Subtitle First Aid, Part I

It happened again.

I was watching a foreign film with subtitles. They were very well done: the English was correct, the titles themselves were very readable, and the subtitling did not distract from the content—which is one of the key requirements of successful titling.

But, as I am wont to do, I stayed and read the credits. [Insert car-brakes-screeching sound effect.]

“Filmed on Loaction”

I wasn’t obsessively looking for errors. I wasn’t putting on my Holier Than Thou grammar hat. But this jumped out at me, all the way to the back row of the theatre.

Granted: errors in subtitling or end credits are not the end of the world. They don’t make it a horrible cinematic experience. And mistakes slip by. But doesn’t the visual text of the project you’ve slaved over for months or years warrant a professional once-over? Doesn’t it deserve to have all its elements treated with regard for correctness and excellence? Shouldn’t the film have a great shot at international marketability and good critical reception?

If you skip the proofreading of your film’s text, you may be sending a message to your audience that they’re not worth considering: it’s only the end credits, right?

If you skip the proofreading of the subtitles, you may be sending a message to foreign distributors that their audiences aren’t as important as your original-language audience was to you: it’s just a secondary market, so no big deal.

This is not about being too uptight, too nit-picky, too pedantic. You wouldn’t distribute your film with sloppy sound editing or jump cuts. You probably have someone (or plural, if you’re lucky) either exclusively handling or at least keeping an eye on prop and costume continuity. You want to create a beautiful, whole and masterly film. So you can’t afford to leave the most in-their-face part of the film half-addressed for your audience. If you do, you’re—perhaps only subconsciously—conveying an attitude that says that film can be dumbed down for the masses and that the bums-in-seats don’t care about writing and language or their experience with your art.

If your production budget is over $5000, you need to have an editor review the text or at least a proofreader look at it with fresh eyes. (Your mum/husband/BFF won’t do because there are things to consider that they aren’t trained to look for.) For as little as the price of a couple of first-release DVDs, you can have your post-production text in a workplace-training video reviewed (word count depending, of course). For the price you’d plunk down for a new cellphone, you can have your short documentary proofread.

All the social media shares of signs with bad spelling, grammar and punctuation are an indicator of the appetite people have for mocking errors. If you don’t want your work turned into a derisory meme that gets more coverage than the original piece, you need to consider this often-overlooked aspect of post-production.

Just as THX reminds us that “the audience is listening,” it would be wise to remember that it is reading, too.



This is the first of three pieces about why film subtitles need copy editing and proofreading by a professional editor and subtitler. The others will address inadequate translations and poor word choices in subtitles. Vanessa Wells is a member of Editors’ Association of Canada and SUBTLE: The Subtitlers’ Association.

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Subtitle First Aid, Part II

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.

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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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