Subtitling tries to make me dumber

I was watching Todd Sampson‘s Redesign My brain S1E1 Make Me Smarter and noticed the subtitling was annoyingly wrong. FMRI was subtitled as MRI. Baseline became based on – and there was more errors. My hearing’s not super-great, but even I could tell that these weren’t right.

Twice I’ve seen subtitling so bad that I’ve been prompted to find out who did it. Last time it was Jacqui Mapoon at CSI.

This time it was Jacqui Mapoon at CSI. Either Jacqui does a lot of work for CSI and sometimes has bad days, or she does a little work and often screws it up. What are the odds that on the two occasions I notice very bad subtitling, the same person’s behind it?  Subtitling is a very specialized field, so there can’t be that many people doing it, but at the same time a lot of TV is subtitled. I know from personal experience that subtitling takes at least 5 minutes per minute of show, and can take more if it’s particularly speech-heavy. There are a few hours of TV a night requiring subtitles, and it’d take one person one day to subtitle one hour of TV, so there’s probably a few dozen people in Australia doing it; live subtitling is a different specialty. Perhaps work processes need to be changed; I know I proof my subtitling after having done it, and spot errors. Perhaps someone other than the original subtitler ought to do the final proofing? Proof-reading error rates would show whose work needed more attention.

Most of the subtitles that I’ve seen are great – precisely timed transcriptions of the spoken dialogue, either exact reproductions or well thought through précis, contracted just enough to be faithful to the words and the intent whilst also fitting on the screen. For some reason American stuff is all caps unless the character is off-screen. Given so many in this industry can get it transparently right, why does one person’s work repeatedly poke me in the eye? Somebody give Jacqui some training, stat!

1 thought on “Subtitling tries to make me dumber

  1. Carmel

    Hey, Josh,
    Yes, captioning does take a long time to do but the instances where a program has been provided with both video and script are extremely rare. Even shows provided to CSI by the ABC (their main client) rarely have scripts, so each show has to be captioned from scratch and little or no help is provided by those who made the program.

    In my experience as a captioner, all ‘prime time’ shows are supposed to be edited in real time by an editor or supervisor, so the fault here lies as much in an editor as in the original captioner. Having been one myself for many years (many years of my life I would like to have back, I might add), it is far from an easy job. Some actors are hard to hear as sound effects sometimes cover dialogue, the videos we receive are often of such poor quality that we can’t even attempt to lip read and we often don’t get ample time to do what we would consider a good job.

    I understand your frustration with the quality of work but the reality of the situation is that captioning is not a flourishing industry and companies have very little money to employ as many people as they would like to both caption and edit. Captioners are underpaid and stretched to meet deadlines and are often not aided in their endeavours by a reliable script.

    So while there will always be cases of amusing, frustrating or sometimes even insulting mistakes in a caption file, it’s also fair to take note that about 99.9% of the file is actually correct.

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