Captions Need Show “Bibles”

Colour photo closeup of gilded Bible pages, with gold cover, snap closure and tasselled bookbark hanging in the foreground.


Captions and subtitles need "bibles" just like theatre pieces or movie productions. Like their literal iterations, these collections of information are guides for all the relevant players on how to present content so that it's clear, correct, and, most of all, consistent.

When I was a captioner, some shows had 'em and some didn't. Worst was when we had to consult fan wikis for character name spellings, backstory, etc. VODS, shows, and movies need bibles templated and used, if they're going to commit to full accessibility for all users.*

Depending on where the captioner or subtitler is, there are differences in how they would normally write as a layman and how they would do their work. A Canadian captioning a show from and about the States would defer to American dictionary spellings and definitions and standard writing style guides, plus the client's house style guide. But an American subtitling an import series from Scandinavia would be wise to not only adhere to the client's wishes and that country's standard guides but also recommend other applications based on show content and branding, audience composition and an eye to future distribution potential.

Show bibles vary from artform to artform. It may well develop to have set and costume notes and samples, helpful visual ephemera, guidelines on authorized style guides, character details, notes on directorial changes and edits (updated), and all of this should be backed up—at least twice. Hard copies might also be wise should the internetalypse happen midproduction.

Here's an example of what Netflix's much (self-)touted subtitling policies did not address or succeed at (or this wouldn't have happened).

Peaky Blinders, Season 4, Episode 5 (accessed December 2017). In one scene, Cockney Jewish character Alfie Solomons is saying Good boy but the caption says Goodbye. Perhaps the non-native captioner (or one without British background or dialectic familiarity) should not be the titler for dialogue if they can't understand the accent, let alone understand that Goodbye wouldn't even make sense in the context if that were the audio. It causes errors and (although apparently not here) extra costs in QC corrections.

Screenshot of Alfie Solomons and Luca Changretta characters in Peaky Blinders show. The erroneous caption for Alfie says, Goodbye, trot on. Down there is Bonnie Street.
Image: cropped screenshot accessed Netflix, Peaky Blinders, December 31, 2017.

If a show bible is not extant or available, a good editor will do some research and preferably some subsequent consultation. The latter should be done by the most qualified expert in their professional network: moms with English degrees don't count. Having established some form of NDA, the editor should present their problem and its context, their research, and a suggested edit to the consultant. Confirmation or correction should lead to a fix, and either way the edit should be flagged with a justified query or note to the managing editor. Time is tight on titling projects, but there's no excuse for guessing. I have a time limit on how long I'll do my own research before turning to an expert; if I can't get the ME a recommended edit, I'll pass on my recommendations for next steps.

This example also points out the pitfalls of having blinders on about vendors. Perhaps your regular multilingual translator in Europe is multitalented, but this show would have required a titler who had ties to or experience with people in London and Birmingham, for instance.

Another problem with this scene was when, in the same episode,

Alfie Solomons was captioned as speaking Italian when in fact he was speaking Yiddish...

Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders show is captioned as "[speaking Italian]"


...but the captioner didn't have enough linguistic background to tell the difference between gutteral and romance language phonemes. (Note that although different, captions and subtitles are sometimes needed in the same product. Read more here.) The titler should have consulted someone (or perhaps shouldn't have been contracted in the first place). I have a whole discrete presentation I can give about foreign language subtitling inconsistencies within Netflix captions; see the Engagements tab to book similar lessons and discussions.

So a bible, shared with the captioner, would have been available to tell them that Alfie Solomons is a Jew from the East End, living in Birmingham, with the common interruptor of the area's "yeah" and that he has no known connections to the Italian language. These are two instances where Netflix would have been saved embarrassment from YGWYPF vendors. If they aren't embarrassed, simply in terms of access to content for the deaf they should be.

Bibles can be simple, and they don't have to be pretty. But they do need to be complete, proactive, shared and USED.


*Read here about who should be using captions and/or subtitles (and sometimes both); it's not just a "deaf problem."

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The Responsibilities of the Captioner

Scene from a modern-set opera with surtitles projected above the stage


I’ve commented elsewhere about the responsibilities of the captioner or subtitler, which include the best practice of not changing the film’s text.* Our personal feelings about content, as far as producing or editing the content is concerned, are irrelevant. (If something is truly offensive, you can turn down the project, just as we do in book editing.) I recently participated in a survey of subtitlers about emotional reactions to content we are working on, so it is a thing. However, assuming we are content to work on the file, the captioner or subtitler (or book editor) may not change the content. We are not the creators of the work.

I have two examples to discuss: translating and expletives.

I saw the HD Live Met presentation in the cinema of the fabulous opera Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès. Although it is sung in English, surtitles** are provided, which is common for most major opera companies. With the exception of one title which might have caused confusion with an appositive due to the accompanying live shot, they were excellent. Until the climax of this dystopian nightmare story. There and in the last lines of the opera, in their characters’ terror the cast are singing a prayer: Libera me de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat, which translates to Deliver me from eternal death and let eternal light shine. The use of the Latin is intentional and very moving, because these words are excerpts from the Catholic Office of the Dead text. (If you know the movie or the opera, you’ll understand why these are used.) To my amazement, the Latin was not only not projected in the surtitles, it was replaced with the English as the Latin was being sung. This is unacceptable captioning.

While it is possible that the surtitle writer felt they were being “helpful” by providing the English, they shouldn’t have. First, they changed Adès’s and librettist Tom Cairns’s work fundamentally. They did not write that part in English for a reason. So, right off the bat, they made an editorial decision about an artist’s work. (If Adès or Cairns directed them to do so, I would happily stand corrected, but I doubt this very much. If the Met directed it, I would disagree with that decision.)

Captioners do not have the right to change art text: their responsibility is to make the piece as it stands accessible.

A caption editor (or book editor) knows to retain the original text.

Another reason this is not best practice is that it makes an editorial assumption about the audience: that they are not culturally savvy enough to know what these words mean, even if they aren’t Catholic. It would be deemed fairly common knowledge in the arts and literature audience to at least have a sense what the Latin was about, even if they couldn’t translate it word for word. So the surtitler decided who they were dealing with. (Again, if the Metropolitan Opera directed them to do it—well, my words would then be directed at them.) The composer knows who he will reach with the Latin and he knows how to best do it in that scene: with the atmospheric layer of using Latin. He does not dumb his libretto down for the audience.

Opera is attracting more young people these days, so some might argue that Millennials just don’t have that common knowledge, but that too is insulting and presumptive. The surtitler may not assume: that’s not their job.

The other thing that is wrong about this involves the Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing community. Did you know that some deaf people do go to and love the opera? My deafened friend loves opera: she said as long as the voices are big enough and surtitles are provided, she can attend and enjoy live opera and HD broadcasts. So the surtitler assumed it wouldn’t matter if the English were used (even if they did know deaf folks can go to the opera), and that is the type of trope the D/d/HoH community too often faces: they don’t matter. This is akin to the attitude of Ill tell you later or Why cant you just enjoy the beat? which I have tweeted about. If they are in the audience, they have the right to access the artistic work as it was created by the artist. It is not the surtitler’s right to even assume they won’t be in attendance, never mind that best practices wouldn’t apply to them. They cannot change an aspect of art because they figure an attendee won’t know anyway.

One final note about surtitles: there are various technological choices available, such as the old PowerPoint way, still used by some, and current surtitling software. These products can force certain style decisions for the surtitler. Also, some theatre and opera companies take divergent theoretical views of how far translations or same-language titles are to go. I belong to the more prescriptive school, obviously, and disapprove of general summarization.

Expletives in films or shows often bring up the issue of censorship—by whoever has the final word on content and house style. But the captioner/subtitler has a duty to at least present an argument (even if they don’t win people over) as to why potentially objectionable words must remain or at least be titled in a similar form.

It is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content

No matter what country you’re working in, standards of captioning/subtitling will all get at the point that it is the titler’s job to provide full access to the video product, with 95–100% accuracy for preprogrammed content. As in book editing, the titler must not edit the work to the point of changing content. So, if I’m a very conservative person, I may not decide to “fix” f-bombs or other offensive dialogue; even if I’m liberal personally, I must not “err on the side of caution” and tone down swear words in case a vulnerable audience is watching. I may be allowed, or indeed instructed, to use house style represent those f-bombs with nonsense characters, universally understood to mean expletives, but I may not choose to as a matter of my practice. I complain often about CCs on Netflix (see this article for a good chuckle), but I do appreciate that their style guideline says “Dialogue must never be censored.” They do retain expletives as used by onscreen characters. This is as it should be.

Just as we do not cover classical sculpture with fig leaves or add clothes to nudes in paintings, we should not censor swearing in films. Screenplay writers and directors include it intentionally to produce an effect, and it is effectively intellectual theft for the titler to remove it. There are many aspects of a video product that could offend audiences, but it is their job to choose their entertainment judiciously and not ours to introduce our personal bias into the work. Titlers do not have the right to judge; the have the responsibility to provide access. Period.

As Ada in Peaky Blinders (Season 1, Episode 2) says:Ada Shelby from Peaky Blinders is shouting to the projectionist behind her in a dimmed, empty cinema, Oi! I'm a Shleby too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!"

NB this incorrect caption should read: Oi! A native English speaker, especially one with British background (who would be the ideal choice as titler) would know this. Oy is an alternative.



If you ever see an example of captions or subtitles that do not represent the content (with the exception of occasional fudges required by timing and space allowance for reading speed), please email a screenshot to or tell me about it at I keep a file of such infringements to accessibility rights.




*Expletives may have different treatment, based on house style, but they must still be retained in some form or another (even if it’s %^@##!).

**The word surtitles is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company, where the practice and technology was developed. [Yay, Canada!] The general term is supertitles, but as most readers will be familiar with surtitles, I’ve used that in this article.


Re: top photo: Image not credited on original source

Bottom photo is a screenshot from the Peaky Blinders series as presented on Netflix.

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What’s the Difference between Subtitles and Captions, Anyway?

Colour photo of oranges in vertical rows on the left and red applies on the right, as they might be lined up on display in a grocery store.


Fuzzy on the difference between subtitles and captions? We tend to use the terms fairly interchangeably, lumping them into some vague notions about "boring films" and closed captions on TV "for the deaf." But they are distinct animals, and here I'll share some straightforward info about the two, why the distinction matters, and why they're necessary.

Let's start chronologically, with subtitles. Before talkie films, silent films relied on cards with text shown for several frames, to insert dialogue or other information relevant to the story. Later (see the links provided under History to fill jump ahead), subtitles were introduced so that audiences of foreign films to translated the actors' words. Although helping hearing people understand the language, subtitles are also used in teaching scenarios, as visual reinforcement of the audio aids language acquisition.

Subtitles tend to be at the bottom centre of the screen (although that convention is changing in some productions), they can be turned off (they can be "closed"), and they never mention the onscreen audio language, although they may when another language is used in the action. They often are not used if the audio is considered common knowledge or if the word sounds the same in the translated language (e.g. a lot of languages use some form of the word "cool" or "okay"). Subtitled films can subsequently be captioned. You'll see why below.

Captions are intended for the Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing, people with a variety of hearing issues (such as the ones I outlined in the here), and in situations that aid the hearing audience: noisy spaces or places where the sound has been turned off. They can be closed (optional) or open (embedded in the video). Sometimes their position moves to indicate who is speaking or that name can be explicitly shown, such as [VANESSA:] or  >> TV anchor. They are usually in the same language as the audio and provide all utterances, tone of voice, atmospheric sounds or other effects. They can be added to subtitled work if this latter information needs to be conveyed for the CC audience.

The commonality is that both are often poorly written, or lack lustre at best. Many countries now have laws and regulations in effect to require that film productions and TV shows are distributed and broadcast with content that communicates with almost perfect verbatim accuracy and correct syntax, presentation, etc. That's where we come in.

Communication is a right, not a privilege.

In my work experience, subtitlers are professional translators and titlers who, despite their advanced training and skills, are hired at very low rates and with unreasonable turnarounds. It's no surprise, then, that they are too rushed to create a perfect file or that less trained people are awarded files. Unfortunately, subtitles are not considered important, seemingly something to slap on the end product to say it was done, without considering how their level of quality affects the viewer's immersion in the film. Which is counterproductive to critical and popular success, isn't it?

Closed captions are created with the same attitude (again, in my experience; others might have had better luck): captioners are typically not paid a living wage, and the speed at which they have to process material before broadcast encourages errors in spelling, grammar and written style. [However, house styles and extenuating circumstances in the material can force those shifts and they are then not errors.] Often they are hired largely based on keyboarding speed, and writing and editing training is erroneously considered irrelevant. When I captioned, the employees processing several shows or movies per day had no time or knowledge to be able to apply the editing I do, and the quality assurance supervisors were in the same boat.

So, while their form and function can be quite different, subtitles and captions both require editing. Google "caption errors" and the images that show up readily prove my point. No one is offering the editing Reel Words is, despite the very real need. And it's a shame because it is disrespectful of viewers who require the accessibility to fully participate in current culture and it ruins the enjoyment of audiences who love foreign films. Basically, the current state of affairs in subtitling and captioning is unacceptably abysmal.

The goal of all film storytellers is to keep their audiences completely immersed in the content; once attention is sidelined by errors, the flow is lost while the brain struggles to figure out what was (not) communicated and to keep up with the subsequent titles.
Our view is that we all deserve better—whether we are hearing or non-hearing. We expect outstanding CGI reults and online variety, but captions and subtitles are ignored. Part of the ethos of Reel Words is to advocate for actual improvement in standards, not just on the books. No More Craptions! may be lighthearted in tone, but the rallying cry is serious in vision.

Closed captions used to be considered a frill, and now they are required. Together, let's demand improvements in quality. If you are a producer, you can start by having your subtitle or caption file edited.




Photo source: frankieleon, let's compare apples and oranges, May 3, 2009 on

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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 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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