I learned everything I know from subtitles

My wife inexplicably added Dirty Dancing to our NetFlix queue. I inexplicably put it in the DVD player this morning (my copy of Die Hard 3 having mysteriously gone missing), and as is my habit while watching a movie during a run on the treadmill, I activated subtitles so as not to miss any of the deep and moving dialog.

You may not have noticed, but the writers of movie subtitles often exercise what I'll diplomatically refer to as artistic license when generating the text that accompanies the movie's audio track. The really good (or compulsive) subtitlers will even describe sound effects (craaaack!) or musical interludes (cello playing ominously). You'll occasionally see long monologues paraphrased, sometimes in ways that affirm one's suspicions that no aspect of modern industry is immune to outsourcing to workers for whom English is, at best, a second language.

And, sometimes, they just get it wrong, having apparently thrown up their figurative hands in dismay, as if they'd been asked to subtitle the original version of Louie, Louie. Such is the case with one scene in Dirty Dancing.

Remember when Baby and Johnny are doing the mambo exhibition while Johnny's regular partner visits the butcher with the coat hanger? Of course you do; don't play coy. Anyway, she's all, like, nervous and he's all, like, just follow my lead, and he's talking her through the next steps (like anyone ever does that), and at one point he says, very clearly, albeit sotto voce, "cross body lead."

Now, as we all know, the cross body lead is one of the more common moves in ballroom and Latin dancing, where the male turns away from the female and then pulls her past his body in one fluid (theoretically) motion so that she ends up on the opposite side of where she started. One can do cross body leads in everything from cowboy two step to rumba to foxtrot (although I've never seen anyone actually successfully execute the move while doing the gator). So, it's not like it's some exotic move that was specially created at Patrick Swayze's behest just for this movie.

Anyway...well, I've lost my train of thought. Oh, wait; the subtitle. Yeah, when Johnny says cross body lead, the subtitle comes up as now spot a lead. Oh, my. Talk about a disaster of epic proportions.

I think (I hope) the message is clear: never rely on subtitles when trying to master subject material of a highly technical or life-and-death nature. Because it might just be that the next time you're trying to defuse a bomb before it blows up the nunnery, instead of playing through your head the proper snip the red wire, you'll hear strip and head higher, and not only will people die, but you'll probably be humiliated. 

4 Comments

I learned this lesson about captioning when I took a distance class in grad school. It was live, but I took it at a remote campus over CCTV and our prof had a seriously thick accent (can't remember the nationality.) We called in several times to get him to restate things and finally the captioner typed "Sorry guys, I don't have a clue, I'm just a captioner."

Most of us just marked down the dates for the tests and stopped coming to class at that point.

Well...true.

Appropos of nothing...I thought of you last night as I shoo'd a preying (praying?) mantis out of my house. Those I don't smush cause they eat the other bugs. Didn't take a picture though.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric published on September 8, 2009 2:59 PM.

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