Subtitling can be a tricky issue. I’ve tried my hand at subtitling before, so I know how hard it can be, getting the right words to show up in just the right place. You have all the problems of an accurate, idiomatic translation, amplified by the need to break it up into one- or two-line blocks in the right places and make it show up in the right place, down to the hundredth of a second. (Most subtitle formats allow for thousandths of a second, but rare is the case where that makes much difference.)

My experience started when my friend managed to track down a copy of Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru with hard subtitling in German. At the time, he was only decent in Japanese, and I was only decent in German, so the movie made sense when we watched it together, keeping up a running commentary concerning our own secondary languages. We decided to make a decent set of English subtitles. Thank God my friend found an English soft sub less than a month later because that was grueling, horrible work.

Later, this same friend (who is Korean by birth) expressed a dissatisfaction with the subtitles of some Korean dramas. Although 대장금 (A Jewel in the Palace) was the worst offender, with subtitles sometimes disappearing entirely for entire scenes, due to the hard subtitling and the lack of a framework from which to work, he turned his gaze to more modern fare: 내 이름은 김삼순 (My Name Is Kim Sam Sun), which had bad subtitles in terms of translation and, well, let’s just say that it was obvious that there were no native English speakers involved in the project. One of the most glaring problems was probably due to the translator’s lack of knowledge of French (a language in which both my friend and I share some proficiency): The eponymous character of that particular drama is a patissière, a chef who specializes in making pastries. The Korean pronunciation of that word is 파티시에 [pʰatʰiʃĭ̥ɛ] (pahtish_eh), which the translators, not knowing it came from a French word, presumably puzzled over for a long time before settling on the fairly close 파티솊 [pʰatʰiʃɛp̚] (pahtishe’), or “party chef.” This just annoyed the hell out of us, so we decided to edit the subtitles with my friend working more on translation and me more on making sure it sounded like decent English. We only finished the first episode; even with the timing framework already extant, it was just too long and tedious a process for us.

I say all this so that you know that I’m not saying that I blame anyone for not writing subtitles to the Spanish parts of Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It’s hard to watch a movie, mark down the exact times you need, translate all the right lines, break them up properly, insert them at the right times, and then tweak them till they work. It’s even worse if you use one of the many popular subtitle formats in which the time marked is not the time from the beginning of the film, but from the last subtitle (meaning that if you change one you have to adjust all of the times). Even with a subtitle utility, such as Jubler it can be a pain. I get that. However, there are already subtitles out there for the whole movie!

I know several languages. I don’t know Spanish. I know that puts me in a minority among multilingual Americans, but nevertheless, I have never felt sufficiently compelled to learn Spanish since I stopped going to Spanish Club (basically, an extracurricular Spanish class) in third grade. There is a scene in Once Upon a Time in Mexico at about 1:14:39-1:15:46 that is absolutely full of the kind of dark humor Robert Ramirez and his friend Quentin Tarantino are known for. The dialogue is both funny and explanatory of the characters’ actions. It is also entirely in Spanish, rendering the scene meaningless to someone who does not speak Spanish. Like me.

As mentioned above, I am not saying that I have not found any subtitles for this movie. In fact, they abound; however, they are for the hearing-impaired, best as I can tell. The first few sets of English subtitles I found were actually only over the English dialogue; Spanish dialogue was left blank. I did finally find one that covered everything. It was an .SRT file. An .SRT file! Those can be edited in Notepad! How has nobody made subtitles for the English-speaking audience yet? Well, I did. Do you want to know how hard it was? I opened the subtitles in notepad in one window, the movie in another window, and deleted every line that the actors said in English. When I tell you that I deleted 625 lines, you may think that sounds hard, but all I did was highlight lines as the came up and hit the delete button every now and then. Frankly, fewer lines would have been harder because I would have had to have been more discerning.

Maybe everyone else just deals with the full English subtitles, I don’t know. Personally, I don’t like it when dialogue the actors are saying is reprinted at the bottom of the screen; it’s redundant and distracting. Worse, the dialogue is lifted from the script, which any decent actor will constantly deviate from in small ways, since it always sounds more natural to ad lib slightly. It looks unprofessional when the actor says one thing and the subtitles say another. In translation, the only way to tell that is when the translation is actually inaccurate, but when it’s for the language the actors are already speaking, it happens constantly, and it just looks bad.

So, anyway, if anyone wants to watch Once Upon a Time in Mexico with English subtitles over the Spanish and nothing else, drop me a line, I’ll send you the .SRT file. They’re easy to use: Just put it in the same directory as your copy of the movie, change the file name to match that of the movie (with a .SRT extension instead of .AVI or .MPG or whatever your movie is, of course; if you don’t see an extension, it’s because you have your computer set not to show them, and it doesn’t matter), and hey presto. Just remember to do it before loading the movie up in your media player; most of them won’t start using an external subtitle file halfway through. Or you can find a full English subtitle file and fix it yourself; it doesn’t take any longer than just watching the movie. It’s not like you’re writing the damn thing.

Oh, while I’m at it, here’s a quote from Eva Mendes’ Wiki page: “She began acting in the late 1990s, and after a series of roles in several low-end films, she broke into more mainstream Hollywood releases, such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, Hitch, We Own the Night and The Spirit.” Okay, so, they don’t mention her role in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which came out the same year as 2 Fast 2 Furious, and before any of the others listed, yet they mention The Spirit? The frickin’ Spirit. I got nothin’.


3 Responses to “Subtitling”

  1. October 13, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Totally need to work on the remaining episodes, one day.

    • October 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Maybe, although I’ve found that, while I like the translation process, I really don’t like making the subtitles. This was an interesting time for you to comment, since right now I’m working on subtitles to Bella Martha (released in the US as Mostly Martha, and remade in the US as No Reservations) because the subtitles it did come with are completely screwed up. Wish me luck; I’m far worse at understanding spoken German than written German. (The timing appears to be delayed, and the subtitle file format can’t be edited in a text editor, and I really hate using Jubler.)

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