Subtitlers have never had it so good

I reckon subtitlers must be well in demand going on the amount of subtitled content we’ve been seeing on our screens of late.

Now, as a linguist and having spent many of my language-learning student years with my eyes glued to that bar at the bottom of the screen, I’m no stranger to subtitles. In fact, I am eternally grateful for the invention as, without them, not only would we be missing out on hours of Kung-Fu lips-moving-no-speaking hilarity, but I’d have been lost in the midst of countless French films, despite learning the language for most of my conscious life.

But what’s with all the subtitling of English speaking people that’s happening at the moment?

Picture this (just watch Panorama or another documentary any day of the week, or ‘on location’ news reports, and you’ll see what I’m talking about): you spend years of your life learning English, right from coming to grips with reading and writing your own language as a child. Believing it to be the key to your career and future happiness, you practise diligently on every tourist and businessman who comes to visit your country, maybe even go to college to study further. You make your best effort to speak clearly and intelligibly, and yet when the BBC or Dispatches or whatever other production company arrive on your doorstep to make a documentary or interview you for a news report, they are already planning to subtitle your speech during the editing process.

Few things are ruder! What are we trying to say here? Are Brits really getting that lazy?

This seems like a slippery slope towards subtitling of regional British accents to me. Although my parents did used to watch Rab C Nesbitt with the subtitles switched on (and I know they weren’t the only viewers in the Midlands to do so), this was in the privacy of our own home, and broad Glaswegian unfortunately isn’t one of the dialects any of us speak. It’s quite different when the makers of a programme decide on behalf of all viewers that we won’t be able to understand our own language spoken with a slight or even strong accent. Like none of us have ever heard a foreign accent speaking English before!

This must be some kind of policy, as it’s something I’ve noticed increasing over the last year or so. Who decides these things? And do their ears need syringing do we think?

I’m all for increasing the amount of subtitling for the hard of hearing, and think that this service along with BSL signing should be made available for as many programmes as possible, but it should still be all about choice. If I want to read subtitles, there is a perfectly good arthouse cinema up the road that deserves my hard-earned cash, and which I don’t visit nearly enough. Or if I’m feeling cheap (and who isn’t these days?), I can use the feature on my fancy remote to bring up the subtitles for plenty of TV programmes (once I find the button which does that…).

What’s next – subtitling news reports and Party Political Broadcasts into txtspk? Press the red button for your local dialect or choice of slang? Surely there’s a better use of the production companies’ time and the licence-payers’ money?

Subtitling doesn’t come cheap after all…