating on the subtitles rather than absorbing their content subconsciously.

The treatment of numbers may seem like a picky topic, but it's not. Generally, editing conventions are to write out numbers between zero and nine or ten and to use numerals for 11 and above. Even if this had not been the stylistic choice, the jumping around was very distracting. I saw "2," "1st," "6-7 years" and, worst, "five minutes" and "15 minutes" and "30 minutes." In their contexts, those first three examples should have been written as "two," "first," and "six to seven years." Yes, the last three follow the above convention but a good editor knows when to break the rules to maintain reading flow. The scene involved counting off time being wasted by a character, so for better flow, I would have recommended using "5 minutes" to match the latter two time references.

Another translation and copy editing issue was around "n" and "N" plus a numeral: viewers were expected to know that "n55" and (inconsistently) "N55" meant number 55 or #55 as used in street addresses. This kind of error shows lack of consideration for the audience: it assumes a worldliness in all filmgoers, that they will know cultural references for all countries.

Here is another example of culturally differentiated mannerisms not being served by the subtitles. A character said she was going for—and made a going-to-sleep gesture, putting her head to the side on her joined hands under her ear. This is a gesture that is not culturally exclusive and probably is understood by most of the world as meaning "going to sleep." But in this case the subtitle was not left out and inserted "A nap!" (which is both incorrectly capped and punctuated); this is poor titling because she did not say "a nap" verbally, she only gesturally conveyed it.

One expression missed the mark. "It's a bit tradesman's entrance" should have been "It's a bit of a tradesman's entrance" or, because the point was to emphasize the slang and the distaste of the speaker, "It's a bit of a tradesman's entrance" (since italics would work better than single quotes inside double in titles). Not a horrendous problem, but I was stopped momentarily by it.

The choice to omit subtitles for some words was very unwise. One example was when a foreign word on a sign, key to a sub-plot, was left untranslated. It should be assumed that filmgoers are not all bilingual or multilingual and, even if they are, that the film's original language might not be one of theirs (and English itself might be a learned tongue). This type of error excludes some viewers and affects their experience with the film.

The other omission was frequent: completely non-existent subtitles for foreign words that were proper names for objects—and inconsistently! The post-production team and translator should have discussed and decided on the treatment of these names, applied the usage consistently and, again, not made assumptions about the viewers and what is general knowledge, especially when it applied to another language and a very particular niche of work. Equally annoying was when they allowed a spoken English word mid-phrase to have no subtitle, because it was assumed the English viewer knew what it meant. But when you have an actor saying it with an accent and when you drop a subtitle off, that creates reading and film-watching stumbles. Here is a fictional example of what I'm referring to:

Yes, it was on the


Was it? I didn't see that.

The words "BBC News" were omitted because they were spoken in English. But that is egregiously poor subtitling practice. The constant omissions were very distracting from the film experience, which is antithetical to subtitling and captioning.

It is rare to have perfect subtitles in a full-length feature, but the above examples illustrate some of the problems a subtitle editor can find by reviewing the text before distribution. The key is to allocate budget and time for this step in post-production. Film cannot engage foreign viewers if their absorption is interrupted, and being engrossed in a film is the audience's primary desire. Subtitling excellence is part of the value which filmmakers owe them.


This is the final 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 second looked at editing poorly worded subtitles and captions. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors' Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers' Association.

The photo above is from The Tribe, a movie which was made all the better for not using subtitles. Read my review of it in the second entry of this blog post.

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