Subtitles – Why I hate people who bitch about them

Posted on by Jeffrey

Working for Japan Flix, I have quite a bit of experience with subtitling and it’s a complete pain in the ass. For those of you who think subtitling is just translating, you’re 100% wrong.

Often, those of use who can speak two languages look for accuracy when we see translations. That is not how subtitling works though, and it pisses me off to listen to people whine about how the Japanese was “butchered” or the “that’s not what they said” comments.

Christ! They’re different cultures! Of course it’s never going to be perfect.

It’s not supposed to be perfect; it’s supposed to be smooth. Whether that means the character’s subtitles read as how they would talk or the subtitles are short enough for the viewer to read and still be affected by the visual.

I subtitled stuff for NHK and was limited to 1 character (spaces count) per 1/10 of a second. For example, “What are you doing?” has to be on screen for 1.9 seconds even though it may have only taken the actor 1.5 seconds to say it in Japanese and now the scene has ended and the shot has changed. There is no flexibility.

So then I have to pay attention to the placement of the subtitle to try and make sure it doesn’t overlap a cut awkwardly or appears before the actor starts speaking but the priority is always the length. Every character and space gets 1/10 of a second.

In addition, I don’t subtitle shit for your Asiaphile ass. I subtitle it for people like my mom who hates subtitles. Many people find subtitles distracting and annoying.

Here’s a secret…


Subtitles suck. Since film’s invention, it has been a visual medium and dialogue has always been secondary. Producers and directors don’t think about subtitles when they make the movie. Storyboard artists don’t put subtitles in the storyboards to make sure that they work with the image. Subtitles are the best thing we’ve got though because even more distracting is a live-action dub where the actor’s mouth doesn’t match the words we’re hearing them speak.

Subtitles can be great if we don’t get caught up in the translation. They allow us to experience films we would never have had the opportunity to otherwise. Not to mention, we want more people to be interested in foreign movies so we try and make the subtitles less of an impediment. We want to grow the audience don’t we?

So, next time you read a subtitle and it doesn’t match what’s being said, take it easy and think about the big picture.



1 comments for Subtitles – Why I hate people who bitch about them

  1. Great post! I’m a subtitler myself (English and German into Dutch), and even though foreign broadcasts in the Netherlands are always subtitled, I often hear this complaint as well. Recently I heard how they solve this in cinemas in Poland. The original film is played, and a translator, who’s in the audience, reads the translated dialogue aloud, which means all characters are read in the same voice!

    Subtitles may suck, but they’re often the best choice to reach a wider audience. If only the movie industry would recognize that and pay the subtitler a decent fee. It’s a form of art, people. It really is.

    I’m a subtitler and proud of it!

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