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.