Writing Subtitles: Where Does it All Go Wrong?

I love writing, but there is one job that I would not want to have. Writing subtitles for television and films.

Ok, maybe that is a bit of a harsh statement, I mean I would never turn down a writing opportunity. It is not so much the writing of the subtitles that would give me trouble, but rather the meaning of the translations. Living in a Non-English speaking country, I have seen my fair share of subtitles; especially as Holland do not dub shows, and the majority of their scheduling is made up of US (or sometimes UK) based shows.

The hardest part of subtitle writing, besides the whole, knowing the language part, is that it  isn’t enough to know the words, but to understand them. To identify one cultural reference and turn it into a similar reference for the county you are writing for, and that is something I don’t think I could every do. I mean, I speak fluent Dutch, and can read it pretty good, but I don’t get the true intricacies of  the language. The plays on words, and the (once again) cultural references. The same goes for humor. Subtitling jokes just cannot be done, or at least, doesn’t appear to be done, by current standards.

I will never forget this one time, it was when my son was little and I was up early. There was an episode of the Cosby Show just finishing, and the two daughters had been home alone watching scary movies. The vampire scared them the most and when the parents came home the girls were sleeping. The eldest clutched a bowl of garlic, and the translation was “That’s to scare the vampire away” (good enough) and the youngest had a large piece of meat on her chest. The joke was (obvious enough to me at the time) that it was the *steak* to drive through the vampire’s heart, but the translation read as “That’s for the vampire to eat so that they can get away.”)  Whether it was just a poor job or a regularity I don’t know, but it was the first time I had ever really paid attention to the subtitles and after that my image of them was clearly tarnished.

Mistakes are to be expected, but sometimes it leaves me scratching my head. Things such as times and distances. The dialogue says, “the call came in at Ten-twenty” while the subtitles will say 11:35, or “it’s five miles away from here, and subtitles will say thirteen. That isn’t even the same in kilometers.

I will admit that often, the fan created subtitles are the best, in terms of accuracy and also with regards keeping pace with the show / movie.  I’m not sure what that says about the industry, but it is something I always keep in mind if ever I need subtitles for something.

Still, if I was given a project I really liked, a show that I knew well, not something I had never seen before, then I would probably give subtitle writing a go. I know, I know, complete one-eighty to the start right. I told you I was being a bit harsh. It isn’t a job I would want, not because of the pressure of the work, but simply because I wouldn’t want to put something sub-standard out there. I wouldn’t put a book out there (anymore) that wasn’t ready, and I would feel ashamed, personally, if a piece of work I subtitled was aired filled with as many holes as the current ones seem to be.

The same goes for Live subtitles. It is not something I understand, live subtitles. I’m talking for sports events and the like. I mean, it is hard enough to write, but to do it accurately and with not more than a couple of seconds delay is almost impossible. It is also to see on the quality of the work.

Two examples that spring to mind are from sports events. One was the (Soccer) World Cup in Japan and South Korea. It was Russia vs Japan and the commentator said “The Russians are in red, the Japanese are playing in blue.” while the subtitles proclaimed “The Russians are in red, the Japanese are playing in a balloon.”

The second was during Wimbledon Tennis Championships and the live subtitles continued to refer to Maria Sharapova or ‘Mary Shared Rover’.  I know, the balloon one I get, but the Rover comment. I think the guy must have been drunk or similarly impaired.

Writing is different in every form, from scripts to poetry, from ghost writing to your own fiction, short stories to novels, I could go on (but it would only be for the word count, and I’m not in school any more) but you get the picture. What strengths do you think make a good subtitle writer. Is it something you have ever thought about, or is my mind just working in odd ways?

I have respect for those that accept the challenge of doing the work, and once again think it proves the point that ALL writing should be thoroughly edited before it is distributed to the marketplace.

2 thoughts on “Writing Subtitles: Where Does it All Go Wrong?

  1. For a short while, I worked in the subtitling business for a company that really took its work seriously. There were guidelines to follow, things that should be omitted, etc. They also had a whole department dedicated to editing. I was always pleased to see the shows I subtitled on TV; it made me feel giddy. Though after I started working there, I began to notice these errors a lot more and that has made me a lot more critical. Ultimately it’s the fault of the person who types in the subtitles… and the editor, of course.

  2. I’ve lost count of many edits I’ve done now but in going through and filling in some gaps that my lovely beta readers had found, guess what? I found yet more errors. If I ever had any illusions about the perfection of my writing [har de har har] I’ve lost ’em all now. Professional editing is a necessity!

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