When the subtitles don't match up

Have you ever seen a foreign language movie or show where a clearly audible line is either missed or mistranslated? For example, I remember seeing a movie set in WW2 where two characters are speaking in German. Although I don’t know German, I could recognize one of them saying “Jean Harlow”. From the context of the scene, they were clearly comparing a woman in the movie to the actress. Yet, on the subtitles, Harlow is not mentioned at all.

As a one time fan of Hong Kong action cinema, I can say it happens all the time. And the worst is when the subtitle content is correct but the timing is way off. Like a minute too fast or too slow.

It happens constantly in Spanish subtitles. Words and even phrases are missed or mistranslated. Sometime words are translated as their homonyms. Sometimes puns and jokes have to be put in completely different terms, or sometimes they just give up and translate them literally without attempting to have them make sense.

One of the most hilarious I recall was in Deadwood, in which the name of Al Swearengen’s saloon, the Gem Theater, was evidently misheard by the translator as “The Gym.” It appeared in the Spanish subtitles as “El Gimnasio” (The Gymnasium), which caused me considerable confusion until I figured it out.

heh see a Korean video using google translation for the subtitles on you tube ……calling it engrish is a compliment ………

I remember seeing lots of bootleg films in Thailand where the subtitles were absolutely hilarious. They definitely cut some corners there.

The classic example is the first English release of “The Killer” where Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) was “Mickey Mouse” and Detective Lee (Danny Lee Sau Yin) was “Dumbo”! It got a little better when it was changed to “Butthead” and “Numbnuts”, but it’s far cry from what they’re really calling each other, “Shrimphead” (Har tau) and "Little (Baby) B[rother (Sai B).

There’s also the Jeff/John (Chow Yun Fat) debacle, where some people back then were saying that “John” was a tribute to director John Woo. Ummm…Chow’s character’s name is “Ah Jong”, not John or Jeff.

There’s a song in Dragons Forever that I cant tell if I want to know the proper translation or not because the subtitles are so brilliantly corny. “Love is a conveyor belt of warmth”.

I remember watch a foreign movie that I had the Closed Captioning on.

The CC, and the subtitles that were already embedded in the movie did NOT match about 15 to 20% of the time.

The over all meaning stayed the same, but the wording was different.

heck closed captioning its self can be horrible……. the gym I go to sometimes has the sound on with the closed captioning too and sometimes you wonder if you hearing the same show …….

I watch Bill Maher’s show live but on HBO’s streaming service. The CC on that is like a full minute lag behind. And the annoying part is, you can’t turn the CC off.

In Roma …

(spoilers below for what’s basically a current movie)

The children, and the viewers, have been told that Dad is on a business trip in … I forget, Argentina or something … for at least a month or two. Near the end of the movie, Mom takes the family on a trip to the beach, then sits the kids down and tells them that Dad was only away for a week, then he came back to Mexico City and has been living somewhere else the whole time.

According to the subtitles, a kid asks, “Can we see him?” and Mom says, “He wants to see you.” Then, “When?” “He doesn’t know.”

What Mom is actually saying, though, is “He says he wants to see you,” and “He says he doesn’t know.” A subtle difference, but an important one.

It’s been probably 20 years since I’ve seen Run Lola Run, but I remember one of the lines, when subtitled said something like ‘Lola, you’ve come at last’, when overdubbed it was ‘My angel, you’ve come at last’.
I really don’t remember the movie well, but I do remember when watching it thinking that calling her ‘my angel’ made a difference.

In some anime (and even live-action) that includes both the Japanese soundtrack and an English dub track, they sometimes add extra lines of dialogue to the English dub when the character’s mouth isn’t visible (they apparently believe that American audiences can’t handle a moment of silence.) Then when you watch the original version with subs turned on you will see the extra lines pop up in the subtitles when nothing is being said on-screen. You’ll see this in some of the American DVDs of Ghibli movies, for instance. (This also occasionally happens with English subtitles in a native English movie, showing that the subs were made from a script that doesn’t actually 100% match the final movie.)

In Asian culture (and probably others), using honorific titles such as brother, sister, auntie, uncle, etc rather than proper names. for those older than you is common and proper etiquette. Sometimes this causes non-Asian viewers to think that people are really blood related. This is especially confusing if it’s a couple.

To prevent this, English subtitles often translate the honorific title as the person’s name. Generally this isn’t an issue, however it misses the subtlety of a developing relationship when the characters get closer and drop the honorific title in private* and actually starts using the other person’s actual name.

*It’s still impolite to not use the honorific title in public. For example, in the West, your parents may allow you to call them by their first name at home, but in public you’re expected to call them Mom and Dad.

I just checked out the short documentary “Period. End of sentence.” on Netflix (it was an Oscar winner) and the film is all in Indian dialects with English translation. The English closed captioning is very different than the English that is on the audio track.

Machine translations do the oddest things. I remember when the BBC was first setting up its live machine-translated subtitling service and tried it at the Eurovision Song Contest. Most countries submit songs in various mangled forms of English, and I can remember one where the lyric mentioned “shivers” and the subtitling came up with first Chivas and then Chivers (which is a brand of marmalade).

I don’t know if some programmes are subtitled by un(der)paid interns or ill-educated people who don’t really listen, or it’s just automatic services that have improved but can’t yet fully cope, but almost every time I use them, I can hear the most obvious errors.

I mostly watch Asian films and, yes, some of the subtitling is…interesting to say the least. But I certainly understand NOT using a literal translation. It’s better to subtitle idiomatic phrases based on what the reader will understand, rather than what is likely an obscure reference in the original language.

On a different topic…I’ve noticed on some European films that much of the dialog seems to go untranslated. I was watching La Dolce Vita a few years ago and those crazy Italians would be having some sort of fast-paced, seemingly intricate discussion. The subtitles would be, like, “I’m going to the theater.” How can 30 seconds of animated dialog only result in “I’m going to the theater” ???

Funny you should mention this. There was one Tony Jaa (martial arts) film with (english) subtitles where there was a scene of some newscasters reporting in english…and the people doing the subtitles just went off the rails ! It was hilarious. I guess they took the opportunity to not have to translate, to just insert whatever they felt like.

Speaking of Tony Jaa films, I’ve wondered why the (subtitled) name of one of the characters was “Dirty Balls” (or was that just a translation having fun). Seems like an odd nickname at best.

Growing up we watched a lot of samurai movies. During one my mom sort of chortled at the dialogue (she was only one who understood japanese). The main character had these others following him, and the subtitle line was “stop following me like goldfish” which didn’t seem all that funny (or make all that much sense). My mom pointed out that what was actually said was “stop following me like goldfish poop”, which made a lot more sense !

That is a classic. Watching it with some friends, not playing close attention because food, beer, and no action on the screen, someone shouted “what?!”. We had to rewind and rewatch several times to understand the context. There is none, it’s just a schmaltzy comment? I’d love to know what the original Chinese means.

My favorite Jackie & Sammo movie.

I see it all the time, and often it makes sense. Some cultural references don’t translate, so they don’t translate them, or they translate them to a cultural reference that does make sense; some idioms just completely don’t work in another language; sometimes there is simply way too much text to be able to comfortably read, so parts of conversations deemed unnecessary are simply skipped over. These are all valid reasons the subtitle will differ from the what is actually being spoken in the movie. It’s a fine art to strike a balance between all these concerns. I’ve never watched a movie believing the subtitles are an exact, literal, and complete translation of what the actors are saying, anymore than I would think the same of a written work. Subtitles are not meant to be transliterations.

And, many other times, yes, they are just plain wrong.