This weekend I watched Dom Zły (The Bad House, also translated as The Dark House), a fabulous Polish film made laughable by its appalling English subtitles. Unless there is some hilariously ironic subtext revolving around a literal translation of the Bad House being full of bad translations, whoever commissioned this catalogue of errors should be taken outside and beaten to death with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.
This is not an isolated incident: we’ve mentioned the generally poor quality of English subtitles in Polish films before. This time I’m getting specific. I painstakingly went through the film and picked out 15 examples. I could have picked out 150, but these were the most hilarious.
Why does any of this matter? It matters for several reasons. If you are going to include English subtitles, they must do their job. If I hadn’t been able to follow the Polish, there were several places in this film where I simply would not have known what was going on. This is something of a handicap if you want non-Polish speakers to enjoy your work. Dom Zły is a very good film, one of the best I’ve seen for a long time and far better than recent offerings by heavyweights such as Polanski and Wajda (the English subtitles for Katyń, a multi-million dollar Oscar-nominated film, were also riddled with basic errors). It deserves to be seen by a wider audience, but with these subtitles it’s barely comprehensible and, more importantly, anyone reading them will be giggling too much to pay attention to the story.
For an investment of a few thousand zloty the award-winning script could have been translated into a form that would have allowed an English-speaking audience to enjoy it. As it is, the whole thing is made to look tawdry and unprofessional. I would like to recommend this film to friends in the UK, but I won’t because I know the subtitles will give a bad impression.
The “or something” presumably being whatever the correct translation of “protocol” is.
* * *
No, “Hallo” is a Polish word, “Hello” is the English one.
* * *
Blackie is a dog, presumably from the pages of The Beano. The use of “chomped” here looks like random thesaurus work. How about: “He says Blackie bit (or nipped) him.”
* * *
A basic tense error combined with a confusingly literal translation of the Polish “Pan ‘first name'” form. How about: “The gentleman says he’s been traveling for two days.”
* * *
Another basic tense error (Yesterday I sang…). It would also have been helpful to indicate that “Ratuszowa” is a restaurant.
* * *
Coincidentally, adding a plural ‘s’ to uncountable nouns also makes me mad.
* * *
Is he good with mechanics, or good with machines? Perhaps the production company accidentally hired somebody who was good with translators, rather than good with translations.
* * *
And thus we inexplicably move to the 19th century (where they don’t have possessive apostrophes).
* * *
Her expression says it all. What? Could you repeat that in a known Earth language please.
* * *
Of the three words in this statement one of them is grammatically wrong and one of them simply hasn’t been translated! It’s: “On Czech television.”
* * *
I also want to stop emblazonments, if only I knew what they were. Perhaps some kind of embezzlement that’s on fire?
* * *
Please do not invent new phrasal verbs, we have enough already. It should be: “You can probably track her down,” or “You can probably trace her.”
* * *
Ten out of ten for checking the English idiom dictionary, minus several million for GETTING IT WRONG! Also, nobody actually says “drunk as a skunk.”
* * *
I beg your pardon?
* * *
Why stop at ‘vouch’? Let’s go Elizabethan and ‘vouchesafe.’ Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, how about: “You swore that the (probably ‘a’) dog knocked the crate to the ground.”
* * *
I have written an email to the production company, FilmIt, with a link to this post. I’ll let you know if there is any reply. The subtitle compiler is listed in the credits, but I won’t name him because I don’t really blame him. I doubt he’s a professional subtitle compiler, he’s probably somebody’s cousin with an English philology degree. The fault lies with the production company for not paying attention to a serious problem that could very easily have been fixed. If I was the author of this screenplay, or any of the actors who performed it so well, I would be mightily annoyed with the people who made me look like an idiot.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
I received a reply to my email from Feliks Pastusiak (titled: Producer, Film It & Grupa Filmowa).
Obejrzałem ostatnio film „Dom Zły“. Uważam, że to najlepszy film, jaki widziałem od lat. Chciałbym polecić go znajomym z Wielkiej Brytanii, ale napisy w tym filmie są tak złe, że nie mogę. Są absolutnie fatalne. Znaleźć w nich można setki drobnych błędów i tuziny bardzo poważnych, a w niektórych miejscach dosłownie nie sposób zrozumieć o co chodzi – tekst po angielsku jest komplentnie niezrozumiały.
To nie jest problem, z którym spotkałem się po raz pierwszy. Prawie wszystkie polskie filmy, jakie widziałem, mają bardzo złe napisy w języku angielskim. Piszę do Państwa, ponieważ akurat Dom Zły widziałem ostatnio. Dlaczego tak się dzieje? Z pewnością nie kosztowałoby to wiele, aby napisy zostały sprawdzone i poprawione przez doświadczonego redaktora i korzyści z filmu mogłyby być ogromne. Polska to przecież kraj z bogatymi akademickimi tradycjami, słynący z dużego szacunku do słowa pisanego. Dlaczego nie tyczy się to napisów w filmach?
Napisałem na ten temat, odwołując się do filmu Dom Zły, na popularnej stronie Polandian: http://polandian.home.pl/index.php/2010/06/21/english-subtitle-failure/
Jak widać po komentarzach, nie jestem jedyną osobą, którą doprowadziły one do rozpaczy.
I recently watched the film Dom Zły. I thought it was the best film I have seen this year. I would like to recommend it to friends in the UK, but the English subtitles are so bad that I can’t. They are hilariously bad. There are hundreds of minor errors, dozens of major errors and in some places it would literally be impossible to understand the story from the subtitles.
This is not a problem unique to Dom Zły. Almost all Polish films have bad English subtitles. I’m writing to you because this is the Polish film I have seen most recently. Why does this happen? It would cost very little to have the subtitles checked and corrected by a competent editor and the benefits to the film would be huge. Poland is a nation with an admirable literary and academic tradition, why is this not applied to subtitles?
I’ve written about this issue, with examples from Dom Zły, on the popular website Polandian: http://polandian.home.pl/index.php/2010/06/21/english-subtitle-failure/. As you will see from the comments, I am not the only person driven mad by this.
I won’t reproduce the reply here, because Film It asked me not to, but I will set out its main points.
1. The reply is polite and of a length that suggests he takes the criticism seriously, though whether this will result in a change of practice remains to be seen. He assures that any future releases of the film will take account of my points.
2. He acknowledges that the English subtitles are deficient and, without claiming them as excuses, gives the following reasons:
a) They were prepared in a hurry—reasons for which are suggested by ThomasM in the comments below.
b) The characters in the film use highly colloquial language, which is difficult to translate. I expected this point to crop up in the comments, though it didn’t. I doubt there’s any point in trying to capture a colloquial flavour in subtitles, and it may be that the attempt to do so was the cause of some of the subtitles’ failings (words such as ‘chomped’ and phrases such as ‘drunk as a skunk’ spring to mind).
3. He claims that the subtitles were checked by native speakers of English. I find this very hard to believe. Even a complete amateur would have spotted the basic tense errors. It may be that the translation agency, or the translator, claimed they had been checked by native speakers without having gone to the trouble of actually taking this step.
4. He concludes by noting that the film has enjoyed considerable success at international film festivals, which is another point I expected. Film festival juries seem to be blind to the quality of subtitles. Perhaps they think it is outside their remit, or that the needs of potential monolingual viewers are simply beneath their consideration. I think this is a serious oversight. What I should, perhaps, have made clearer in the my original post was that I was more concerned with the impact on international non-Polish speaking audiences than on myself. I live in Poland, it’s up to me to learn the language; and I was able to follow the story quite adequately from the Polish where the subtitles let me down.
All in all, more than I, and most Polandian readers, expected. Thanks and best of luck to Mr. Pastusiak.