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You've invested a lot of time, money and heart into making your film, show or video. You have big plans for distribution—whether it's worldwide or just to corporate headquarters. You can't afford to become one of those online memes because of errors.

Reel Words is the only subtitle editing company providing quality control for flawless English text because it's the only one with extensive editorial and titling experience behind it. Translators and transcribers are terrific at their craft but, like authors of books, they're not trained to review text for correctness, consistency and clarity.

Don't settle for error-ridden automated titles. Impress distributors or stakeholders with professional-looking, accurate subtitles or captions, and enjoy rave reviews from audiences by fulfilling the growing demand for No More Craptions!

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What IS a Subtitle or Caption Editor?

A cropped closeup colour photo of closed captions on a screen, the text being cut off to prevent understanding a sentence.








You might wonder what a subtitle editor is, since many companies already offer subtitle translations. Those like my colleagues in SUBTLE (Subtitlers' Association) produce professional results—yay! But frankly, subtitling companies are hanging out their shingles despite lacking one important component: editing skills. (Not technical video editors: that's a different area.) I realized this when I worked in captioning and saw how the products needed editing. It's like expecting authors to turn out perfect books without manuscript editing: not good.

Subtitles cannot be flawless or even excellent without editing, and they require a trained, professional editor who is also knowledgeable about captioning and subtitling, translation, foreign languages, linguistics and the conventions of different kinds of English. Otherwise, the results are unsatisfactory: even if you aren't reading them critically, imperfect subtitles are distracting.

Subtitles must facilitate viewer immersion.

A subtitle editor checks, adjusts and polishes the text so that it is clear, consistent and correct.

Did you try to solve the challenge I included in a recent post? After seeing 84 discrete subtitle errors in one episode of a show on Netflix, I posted one example and suggested that there were 5 errors in it and asked if you could find them. The subtitle read:


for a non-English-speaking character saying


In fact, I'd even argue that there are 6 errors in that one word. (Email me if you think you can figure out the problems in that example.) But that word distracted me, and I didn't even have my editor's cap on—I was just chilling with a show on the weekend. Not the end of the world, granted; but my reading brain stumbled, and that caused me to pause, which caused me to miss the next title, which made me lose the thread of the dialogue, and I had to rewind. (This is especially problematic if you're watching a show that is info-heavy, such as a mystery or crime thriller.)

While providers like Netflix are rolling out new services to try and produce better subtitle translations, they're still missing this essential step in the process. No reputable book publisher would release a book without editing or proofreading done. But more on that in a future article.

So if you watch shows and films to relax and to rest your weary brain and you don't want to have to think while you're doing it (isn't that the point of recreational viewing?), you should be demanding this level of production from providers. Part of your monthly subscription fee or movie charges goes to subtitling, so you might as well get good product for your money. Would you want to buy a new book that hadn't been edited? No, but we constantly do because it's considered too costly by a lot of publishers now. If you expect your can of paint to be sold with a handle attached or fruit not to be sold when it's moldy, why are you settling for second rate in your entertainment? Rise up, good people, and demand excellence! It doesn't look like online viewing is going away anytime soon, but if we continue to accept second-best quality, we'll soon be given third.

Clear communication is not a frill, it's a basic requirement.

To see the areas of both work and play which need excellence in captioning and subtitling, see my post, Who Needs Subtitle Editing?




Photo by Daniel Olnes, February 14, 2008,

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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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