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Compulsory subtitles? I read ‘em and weep

You don’t want to watch them – but you can’t look away

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

Subtitles are taking over the world. It’s increasingly rare these days for a video clip to be free of those irritating little bars along the bottom, rendering before your eyes what your ears are coping with quite easily, thank you very much.

That interview you clicked on from Twitter? There are the speaker’s words subtitled below. That report on a news website? There are the subtitles again, spelling out everything from the presenter’s narration to the sound effects in the background. Even pop songs have their lyrics displayed. It’s driving me mad.

‘Don’t look at the subtitles,’ comes the reply. But that’s the really annoying thing: you have to look at them. There’s something about a subtitle that grabs your attention, won’t let you look away, even though you know what it’s going to say. I’ve tried watching videos from the knees up, as it were, and it simply isn’t possible. You might hold out for a minute or so, but eventually your attention drifts downwards like a stone in a pond.

The subtitles are there because so many people these days will be watching the clip on a train or in an office or at some other location where they can’t have the sound up. But surely technology is better than that now? Surely, in an era when our phones and tablets can read our minds when it comes to showing us adverts, the bloody things can tell whether or not there’s an earphone inserted into their own jack? Or whether their sound is on or off? Or whether we are deaf or not?

It’s very simple — if the sound’s down, show the subtitles, if it isn’t, don’t. No doubt some geek will respond that the subtitles are embedded in the clips and can’t be turned off. Which only goes to show that, as ever, the geeks aren’t as clever as we need them to be.


Why are subtitles so unignorable? Is it a very subtle case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)? That would seem absurd — after all, the thing we fear missing out on is simply a visual rendition of some words that we’ve already heard — but then the human psyche is indeed absurd. Or perhaps we like checking how accurate the subtitles are, which ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ have been omitted? Again, this would be ridiculous. Perhaps that’s why subtitles are so infuriating — we’re angered not by the technology itself but by our inability to ignore it. Or maybe subtitles are the technological equivalent of that tiresome person in a pub who insists on explaining the joke everyone has just laughed at? Maybe it’s the over-egging of the pudding that winds us up?

The irony is that subtitles had recently become our friend. For decades they’d been a sign of something dull: in 1992 the Steve Coogan character Paul Calf spoke of going to see a film purely because it was Swedish (‘aye-aye’), only to find to his disappointment that it was ‘in black and white and with subtitles — it was about peasants or something’. But then along came BBC4 and its Scandi crime dramas, and all of a sudden subtitles were a sign that you’d got 15 hours of gripping TV heading your way.

It’s a curious thing: when subtitles are necessary — that is, when you’re watching something in a foreign language — they are easy to read, taking what feels like a fraction of a second to digest before you return your gaze to the action. But when you’re watching something in English they seem to take over. They monopolise your attention, getting on your nerves.

So this is a plea to the nerds in charge of such things: sort the subtitles out. They’re a wonderful device, but only when we want them. An uninvited subtitle is as welcome as a pork chop at a bar mitzvah, so can we please find a way of saving them for when they’re needed? I simply don’t believe today’s cyberlords can’t invent a system that includes subtitles within a video as an optional extra, displaying them or not according to the user’s wishes.

In the meantime, we’ll have to comfort ourselves with the way subtitles make fools of themselves. This tends to happen with the live ones, the text that appears in real time during news programmes. ‘The Chinese year of the horse’ being rendered as ‘the Chinese year of the whores’, for example, or ‘pigs nibble anything, even wellies’ becoming ‘pigs nibble anything, even willies’.

So notorious has the software’s stupidity become that it even merited its own plotline in a recent episode of W1A. My favourite real-life example remains the one from the Queen Mother’s funeral, when the announcement ‘we will now have a moment’s silence’ came up as ‘we will now have a moment’s violence’.

Listen to Mark Mason on the (unsubtitled) Spectator Podcast.


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