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Pop Culture

Subtitles should be seen, not 'heard'

They play an important role in broadening the audience for a work, but they should be subservient to the movie

In the recent Chinese suspense thriller The Mysterious Family, a mother was confronting her daughter's rapist in an emotionally charged scene, when the subtitles suddenly took centre stage and wrested attention away from what was happening onscreen.

"You have the nuts to do it, why not have the balls to admit it?"

In Mandarin, the line went: "Ni you zhong zuo, wei shen me mei zhong cheng ren?" A simpler and more effective translation could have been: "You had the guts to do it, why don't you have the guts to admit it?"

Mixing nuts and balls is clearly a case of a subtitler gone rogue.

These films have a production budget, but no one thought it was worth spending some money to get right something as basic as the subtitles.

Subtitles for a movie should be like that old adage about children - seen but not heard, or draw attention to themselves.

They play an important role in broadening the audience for a work, but they should be subservient to the movie.

At least in The Mysterious Family, there was effort expended on the subtitles, misguided though that line was.

That cannot be said for the awful errors in other films.

In the local horror comedy, The Ghosts Must Be Crazy (2011), a character is described as a "sicklish chicken". A spellcheck would have revealed that there is no such word as "sicklish".

The Korean drama, Natali (2011), billed as the first erotic movie shown here in 3D, thrust ungrammatical Mandarin and English subtitles in the audience's faces rather than sexy shenanigans.

And the Chinese adventure flick, For A Few Bullets (2016), undermined the charms of its rakish leading man Lin Gengxin with subtitles that were rife with errors, including this: "Some warlords forces used violent mechanic to destroying the tomb."

These films have a production budget, but no one thought it was worth spending some money to get right something as basic as the subtitles.

I am far more forgiving when it comes to fansubs - these are subtitles done by fans for which they are not paid. Even when the English is laboured - as though chunks of dialogue had been dumped into the input column of Google Translate and the results simply copied and pasted from the output column - I am thankful.

After all, without their labour of love, I would not have access to the likes of Thai-language television dramas.

The hard work of these fans is sometimes recognised by the actors themselves and getting that acknowledgement by one's idols must be such a thrill for them.

On the Facebook page for the Thai drama, Part Time The Series - about university students who work to make ends meet - there is a photo of lead actor Luangsodsai Anupart (also known as Ngern) holding up a handwritten thank-you sign to the subtitles team for the show.

Once in a while, one gets reminded that these amateur subtitlers have lives outside of their time-consuming hobby.

There was a plea - in subtitles in an episode I watched - for viewers not to hound them for new, captioned episodes as they were having exams and that they would get to it when they had the time.

In another show, the subtitler was so involved with the drama that he berated a character for his behaviour in comments generously sprinkled with exclamation marks.

It was like a special DVD running-commentary bonus feature - except that this could not be turned off.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'Subtitles should be seen, not 'heard''. Print Edition | Subscribe