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Substandard Subtitles: Donkeys before pigs

From the print edition

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand dubbed movies; I find them artificial, clumsy and sometimes downright peculiar. No matter how alien the spoken language is, I prefer to hear it in the original and read subtitles. It’s rather magic, because after a while, I am not even aware anymore that I am reading. 

Kate Galante

Kate Galante

Unfortunately, I have become all too aware that, despite its advantages, subtitling is not only sketchy in terms of what is really being said, but can be inaccurate, misleading and sometimes ridiculous. 

I have an addiction. When I watch movies in English on Sky, I can’t help but read the Spanish subtitles at the same time. As a result, I have become aware that the people they hire to translate and write the subtitles don’t always know English as well as they claim. Their motto seems to be, “When in doubt, improvise, whether it makes sense or not.”

Some of this is understandable, especially when it comes to jargon, but often it is surprising what they get wrong. Simple numbers, for example. 

In addition, it is apparently just too painful to translate naughty words. Heaven knows, Costa Rica has little to offer in this field, but it’s certainly not hard to find lots of palabrotas  (dirty words) if we look to Mexico or Spain. Be this as it may, subtitle translations of foul speech usually take one of two forms: innocuous or nonexistent. The most difficult word to cope with, of course, is the infamous “F” word.

Often, it is simply left out. Thus, something like, “It’s f…ing  amazing,” becomes, “Es tan alucinante.”  When translated, it is usually some form of “maldicion” (damnation). “F… off” is usually “púdrete” (go rot). “Bastard” is often translated as “desgraciado (wretch),” “a……” as “imbecil,” and the ubiquitous “Oh s…!” as “¡Carajo! which is vulgar but can’t be translated, or “¡Rayos!” which is not vulgar and can be translated a variety of ways, including “sunbeams,” “thunderbolts” or “lightning flashes.” 

Profanity aside, over time, I have collected a few of the most absurd subtitle bloopers, and I’d like to share them with you.

[A lot of people] take it (love) for a game.   llevalo a pasear (Take it for a trip.)  

drawing room cuarto de arte (art room)

fender bender mal conductor (bad driver)

[My whole family] died in the Holocaust. murió en un accidente de tránsito. (died in a car accident.)

I bought it lock, stock, and barrel.  La compré de Lockstoc Enbaril. (I bought from Lockstoc Enbaril.)

…they do it through a hole in the sheet.  …lo hacen con una bola de mierda. (They do it with a ball of sh..)

Don’t go out of your way. Ve directamente a casa  (Go directly home).

baby teeth arêtes (earrings) 

[looks like] a teardrop. una aguja. (a needle.)

birth certificate primero certificato (first certificate)

plain clothes policeman  policía de ropa limpia  (clean clothes policeman)

…that by and by que con una gran despedida   (that with a big goodbye)

Why did she get to keep her clothes on?  ¿Porqué pudo quitarse la ropa? (Why could she take her clothes off?)

loophole un hueco donde esconderse (a hole to hide in)

stool pigeon paloma depistada (confused pigeon)

[She was sleeping on] a piece of mattress. un colchón empapado de orines (a urine-soaked mattress)

things that are still perfectly good cosas que no sirven para nada (Things that are no good at all)

What would Freud say? ¿Qué diría Fred?   (What would Fred say?)

a trip to Paradise desvestirse en Paraíso  (undress in Paradise)

Who pays the piper and calls the tune? ¿Quién paga el papel y da las ordenes? (Who pays for the paper and gives the orders?)

[Marilyn Monroe] was a painted mask.  fue un pubis pintado. (was a painted pubic area.)

[The right wheel went off the road, and] we hit a telephone pole.  recibimos una llamada,  (we got a phone call.)

[Dog owners who do not pick up the poop] will be fined. estarán bien. (will be fine)

pearls before swine burros antes de cerdos. (donkeys before pigs)

[What you should be asking] is where is this. es quién falta. (is who is missing)

[Someone can make] a nice piece of furniture with it.  una fogata con él.  (a bonfire with it.)

Do you want a light? ¿Quieres una raya? (Do you want a line? [of cocaine])

[As night] falls on the Crescent City (New Orleans), cae en Mississippi, (falls on Mississippi,)

Are you brooding? ¿Estás embarazada? (Are you pregnant?)

Are you appalled?  No, I am not appalled.  ¿Estás pobre? No, no estoy pobre.  (Are you poor? No, I’m not poor.)

You want me to be eye candy? ¿Quieres que sea “colirio?” (You want me to be “eye drops?”)

[It’s Greek] for “the vapors” (fainting or depression). para “flatuencia” (for “flatulence”).

All of the above examples are subtitles moving from English to Spanish. I don’t claim to know what goes on in other languages. Also, please don’t think this happens all the time. While it’s true that much of the translation is mediocre, such absurd blunders are fairly uncommon, and once in a while, Spanish subtitles can be quite good.

In fact, I recently watched a documentary about a famous screenwriter whose spoken language was no less than lyrical, complex and sophisticated. What a treat! The translation was nearly perfect.


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