And now, a rant about subtitles! There are many like it but this one is mine.

Give a listen to the clip to the right, from the opening-ish scene of some movie I fell asleep to last night.

I have become one of those people who watches movies with subittles on, and not because I am old and am losing my hearing (I am old, but my hearing seems fine!) but because the sound design in modern films is shit (and everyone knows this). Anyway, this leads to having my senses assaulted by subtitles like this:

    [ suspenseful music ]
    [ light dramatic music ]
    [ suspenseful music ]

Is there anyone who is helped by captions like this?

I can understand when a show, in the midst of a dramatic heist scene, might choose to interject within the dialog subtitles something like [ Never Gonna Give You Up continues playing ] -- that detail might actually contribute to one's understanding of the scene. Or it might be contractually required by the product placement payola.

And I can also understand when there's a scene when two characters are angrily and silently staring at each other while subtitles relate [ Put this pussy right in your face, swipe your nose like a credit card ] because that's the song the producer bought for the club scene they're in -- and if you were hearing this movie, that's the song that would be distracting you from the acting right now. So that's arguably necessary to give you equivalency of experience.

But when they do this "suspenseful music continues" crap -- when they try to tell you the "emotional content" of some stock pabulum classical soundtrack nonsense -- is there any hearing-impaired person in the world who finds their understanding of the film even remotely enhanced by this?

I feel like these subtitles might as well read:

    [ **TK** rip off Danny Elfman or John Williams here ]
or maybe
    [ Look, we couldn't afford Graeme Revell so we found this royalty-free thing on YouTube ]

Later in the same movie:

    [ speaking foreign language ]
    [ man sighs ]

Reader, the "foreign language" he was speaking was Spanish.

I mean, I can accept [ sighs in spanish ] because that's a joke, but there is no excuse, ever, for "speaks foreign language" unless it's like, Klingon, but wait, no, NOT EVEN IF IT IS LITERALLY KLINGON. Seriously, some motherfucker is speaking Spanish and you're giving me [ speaks foreign language ], after you went all-in to caption your royalty-free stock soundtrack bullshit as [ suspenseful yet slightly more upbeat music continues ]?

Stares into camera and [ gestures wildly at subtitle ].

Previously, previously.

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63 Responses:

  1. Evert Pot says:

    oof yeah *foreign language* is such a peeve of mine too. Do 2 seconds of research to find out what they're speaking.

    • jwz says:

      They don't have to do research, they *have the script*

      • prefetch says:

        Sometimes. A later season of a moderately successful series, name long forgotten, clearly had the episodes farmed out for low-cost transcription subbing. The main characters had a homophonic last name that would alternate between correctly spelt and capitalized for one episode and swapped for the sound-alike for the next, just barely passing grammatical correctness (it was a noun) but making no sense in context.

        Thankfully seen less in the wild these days is this gem:

        [♪♫ Artist or Group - Name of the Track ♫♪]

        No context (instrumental intro? shouty chorus? moody verse?), no lyrics, and more often than not it's a generic big-label license sale, so unless you happen to know that particular song, no clues as to rudimentary details like genre or instrumentation - even [suspenseful music] has it beat in terms of usefulness.

    • Steve Dunham says:

      I was impressed that "Bluey" (a TV show for kids) subtitled the French speaking dog in French.

  2. Vincent Janelle says:

    Can't remember exactly what I was watching, but there's at least several cartoons out there that have subtitles for "pew pew pew" when laser weapons are being fired.

    My pet peeve for subtitles though is anime, where the subtitles for the english translations is different from the dub.

    • I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and love them for practicing Spanish over the muddle in podcasts or shows. But translations can be impressively different from the audio and ebook.
      Usually it’s a synonym or a different inflection, sometimes one uses Latin American while the other uses continental.
      But I remember Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose had entire paragraphs missing or different. Drove me crazy!
      (Also, long time no see! Hope you’re doing well.)

  3. The Expanse is *absolutely filled* with these. They get pretty creative with their adjectives, but I do wonder what it adds.

  4. 10

    Short answer to the question: Yes.

    Somewhat longer answer: Subtitles and captions (well-produced ones, at least) don't exist just to convey the literal spoken words, but to try to give Deaf/hard-of-hearing viewers as close to the same experience as a person without auditory disabilities. So captions like these that may seem ridiculous are there for that very reason.

    As an example: A person walking through a space without anyone else around. Light, cheerful music? They're probably fine, maybe enjoying being alone, thinking about something, enjoying life, whatever. Dark, suspenseful music? They're probably troubled, in danger, etc. No music at all? Probably a jump scare coming up.

    Soundtracks convey a _lot_ of information about the mood, setting, etc., and good captions/subtitles recognize this and account for it.

    This is also why some media will give a choice between captions/subtitles and captions/subtitles "for the Deaf or hard of hearing". If a choice is given, the former will likely be what you'd prefer (just the spoken words), while the latter will include notes on the soundtrack, sound effects, and so on. But if there isn't a choice between the two, better to give more information and a closer experience to the original than less.

    The bit about "speaking foreign language" might be an intentional thing as well. If part of the point of the scene is that the main character doesn't understand the person speaking to them, than "speaking foreign language" is accurately conveying the intent of the scene. Admittedly, many times it might be better to say "speaking Spanish" (or whatever the "foreign language" is), but it might also be that part of the point is not just that the main character doesn't understand, but doesn't even know what the language might be. Now, there are plenty of instances where that may just be lazy captioning, but there are certainly situations where that's exactly what is intended.

    • jwz says:

      Ok first of all, listen to that clip I posted and explain to me the difference between the "suspenseful" and "light dramatic" music and how that advances my understanding of the scene. Come the fuck on.

      If there are ever subtitle options to avoid over-describing things like this, I have never seen them. I very often download movies that have dozens of subtitle tracks (Netflix in particular spends a fortune on translation for all of their releases). There are almost always two English subtitle tracks: one of them subtitles all dialog, and one subtitles only sound effects and foreign dialog. But those are the only choices.

      As for the "foreign language" thing, I am certain it is laziness nearly 100% of the time. I pay attention to these things and the scenario you describe, "the main character doesn't understand the language", is almost never what is going on when the subtitles do the "foreign language" thing. In fact I have often seen the opposite happen: the main character doesn't understand the language, but the subtitles tell me what they were saying anyway.

      As for not labelling it "Speaks Spanish", I am to believe that even if this character doesn't speak Spanish, they don't recognize it as Spanish, I guess. It's a mystery what moon-man language this guy is speaking.

      You are giving them too much benefit of the doubt. Incompetence explains all of this far better than intent.

      • It should be something like:


        Denote they're speaking Spanish, and then tell us wha they said.

        • jwz says:

          Or even: subtitle it in Spanish. That way hearing and non-hearing monolingual and bilingual viewers have the same experience.

          • Vincent Janelle says:

            Wasn't Star Trek Discovery available with Klingon subtitles somewhere?

            • グレェ「grey」 says:

              Was it?

              "Star Trek: Discovery was the first TV series completely subtitled in Klingon (1). They are available on Netflix worldwide, except for USA and Canada. The subtitles were made by Lieven L. Litaer. (2) (3) For the creation of these subtitles, Marc Okrand has provided a handful new words."

              (from a paged cached because is not loading locally for some reason)

              Wow, I guess it was!

              Living in the USA, this was lost on me. Indeed, I signed up for a CBS 10 day trial so I could watch some episodes that a friend worked on as an editor before cancelling the subscription, I didn't even realize it was available on Netflix at all.

              I knew that the DVD boxset of Invader ZIM (20050 had Irken subtitles. Though, perhaps not surprisingly in this thread, in a post gleaned from searching the interwebs, someone who decided to decipher them states that they are full of typographical errors, attributing it to a lazy or rushed effort.

              • phuzz says:

                The DVD of Mars Attacks had Martian subtitles ("Ack! ACK ACK!"), and a DVD of Monty Python's Holy Grail had a set of subtitles using only quotes from Shakespeare.

                • jwz says:

                  I've also heard that there's a version of Mars Attacks without any of the CGI, so everyone's just running around freaking out about hallucinations that we can't see.

                  Galaxy Quest had an audio track that was dubbed into the alien language.

          • Marcos Dione says:

            Before my first year in France I could easily read French but, for the life of me, couldn't understand much of spoken, conversational French (locutors on the radio I could; that and knowing The Simpsons' dialog by heart saved my life).

      • tfb says:

        Perhaps there is not a useful difference between 'suspensful' and 'light dramatic' but it's very clear, especially if you have spoken (hmm, 'spoken') to profoundly deaf people, that deaf people benefit from this in general.

        And I have absolutel certaunly watched things, fairly recently (last few months), where there was a distinction between 'too much description for someone who is not deaf' captions and 'just deal with the sound being shit' captions.  Not sure if it was Netflix: I could probably find examples if anyone cares.  Including things like '[speaks <language not understood by protagonist>]'.

        I agree that incompetence explains a lot, but there is good intent here.

      • Jyrgen N says:

        I assume it is less incompetence then the unwillingness to spend money on it, in many cases. Netflix is relatively good with subtitles, as is Disney+, but I have seen much subpar subtitle performance on Amazon Prime Video, for instance. It is different with different shows/movies, but the most subtitles with errors (spelling, *and* logical) I have seen there.

        • jwz says:

          You are splitting a hair between "incompetence" and "capitalism" that I do not split.

        • ratkins says:

          Amazon is terrible with dubs too. I live in Germany and often there’s only the German dub available for popular movies whose original soundtrack is English.

          • Jyrgen N says:

            Yeah, I don't watch those. One of my main reasons to use Netflix et al. is that I (native German speaker) can watch things in original English with English subtitles. If I wanted German dub, I could watch German tv (which I rarely do any more). Also, German-only subtitles. Big turn-off.

    • Frooble says:

      I feel like there should be two settings: close captioning and subtitles.  Subtitles are for when it's a Nolan movie and the dialog all sounds like "argle bargle" whispered into my bad ear.  I can hear, I just can't decipher the dialog.  Closed captioning is for when the sound is off or I'm hearing impaired.  I've found some pirated movies recently have two subs tracks that sort of do this, but most streaming services mash them all up into one combo, satisfying no-one.

  5. jwz says:

    Subtitle pro tip -- if (like me) one of the things that irritates you about subtitles is that you can't help yourself from reading ahead of the dialog, which screws with your appreciation of the delivery, a trick I use is to push the subtitle track to a second or two after the dialog. That way when I reach a "WTF did they just say" moment, I look down, and the answer is there, but only after I had the question.

    • Karellen says:

      Subtitle pro tip -- if (like me) one of the things that irritates you about subtitles is that you can't help yourself from reading ahead of the dialog, which screws with your appreciation of the delivery,

      Abso-fucking-lutely, yes!

      a trick I use is to push the subtitle track to a second or two after the dialog.

      OMG, you can do that? How? What sort of device/platform/player are you using?

      Or is this a "First, you find a way to save the file to your HD, and then run `ffmpeg` to create a copy of the file with offset subtitles." kind of thing?

      • jwz says:

        Both VLC and Movist have keystrokes for pushing subtitle offsets. The original use case was for when the subtitle track you downloaded is from a slightly different rip of the movie and is shifted by a few seconds.

        • prefetch says:

          For a true exercise in personal growth, try watching a 24FPS movie with 23.976FPS subtitles (a common occurrence for rarer/less popular titles). Those key combos really get a workout. Long seeks are hilarious and usually require a calculator. There were a few players that were smart enough to re-time the subs, but all of them devolved into spamware trojans and none of the majors seem to have implemented that feature.

  6. Sean says:

    I can explain the [speaks foreign language] thing.  It's to indicate to the hearing impaired viewer that there are people talking, but the main characters aren't able to understand them, and *neither are you*.  The example I very recently encountered was a gangland TV series where the main British mobster family was negotiating with a French mobster family through an interpreter - in this case, an interpreter who is part of, but not necessarily loyal to the main group.  If they transcribed *and translated* the speech, it would be a different dramatic experience than the hearing person would have.

    • Sean says:

      Michael beat me to it.

    • Zygo says:

      A bilingual person, hearing or not, could easily tell what shenanigans the interpreter was up to if they read or heard the French characters' lines in French.  A unilingual English person, hearing or not, would find the French characters' behavior mysterious because they could neither hear nor read to understand their dialogue(*).  If the subtitle matches the dialogue, the hearing and non-hearing people have the same dramatic experience, whichever experience that is.

      Someone reading "[speaks foreign language]" while hearing an actor speak in French would have a different experience, specifically the experience that a hearing person would have if the French mobster character simply repeated "speaks foreign language"  whenever they had a line.  I mean, that could be done well, like one character constantly saying "I am Groot" while the other characters improvise reactions to a series of entirely different unspoken lines, but that would be a different show.

      (*) Also holy crap, is French really that much of a barrier to English-speaking people that this scenario is plausible?  At least make one of them speak a language that isn't mostly Latin-1.

      • Sean says:

        Yes, of course, that goes without saying - so much so that I did not bother to say it.  I'm entirely unsure what your point is here.  The English mobsters did not speak French.  Full stop.  And reading is simply not the same experience as hearing.  You can't make a direct analogy that way.

        I understood part of the French dialog in that scene, but I am nowhere near fluent.  This was a BBC production:  Google tells me 36% of the UK is bilingual; 25% of the US.  Most of that US bilingualism will be Spanish.  For the UK - so, let's say it's 10%.  That means that the remaining 90% won't understand the details of how much heroin the UK mobsters are going to buy, how much it will cost, and what the price is, *except as relayed by the bilingual interpreter*.  That's what the director of the show wanted to accomplish.

        • Zygo says:

          I said it because you missed the issue--and you've now confirmed that you still don't understand it.  You're basically saying the director is incompetent or an asshole.

          "90% of the audience is at least as ignorant as I am" is not an excuse for erasing a culture.  I expect a fair shot at following dialogue if I am reading it instead of hearing it.  I don't care what languages other people watching the show can or cannot understand.  If you can use a real language in the script, you can put the same real language in the subtitles (unless you've chosen a language that doesn't have any written form and can't be transliterated, but neither French nor Spanish are one of those).

          The director (or more likely the writer) of a scripted drama has 4 basic options:

          1. Write the line in French, because the writer knows French
          2. Write the line in English, because the writer doesn't know French but a French character is appropriate, with a note for the actor to translate the line on the day
          3. Have the actor improvise a line on the day that might end up unintelligible to the subtitler and undocumented because it was improvised
          4. Have the actor make a series of nonsense syllables with their voice instead of using a real language (assuming you're not Marc Okrand, and don't make up a whole new language for one show)

          These options can be combined, e.g. the TNG scripts with lines like "We have to [tech] the [tech] before the ship explodes!", which combines option #1 and #3.  The actor substituted some technobabble on the day, but the subtitle wasn't updated, so the finished video has "[tech]" appearing literally in the subtitle text.  Acceptable for a production in the 1980's, but today we'd expect someone to go back and fill in what was actually said as part of the subtitle QA process so that reading members of the audience have some idea wtf an EPS conduit is when hearing people write about them.

          Options #1 and #2 should be converted directly to subtitles:  the actor said a thing, the thing was planned in writing in advance, the thing gets cut+pasted into the subtitle file.  Director's choice which language to present the text in.  Option #3 seems unlikely for this kind of show, but improv happens, and a few lines will end up unavailable to subtitle readers for technical reasons.

          If a competent director intended that the audience not understand the dialogue, they'd have to choose option #4.  The only way for a competent director to get from option #1 or #2 to a subtitle that says "[speaking foreign language]" is for the director to choose the asshole option:  delete everything a character says in that language, but only for the part of the audience that consumes the show's dialogue by reading, without presenting the same challenge to those who consume the dialogue by hearing. That's somewhere between annoying and insulting to the reading members of the audience, maybe also offensive to groups of people matching the silenced character's ethnolinguistic attributes, depending on the context of the deleted material. (*)

          That leaves the incompetent director option, which is functionally identical to the asshole option, but without requiring the director's agency.  I'm willing to extend the benefit of doubt and assume that [speaking foreign language] is more about directors who don't have control:  the subtitler is too lazy or under-resourced to do their job properly (so they don't have access to the script and don't have an interpreter on hand to translate the audio track when it's not in their primary language) and the director or writer can do nothing to fix it, because it's done by a whole different company.   The fact that everybody does it that way now doesn't mean we shouldn't call them out on it, or hold them to a higher standard in the future.

          (*) Obviously it's possible to set up a show where this sort of thing is intentional, but that show would end up being about its subtitle and language choices.  Definitely not what most shows with subtitles are attempting to do.

    • 2

      I can get behind that idea, but I *can* understand Spanish (not great, but not bad), so why assume?  And if it's because what they're saying is too quiet or something, then shouldn't it show [speaks unintelligibly] or similar?

      • Sean says:

        They were speaking perfectly intelligibly to each other, across a table at a restaurant the French gangster owned.  But this was a BBC show marketed predominantly in the English-speaking world, and the French gangsters were minor characters (this is "Gangs of London", btw).  Yes, the hypothetical bilingually-fluent viewer is going to have a slightly different experience.  For them, it's the equivalent of an easter egg.

    • Joe says:

      the main characters aren't able to understand them, and *neither are you*

      This is a bad assumption.

      I am multilingual. I just can't hear. It is super irritating when there is dialogue in a language that I understand, but I don't know what it is because the fuckface subtitler decided to replace it with "[speaking foreign language]". The obvious solution is to just subtitle what the speaker is saying, without translating, using the written form of whatever language they are speaking.

      Also irritating is when I'm watching a foreign-language film with translated English subtitles, then a character says something in English and the subtitles cut out so I can't tell what they're saying.

      The solution is to have two subtitle tracks per language: one for people who can't hear and another for people who just want translation. Maybe a third track for those who can't understand solely because the dialogue is mumbled. It sounds like extra work but it's not really, as the latter two are just subsets of the first.

  7. kurth says:
    1 has the hearing-impaired subtitles flagged with an icon, which is kinda helpful.

    +++ for the classic yellow coloring! :)

    • グレェ「grey」 says:

      I can't remember which panel at which Japanese animation convention (Anime Expo probably, but maybe it was ヤニメヤメリカ[sic, their hilarious typo, not mine] aka Anime America?) it was anymore, but it was in the early 1990s and maybe still in San Jose? If I had to guess it was either AnimEigo (presumably Robert J. Woodhead himself) or AD Vision (RIP, though they were fansubbers before they went "pro") who dropped a gem of knowledge about yellow subtitles.

      Apparently in research (which specific research was cited is lost on me now, along with more precise detailed recollection of this lecture) yellow subtitles were considered to be the most legible with the least eye fatigue among viewers.

      Despite such knowledge being shared (albeit at events which were at the time attended by several thousand at most, a far cry from the tens of thousands these days) it never ceases to frustrate me when I encounter white subtitles, especially as often occurs where they have no outline/bolding and will completely become illegible when overlayed against frames which themselves have copious amounts of bright white lighting. If going for white subtitled text, at least having black outlines makes such things not completely vanish in such circumstances, but I still encounter such travesties in subtitled films often.

      To me at least, yellow subtitles indicate a modicum of awareness of research in the field of subtitle legibility, which implies late 20th century, and is a far cry from what I would term "classic" but if yellow subtitles are now interpreted that way, it's probably actually a good thing!

  8. My pet peeve is when the character says something, but the subtitles say something different.  Sometimes it appears to be because it would be hard to read that much text so they abbreviate it in some way. I can understand that one.  But sometimes they just use different words for no apparent reason at all.

    • jwz says:

      I suspect the reason is that the subtitler is working from the shooting script, rather than transcribing what was actually said.

      • True. Could be some sort of automated thing where the script is fed into an application, one by one, and they just need to time the placement.  I obviously have no idea how the closed captioning process works.

        • jwz says:

          And as with all things, I feel confident that very soon, Large Language Models are going to make all of this almost inconceivably worse in some way.

  9. Karl says:

    Aren't those SDH subtitles? What you're looking for are Narrative subtitles, which only transcribe the spoken bits.

    • jwz says:

      As I said above, with the majority of movies I watch, the choices available are "everything" or "only sound effects and foreign languages".

      If you are about to say "well all you have to do is" , then let me remind you that making watching TV take more preparation and effort is not something I was asking for help with.

      • Karl says:

        I won't, you probably know already how easy scripting the removal of the lines that annoy you is, and I agree that it's an extra chore to run that trimming script each time (and that's not even useful if you use netflix & friends rather than playing downloaded videos).

        It's interesting how your issue is a very English-speaker specific problem, though. The overwhelming majority of movies being in English, there's very little need for Narrative subs, only SDH and Forced. I guess that's how it is, and count me among those who are annoyed by that as well (English is a second language for me, subtitles help from time to time, and I am somewhat annoyed by the contextual bits too).

        Well, all you have to do is learn any foreign language and use those subtitles instead, which are very often of the narrative sort. :p

        • D says:

          It being an "easy issue to fix" is precisely why it is such an infuriating issue as a viewer.

          Specifically, it would be an easy fix for the production side, just make the SDH subtitles as you currently do and then leave the SDH parts out for the alternative and ship both.

          On the other hand "just pirate it and fix the subtitles yourself" does not sound very appealing and isn't comparatively as easy.

          I am saying this as a non-native English speaker who always defaults to English subtitles, because the translations often are even worse than having SDH captions. If the translations are good then I may go for them just to reduce the cognitive load.

  10. Waider says:

    Two classics of the genre from my locale:

    • Tristan and Isolde, a so-so movie based on mythology not dissimilar to Romeo and Juliet, but concerning England and Ireland rather than Capulet and Montague. Filmed partially in Ireland. Woman speaks in Irish, subtitle reads "speaks in a foreign language."
    • A documentary series whose primary language is Irish, which I was able to follow much of the time, but which I was also following the subtitles of in English for the bits where my decade-plus of being force-fed a language I had no interest in didn't hold up. English caption for a section on a failed enterprise: "The money ran out.". Literal Irish narration, which I actually understood: "The arse fell out of [the enterprise]." (Perhaps they were contractually obliged not to say "arse" in writing.)
    • jwz says:

      Those are pretty bad. But I do appreciate the creative translations of swearing, when I know enough of the original language to make it out. Especially when the swearing is creative.

      I am often amazed that the only swear word French people seem to know is merde, to the extent that translators usually just spin the wheel and pick some unrelated obscenity to use instead.

      • Carlos says:

        Random factoid:  Canadian French and Parisian French differ in swearing.  In Canadian French, all the "worst" curse words are from a religious context, presumably because the language forked from the motherland around the beginning of the 17th century.

        The worst one - the one that will get you stared at - is "tabernac".

        "merde" is barely swearing in Quebec; it's more like "damn" in English.


  11. CSL3 says:

    As someone who's been keeping up with subtitle (d)evoIution since the mid-'90s on CRTs (ie. the glorious pre-HDMI era, when a sub and language tracks could be carried over-the-air, 'til the creators of HDMI forgot to include that access), I maintain that the single worst subtitle-job ever is the one WB made for Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's 2008 Rolling Stones concert film.

    At the time, WB must have had some bullshit policy for all their movies and tv shows - as seen on all their DVDs and broadcasts on HBO, TNT, etc - that listed any and all in-scene songs as just "[singing]". Mind you, this was with the (non-musical story) characters singing tunes directly related to the action at hand. Yet, the WB transcribers would always - ALWAYS! - write it up as just "[singing]". (Tony Soprano mentions specific song lyrics to make a point? Just put "[singing]". Job well done!)

    So... imagine how that looks on a Rolling Stones concert flick? All the backstage stuff is fully subtitled, but the actual songs? "[singing]" Nothing more. I shit you not. If you're at all hearing-impaired, you're just watching a two-hour animated .gif of Mick Jagger... which isn't as much fun as it sounds in this context.

  12. david konerding says:

    This is a bit of an aside, but I was recently watching a movie (Guy Ritchie's The Covenant) with subtitles disabled (it was a rare situation where the dialogue was audible over the action).  A fair amount of the movie is speaking in the local language (I think Dari or Pashto?).  Unlike most movies I watch with plot-critical foreign languages, it seems like they didn't bake in the english translations rendered, but instead I had to enable English subtitles to see the translations.

    A few observations: it can actually be somewhat enjoyable to watch a movie about a translator without actual translations, except through the translator's spoken dialogue.  At first I thought htis was an intentional decision of the filmmaker (which would be a bold choice given the amount of foreign speaking in the movie) to make the viewer disoriented and feel more like the soliders who depended on the translator.  And also, it was kind of annoying to have to turn on *subtitles* to get *translations*, almost as if there should be a distinct subtitle track for translations so I can disable english subtitles when I don't need them.

    • david konerding says:

      Based on another comment on this post I went back and checked- there are two subtitle streams, one with just English translations and the other with english subs for spoken english and [ shouting indistinctly ]

  13. Curious says:

    As a hearing impaired person, I've experienced the opposite problem recently. I watched "Animal World" on Netflix.  The movie is Chinese. Everyone in the movie speaks Chinese except for Michael Douglas, who speaks English. The subtitles were all English except for Michael Douglas's parts which didn't have subtitles at all - not even  [foreign language].  

  14. Eric TF Bat says:

    Have you noticed that whichever cadre of monkeys does the subtitling for Netflix shows is in love with the word "scoffs"?  I dare you to find a show that doesn't use it at least once.

    Something about the different medium (subtitles vs spoken words) seems to make little quirks like that stand out.  I've noticed something similar with audiobooks: I've read nearly all the early Alastair Reynolds books and also listened to them via Audible, but it wasn't until I listened to them that I realised he has some kind of contractual obligation to include the word "interstices" at least once in every book.

  15. thielges says:

    China's situation is interesting.  Being a country of multiple spoken languages who share a common written language, subtitles are inserted primarily to allow a larger market to enjoy the movie.  The assumption is that their audience can hear the soundtrack but may not understand the spoken language.  So subtitles represent the dialog only.  Often there's not even an option to turn subtitles off, they're burned directly into the video stream.

  16. Jeff L says:

    Ah yes, subtitles. I'll throw my rant into the ring.

    0. Thanks for the trick of delaying the subtitles. Especially useful for stand up comedy, where subtitles spoil many a joke. And I'm with you on the music subtitles.

    1. Here's my story of how I came to start using subtitles. Around the time the sound design on movies started going to shit, but before it was common knowledge it was going to shit, and certainly before the "one weird trick" of turning on subtitles was widespread, I noticed the sound on movies was going to shit, but thought it was just me. It seemed like every movie had a couple / few lines of dialog that were unintelligible, no matter how many time I replayed them. And replay them I did. Most of the time I would eventually make out the dialog. But something like 1/3 to 1/2 of the time I couldn't figure it out, despite a dozen replays, lip reading, and context cues, and I would just give up. This went on for months? years? Then the clue stick hit me. I turned on subtitles and never looked back. But, the fact I suffered so long makes me question if I'm qualified to live in the 21st century.

    2. When watching foreign movies, I set the sound as the native language and the subtitles as English (which obviously follows). I can't watch dubbed movies anymore for a variety of reasons: the lips need to sync with the words; I prefer the emotion of the original performer's dialog; and I know just enough Spanish & Hindi that I occasionally pick up meaning that's not accurately translated into the subtitles (which makes me question the overall accuracy of translated subtitles and if there is a Knoll's Law for subtitles. But I digress). One time, Netflix auto selected the English dub on a foreign file and I spent 30 minutes thinking I had an audio / video sync problem. To go deeper, I've found the sporadic error state where the English dub is different from, and inferior to, the subtitles (Cowboy Beebop maybe?). It can be an interesting exercise to watch a movie where the English audio differs from the English subtitles, and process them in parallel. And there's another strange personal glitch where I need the foreign dialog to be at listenable volume in order to _read_ the subtitles, even though I don't speak the language. If the sound is low, I literally have to turn up the volume to be able to read the subtitles quickly and accurately.

    3. I freaking _hate_ the [speaking foreign language] subtitle. Translate, you lazy clods. Oh, it gets worse. I recently re-watched True Romance, mostly for the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. With subtitles on, Walken's mob associates dialog was [speaks in Italian]. However, I remembered their conversation and wondered what happened to it. Turns out, their conversation was subtitled. I had to turn _off_ the subtitles to see the subtitled conversation. Yes - they didn't even bother to keep the existing on screen subtitles when subtitling the movie. Which reminds me that movies used to display subtitles for non-English conversations by default. Now they can't even be bothered to translate the non-English dialog at all, never mind display the translation as default.

    • jwz says:

      Oh man, losing the subtitling in that True Romance scene literally deletes the punchline. Wow.

      By the way, as a point in favor of those saying "describing the emotional content of the soundtrack does actually matter", True Romance is like the textbook example of that. My micro-review from a rewatch a few years ago:

      True Romance (1993): I had fond memories of this movie, but that must have been from before additional decades of exposure to Tarantino and his creepy tics. This movie is crappy and mean! And the whole time I was watching it I was constantly thinking, "This scene would play as a bunch of horrifying psychopaths without this perky steel drum score behind it." So chalk that up to the power of music I guess.

      I would suggest that if a scene requires musical cues to work, then more often than not the scene is badly scripted, but that's not always the case. Just mostly.

  17. stb says:

    Two more points:

    Please remember that people who are contracted to do subtitles are paid like shit. I would not be surprised to learn that to make a living, you can only spend a day or two on a two-hour movie. Most subtitles are made because of legal requirements, not because the studio feels it will drive sales, and would be something any effort should be put into. This is not the fault of the people doing the subtitles.

    And another horrendous anecdote: a couple of years after my wife moved to Germany and was starting to get fluent, we figured it would be great to watch Das Boot in German, since she had only seen it in the US dubbed version. But because everybody is mumbling all the time, she had terrible trouble understanding them. So we switched on the German subtitles. But this was worse, as the subtitles had nothing to do with the dialogue. After listening and reading for a scene or two, I figured out that the people who did the German subtitles must have translated them from the English ones, leading to bad case of whispers. This was the Directors Cut DVD edition, must have been about 2005 or so.

    • jwz says:

      I'm beginning to formulate a theory here - bear with me - that perhaps capitalism ruins art. Well. Everything. Which includes art.

  18. Das67 says:

    Watching any kind of Spanish movie these days with Spanish subtitles on is an exercise in frustration because invariably the subtitles *never* match the spoken dialogue. It is sometimes a word or two here but often entire phrases are different. I can't figure out why this is happening. Are the subtitles made for the Spanish market or something?

  19. 2

    Another vote for "translate, don't describe," though I don't know what to do with situations like that early scene in Iron Man where someone speaking Urdu gives away the whole plot. If they translate everything but that scene, it will stand out as more significant before we're supposed to find out.

    I agree that "speaking foreign language" is repulsive, especially when the character is speaking the local language. I've seen "speaking other language,"  which is better. I appreciate the recent Star Wars shows where they use "speaking Jawa" and so on.

  20. Elusis says:

    You may also enjoy:  "Craptions."

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