Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fun with subtitles

My hearing is bad, and I don't hear consonants (21 letters of the alphabet, if you count "y") as well as an unimpaired person, so when I started to watch the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, I was happy to have the subtitle option. How could I have known how much subtitles would amuse me? After seeing countless mismatches between what is spoken and what is shown, I wonder how subtitles are generated—by computers that "hear" very literally and with no powers of comprehension or discretion, or by humans with equally limited powers? (My bet is on computers.)

Here are just a few examples from just a few episodes, with the spoken word or phrase first and its subtitle following:

genteel ruffian = Gentile ruffian
squalid rooms = scrawled rooms
five and tuppence = five crumpets
cigar ashes = cigar action (insert Bill Clinton joke)
foolscap = fools kept
Flaubert = Flabare
Jabez Wilson = Jay Beards Wilson
Hezekiah = Ethic Guya
Da Vinci = De Vinci
signature writ large = signature at large
trampled underfoot = trouble underfoot
place me in the dock = place me in the dark
hansom cab = handsome cab
period of mourning = period of morning
small brougham = small broom (Watson's transportation to the train station! Perfect for Halloween!)

Not only am I relishing the performances of my favorite actor to portray Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett, but I am gobsmacked by the nonsensical phrases that appear to roll off his tongue and those of the other characters, including the "Gentile ruffian." Now imagine the deaf who don't have my ability to hear most of the dialogue and therefore to parse the subtitles. While it seems reasonable to me that the young woman running through the house is shouting frantically for "Alice! Alice! Alice!" surely the deaf must wonder what signifies her calls of "Ours! Ours! Ours!"


  1. Those are funny! The errors are probably due to speech recognition technology. See my blog for an explantion on how subtitles for TV are created:

    Although given that Sherlock is a pre-recorded programme I am surprised that method is being used. Pre-recorded content should be captioned accurately offline by a human being.

  2. Hi, I'd forgotten about live subtitles until I saw a giant TV screen on the side of a building with a news broadcast. There were lots of mistakes, but those I mentally ignored as inevitable when someone/something is transcribing from an anchor's live speech—that has to be high pressure. As you say, as the Brett Sherlock Holmes show was recorded, I expected a minimum of mistakes, and certainly not the hilarious ones above (and there were more). I also wonder why, if there is a human agency, they don't turn up the volume instead of putting in "inaudible." In some cases, a slight volume adjustment over a muttered phrase makes it clear. But I suppose that it's all about cranking and production—getting as many transcripts done in as short a time as possible. It's just that it's on DVDs that sell for hundreds as a set! Should I rave about quantity over quality?

    Also watched Lady Chatterley, which is in French with English subtitles. I understand just enough basic French to think the subtitles were reasonably accurate, perhaps with a questionable spot or two.