Why English Subtitles Are Not Accurate

Am I picking on English subtitles again? Yes. I am. Sorry. This time it’s to target something I haven’t really talked about. Accuracy. This hits English subtitles where it really hurts because even if you get over all the other negatives which I’ve discussed on here, if they teach you the wrong Japanese, you can’t be happy.

English Subtitles Are Not Accurate 1

Subtitles suffer from multiple inherent issues that make them inaccurate:

1. Human fault

Before I even get into the uncontrollable aspects of inaccuracy, there is often plain and simple shoddy work. Depending on where the subtitles originate from, the original translator may have just done a bad job. They may have been in a hurry, overworked, an amateur, or just not up to the task.

2. Subtitle timing

When someone says something, the subtitle has to appear. Due to English not being the same length, the proper English can’t always fit in a timely fashion. If it’s too long (you can express more in Japanese in less words), it needs to appear in a shorter way.

3. Translator Style

Language can be translated in a lot of different ways. It’s not just the case of a りんご being an apple. There are so many words and phrases that can have variations, there is no right way. The translator’s style becomes an influence and how he feels about it. You don’t want to learn Japanese based on the style of a translator.

4. Culture

Japan is different. Unexpected right? There is so much out there that just doesn’t make sense to a non-Japanese audience. That’s why localization in video game translation is such a big deal. Some subtitles will add notes on the screen to try to explain a cultural item. Others will just choose the closest Western equivalent.

5. Humor

You like to laugh? Good. But what you are laughing at is often completely different than the original joke because it wouldn’t make sense to you otherwise. Jokes are often either based on word play or cultural references.

6. Untranslatable words

Japanese is king of the untranslatable word. And queen of the “well this is kind of close” word. You are sometimes lucky to just get close. And close is not good enough

Please let me keep my beloved subtitles

English Subtitles Are Not Accurate 2

I’ve softened up and think there are 2 uses that can be forgiven. But only 2:

1. Motivation (which is something you can never get enough of sometimes).
2. Watch it with English subtitles the first time, and then put it on your immersion device afterwards.

Warning; if you excuse yourself for the above, make sure this is done extremely sparingly.

But subtitles are also good because…..

I’m not here to argue. Use them if you want. But you will be treading down a dangerous path by yourself and one you may never escape.

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


Why English Subtitles Are Not Accurate — 7 Comments

  1. Actually, I can think of one other reason, which is sort of related to the first, which is if you are watching with a spouse or other family member that is not studying Japanese.

    I have a personal rule that this is the only time I use English subtitles, when watching with my spouse. Even then, I generally watch first without subtitles and/or with Japanese subtitles, and use the English to check how well I did with understanding. I also have a rule that anything I watch with any subtitles at all…English OR Japanese, I watch again without subtitles. I also usually knit while watching with English subtitles with my spouse, so I am often not reading very closely anyways, because my eyes are on my knitting.

    It is good though, because it is a way to include my spouse in my studies, which in turn generates more family support, I think.

    Oh gosh, you are so right about English translations though. Actually, even early on in my studies, I started disliking the English subtitles. I prefer gentler and sweeter Anime, like Precure, Aria, and Maria-sama ga Miteru, and the English seems so much rougher and courser than the original Japanese…even when there is not a lot of “localization.”

    There is also the trouble of the different sentence structure of Japanese and English, which means that many times, the subtitles and the frames are often reversed, and the speaker(s) is(are) saying a different part of the sentence than the subtitles which are appearing.

    • I definitely agree about using it to watch it with friends/family, which is a great way to enjoy your Japanese with other people.

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhircuOpJoM

    Either the guy just used google translate for this, or my Japanese skills are still bad. I feel like there is a CORE misunderstanding of the language at every second line in this translation. It would be great if someone (ADAM?) could shed a light on this (just tell me if the translation is correct or not).

    • It’s definitely not google translate. It wouldn’t even be coherent if that were the case (google trans chokes *hard* on Japanese grammar). There are a lot of errors & questionable translation choices, but I don’t think that’s unreasonable for a fansub. It’s “good enough” for people who have no intention of actually learning Japanese themselves.

      Of course our standards are a lot higher than “good enough”, so it’s only natural that you picked up on the inaccuracies. One thing I’d suggest is to try creating your own EN subs as a practice exercise, as that’ll give you a good sense of how difficult it is to create a good translation, even for someone as skilled as you are.

      Bonus content: http://hinoki.mokuren.ne.jp/ajyushe-e01.html
      Here’s my attempt at translating a few episodes of a WoW guildmate’s comic strip over the Summer. I think it came out pretty good, but even looking back now (after 6 more months of studying) I can spot a few things that I could’ve done better. I totally stand by my translation choice for だってばよ though XD

    • I’ll have to chime in with what Matt said that it isn’t Google Translate and a lot of this is a creative fansub translation. Some lines are spot on, others are completely different but try to capture a feel for the song.

      Song translation has an additional layer of difficulty because it has to sound good as lyrics and this is often put at a higher priority than accuracy.

  3. Subtitles are so evil and addicting :( It’s hard to wean yourself off. Luckily for me a lot of the stuff I watch either never get subs or it takes months and I watch it unsubbed first (and then sometimes subbed when they come out…see how addicting they are?)

  4. I feel that one way of thinking about English subtitles that suits well with Adam’s opinion on them is that English subtitles are not for studying. Do not think of time spent watching something with English subtitles as study time. By seeing it that way you can use subtitles as much as you like, but you will not trick yourself into thinking of that as productive study time. That will also get around the problem with the accuracy, by only using the subtitles for understanding whatever you are watching you won’t need them to be accurate.

    I tried using subs2srs with English subtitles but learned pretty fast that the English from the subtitles would only help me get a vague idea of what was said. That may sometimes be a big help when you are doing the puzzle game of figuring a sentence out. But the only way to learn something was to do that puzzling with a dictionary, figuring out the grammar parts and the meaning of each word – and from there hopefully get an understanding that did not completely contradict the English subtitle.

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