Lost in Translation: Are Insufficient Subtitles Robbing Unilingual Viewers of Potential Enjoyment?

Last year, when I took my first semester of Spanish, I began to notice that I could tell what Spanish-speaking characters were saying some of the time in the movies and television shows I was watching. Unfortunately, I was able to understand just enough of the Spanish dialogue to realize that the subtitles at the bottom of the screen bore remarkably little resemblance to what was actually being said. Sometimes subtitlers leave out large portions of the dialogue and just write sentences conveying the gist of what is being said, sometimes they just write something different altogether that carries the same emotional flavor (threatening, funny, angry, etc). Sometimes they just miss the whole point and write something totally different from the emotions conveyed by the actual dialogue.

Strangely enough, this isn’t only done with foreign films either. I was watching a crummy old episode of Forever Knight with a scene that took place during the Spanish Inquisition and most of the dialogue was left out of its subtitles too. As if that weren’t enough, this also happens in reverse. There have been a few occasions during which I watched a movie with English dialogue that had foreign subtitles and was shocked to see how poorly translated they were.

If you don’t think this happens often enough, or badly enough, to get worked up about take a quick perusal of the following pages from the Wiki Tropes website (There are other websites with examples as well, but this is my brother’s favorite website so I thought I’d give it a nod.): Blind Idiot Translation, Recursive Translation, Translation Train Wreck.

So, why would anyone do this? Of what possible benefit could mistranslating the dialogue in a movie or TV show be to anyone? There are actually a few reasons for bad subtitling, which have primarily to do with laziness. These reasons include such things as:

Machine translators. If you’ve ever dumped a large piece of text like a magazine article into, say, the Google translator you might have noticed that it doesn’t always come out as accurate as you would have liked. Some subtitling outfits use similar (or not as good) software without the use of humans to check its work. As you might expect, this results in some pretty crummy subtitles.

Poorly trained and/or non-native speakers. There actually are official training programs for subtitlers, but many people hired to write subtitles (and captions) for movies have very little language training. Also, people translating from something like Chinese to English, for example, are generally not native English speakers and, therefore, don’t have the best grasp of how to phrase a translation so that both the literal and figurative meanings get through.

Just plain laziness. Every once in a while, when I see a movie wherein a character will yell something important to another character, I’m shocked to notice that the lazy subtitler merely writes “yelling” instead of actually translating the dialogue. This is the absolute height of slothfulness and should result in the subtitler being summarily slapped about the head and shoulders with a wet rubber chicken. However, it’s more common in closed captioning than in subtitles, implying that some English speaking captioners are lazier (or perhaps just more hard-of-hearing) than some subtitlers. Aside from that, there are examples wherein a character will, for example, be eloquently confessing his wrongdoings and begging forgiveness in a foreign language while the subtitler writes something along the lines of “Uh, sorry.” This kind of translator deserves two wet rubber chicken slappings and an atomic wedgie.

There are other reasons as well, but these seem to be the most common. So, what’s the solution to this problem? Well, the industry isn’t going to change any time soon so that only leaves two options:

(1) Learn several languages so that the subtitles only become loose guidelines for when you trip over unknown words/phrases.

As I said in the beginning of this post, I didn’t notice just how bad this problem was until I took a Spanish class. The good part of this was that it allowed me to get more enjoyment out of Spanish dialogue because I didn’t have to rely entirely upon poorly translated subtitles in order to understand what was going on. The only potentially tedious part is that I now know that I’ll have to learn a bit of at least a few more languages before I can get anything really meaningful out of movies and TV from France, Germany, etc.

(2) Download subtitles from a specialized subtitle website.

If you’re willing to add them on yourself with a piece of video editing software, it’s pretty easy to find websites with your choice of pre-made subtitles (that might or might not be of better quality than the standard ones) that can be downloaded for free. I’ve never done this myself, but the option is always there for those who want to expend the effort.

I’ll admit that neither of these are actually solutions, but they’re the best one can do at the moment – short of opening a new subtitling company with higher standards, that is.

Although I don’t entirely consider myself a unilingual viewer anymore, I can definitely state without fear of contradiction that viewers requiring subtitles to understand foreign-language dialogue are being cheated of the experiences intended by filmmakers through the poor-quality work exuding from those paid to write subtitles.

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