Lost in Translation

Non-English-speaking countries face two choices when they buy films or TV programs in English. Either they can “dub” them (use actors to give the characters new voices in the local language) or they can keep the original English soundtrack and put in “subtitles” (written translations that can be read in the local language along the bottom of the screen). Most small countries use subtitles because they are cheaper and quicker.


However, professional translators making subtitles face a unique challenge these days: more and more of their audiences speak English. Since their written translation is shown at the same moment as the English dialogue is spoken, anyone who understands both languages can quickly spot a mistaken translation. A mistake can completely upset the meaning of the dialogue, often with unintended comic effects. These mistakes are known as “bloopers”.



Spoken English can be difficult to translate for many reasons. Here are examples of some subtitle mistakes:

God on the line? God on the line? Misunderstandings of “call”:

  • A priest explains, “That’s when I got my call from God.”

The subtitle reads, “That’s when God telephoned me.”

  • A general has to decide whether or not to bomb a target in a city. He says, “It’s a tough call.”

The subtitle reads, “It’s hard to make a phone call.”

Technical terms can also cause problems. For example:

  • A businessman says “Send me a carbon copy.”

The subtitle reads, “Send me a copy of coal.”

In a war film one Dutch translator made the following memorable mistranslation:

  • A soldier is shot dead and his comrade closes the dead man’s eyes saying, “Rest easy.”

The subtitle reads, “Take a nice little break.”


Translators have to get their product to market quickly. Time is money. So they need good general knowledge to make quick decisions. In the example below knowledge clearly seems to have failed the translator: 

In a television series, two characters were talking about President Lincoln being assassinated shortly after the American Civil War (1865), "while he was watching a show" (at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C.).

The subtitle reads, “while he was watching TV.”

One translator – not knowing that Greyhound is an American bus company – trusted his dictionary and came up with the following:

  • A boy says, “He is so crazy he wants to build a Greyhound depot on the highway!”

The subtitle reads, “He is so crazy he wants to build a dog-racing track on the road.”

If the translator had had a general knowledge of music, he might have avoided the following mistake:

  • Though Chet Baker was a very talented trumpet player, he did not read music. In a documentary a colleague says, “Sometimes he didn't know which bar we were in.”

This was translated as, "Sometimes he didn't know which café we were in."

What Chet didn’t know was which “musical bar” (time segment) he was in. But given the lifestyles of some musicians, perhaps the translator can be forgiven this time.



Try your hand at subtitles! The following sentences are actual English subtitles taken from films made in Hong Kong. In each case, a Chinese expression has been translated so that it doesn’t sound natural in English. What do you suppose the original translator was trying to say? Try to come up with a natural-sounding English translation and compare it with a classmate’s.

  1. I got knife scars more than the number of your leg’s hairs.
  2. Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my foot.
  3. I’ll burn you into a BBQ chicken.
  4. Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.
  5. Take my advice, or I’ll spank you without pants.