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It is when subtitles are up to scratch that they are least noticed. They should be the viewer's almost invisible friend.

There's no getting away from reading subtitles if you want to understand what's being said and you don't speak the language of the film. There are many ways of minimizing any obtrusiveness and it is when these ways are ignored that people really find subtitles disturbing.

Good subtitles go unnoticed. They contain no typographical or grammatical errors, mistranslations, or translations which are semantically correct but fail to transmit the intended meaning or significance, for a start. In the following, for instance, the meaning is correct but the register isn't:
"Hey, dude! What's up?" is a line spoken by a gangster, but it has been translated as: "Hello, my friend, how are you doing?" which sounds more like period drama.

Apart from the linguistic aspects, subtitles can suffer from being:
  • Poorly timed: subtitles and speech are not synchronised - what you see is not what you hear, which can be rather disconcerting.
  • Too wordy / too brief: sometimes the subtitle may be so lengthy that the audience cannot finish reading it, or they can barely do so while missing the action. On the other hand, omitting key information will leave the audience puzzled and unable to follow and enjoy the film in full.
  • Too dense: there are occasions when the time gaps between subtitles are not set properly, so the audience experiences constant "flashing" of captions, which causes discomfort. Too many subtitles like "yes" or "no", "hi", "argh", etc. are unnecessary distractions, unless they are subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Subtitles are there to help the audience enjoy films and make the most of them. When subtitling goes wrong, the pleasure and experience of watching a programme is ruined, and when this happens too often, people are put off going to see foreign films. Many DVDs on the market are notoriously badly subtitled, which can affect sales and, therefore, the profit and reputation of the production companies. Bad subtitles also upset good subtitlers, since subtitles which are below standard lower the reputation of their profession. And of course, bad subtitles also damage the artistic integrity of films. So whether you are a professional subtitler or studying to become one, a teacher of subtitling, or someone working in film production and sales, a film buff or simply someone who likes to relax in front of the cinema or TV screen, chances are that low standards in subtitling is an issue which affects you. It seems to be getting worse… but, with your help, there could be a way out.

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