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More Than Words: How Some Movies Wind Up With Lousy Subtitles

When Alice's flamingo-cum-croquet mallet was translated as a "flamenco," I'd had enough.

Everybody makes mistakes, but whoever was responsible for the error-ridden subtitles nearly ruined my viewing of Alice, Jan Švankmajer's otherwise delightful adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Shoddy subtitles are all too common, and they can completely alter a viewer's understanding of a film. For example, check out these three different translations of the final scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. The first veers pretty wildly from the actual dialogue. As for the second, who would ever actually say, in English, "It's a real scumbag"? The last comes close to capturing the spirit of the French, but for me, every one of these versions is unnecessarily distracting.

Anyone who's seen enough foreign films is bound to have noticed typos, punctuation gaffes and head-scratching translation choices. So why exactly is sub-par subtitling so common? What is it about the process that leads to such clumsy work? To find out, I called Craig Keller, the producer of boutique DVD label Masters of Cinema.

When Masters of Cinema put together the DVD for another Godard film, Une femme mariée, Keller knew he had to scrap the film's existing subtitles. "They were probably either translated from scratch or taken from old bootleg video tapes," he says. The stilted translation didn't come close to capturing the wit and nuance of Godard's script. Keller doesn't pull any punches: "They were just appalling."

So — as is done with all Masters of Cinema releases — Keller contracted the subtitling duties out to a post-production firm in London that boasts a dedicated staff of translators. As it turns out, subtitles are rarely produced in-house, so unevenness in subtitle quality can stem from unevenness in contractor quality.

If you're willing to pay translators well and give them a reasonable deadline, you can certainly get good subtitles. And then, like Masters of Cinema, you can use updated subtitles as a way to lure discerning cinephiles. But Keller says it's an investment in quality that not everyone chooses to make. "We have a budgetary allotment for the fact that this has to be done right," he says. "A lot of companies don't have that."

Put simply, you get what you pay for, and that part makes sense. But a lot about the subtitling process seems to make no sense whatsoever. For reasons I still don't fully understand, home video companies often commission new subtitles for DVD releases, paying for rushed, cut-rate translations instead of using the perfectly decent ones that already exist from theatrical runs. Exhibit A: the laughably dumbed-down subtitles on the DVD release of Let The Right One In.

Even more incomprehensibly, subtitlers aren't necessarily working with the original dialogue. In worst-case scenarios, they might be creating subtitles from an already-dubbed film. There's been speculation that this might have been the problem with one widely mocked DVD box set of Akira Kurosawa films. Perhaps, the theory goes, the subtitles are based off Chinese dub tracks rather than the original Japanese lines. And perhaps that explains why, according to one online analysis, what the British Film Institute version subtitles as "I saw an old woman in the Forest," this version subtitles as "I met a monster in the spider bush." Or how, similarly, "Keep away from me, you stink" becomes "Get away, you are of cropse smell."

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of these subtitling jobs is the apparent lack of oversight. I mean, doesn't it seem likely that if just one person had double-checked those Alice subtitles, they'd have caught that rogue "flamenco"? In many cases, there's indeed little in the way of copyediting, but Keller inspects all subtitles before printing Masters of Cinema discs, soliciting input from colleagues familiar with various languages if he needs to. DVD labels that mangle the subtitling process "could always copyedit," he says. "They could always do one proof. And they don't."

To be clear, plenty of subtitlers do great work, and that great work can easily go unnoticed, simply because the best subtitles are the ones that make you forget you're reading subtitles in the first place. Ensuring that you get a quality product, Keller says, is all about the way you provide it. "It just comes down to a conscientious approach, which some companies do have," says Keller. "A lot don't."

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David Wagner

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