One of the unique things about subtitling is that it takes spoken language and puts it into a written form. But with so many dialects and colloquialisms deviating from the norms of written English, should subtitles convert dialogue into standard written English, or stay true to what is actually being said?
Dialogue is often standardised in subtitles, especially when the subtitles are in a different language to the audio, which helps mask standardisation. Whilst it makes subtitles easier for everyone to understand and promotes correct written English, it risks leaving subtitles with a crucial ingredient missing.
In the English subtitles for The Royle Family, ‘oh, it’s that Leslie Jones innit’, mumbled by a working-class teenager from Manchester, becomes ‘oh, this has Leslie Jones in it’. This seems to take something away from the characterisation, after all, it’s been said that: when we first meet people, we learn more about them from how they speak than what they say.
It also seems to push on the boundaries of credibility, would someone of this social and geographical background really speak in standard English?
As a Brummie (person from Birmingham) myself, one of my favourite examples where subtitles have used non-standard English comes from the English subtitles for Raised by Wolves, a TV show centred around a working-class family from Birmingham. Phrases based on the local dialect, like ‘come on the babbies, let’s go’ (which means ‘come on kids, let’s go’), are maintained in the subtitles, which really gives subtitle-users a taste of the Birmingham dialect.
So, should non-standard English be used in subtitles? Maybe it depends on our audience and the purpose of the video, e.g. slang used by teenagers may not be understood by an older audience. Is standardisation more acceptable when the subtitles are in a different language to the audio? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.