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"A PERSONAL NOTE FROM THE CAPTION WRITER: If you have any idea what the Swedish Chef is saying, then you are waaaaay ahead of me."
Muppet Viral Videos, "Pöpcørn"

A common gag about The Unintelligible or people Speaking Simlish (or foreign languages presented as such) is that eventually even the guy writing the subtitles/closed captions gives up and types "???" or something similar.

In Real Life, closed captions of live television do occasionally result in typos or glitched text, but if the typist can't catch up they tend to just stop and pick up at the next sentence. More rarely, if the subtitler really doesn't understand, or it's obvious that character isn't meant to be understood, they'll type something along the lines of 'SPEAKS UNINTELLIGIBLY'. A Fan Sub, though, tends to be a bit less formal about this kind of thing.

A subtrope of Fun with Subtitles.

Examples of Even the Subtitler Is Stumped include:


Advertisements

  • An ad for the PSP version of Rock Band, translating British slang for American viewers, which ends with "????".
  • This is also used for several commercials that involve the memetically unintelligible Ozzy Osbourne.
  • There was a salsa ad that involved two people speaking very rapid-fire Spanish. The subtitles were basically laconic versions ("I like it. It's good") of what the people were actually saying.

Anime & Manga

  • One Fan Sub of Digimon Frontier ran into trouble trying to decipher Duskmon's Gratuitous German line in episode 27 when he begins probing Kouji's memories. What the subs say at that point is basically just an educated guess as no one, not even native German speakers, had any clue what the heck Duskmon was trying to say, and it didn't sound even vaguely like any confirmed terminology associated with him.
  • One of the Chinese subs (the official ones) of Keroro Gunsou seemed to have trouble subbing Sumomo's song "My Beloved Shooting Star". A lot of question marks are seen during her performance.
    • In the official English release by FUNimation, the Gag Dub features Mr. Caption, the guy who writes the subtitles, as an actual character. He actually does know Japanese, but sometimes he either flagrantly lies ("Let's just pretend those are Japanese peace signs.") or doesn't translate for the sake of convenience ("Look, there's no way you're going to be able to read all this in the short time it's on screen. Besides, Fuyuki's talking, you should be listening to him.") Meanwhile, the Narrator at one point attempts to translate the words on Tamama's Jealousy Ball. "I don't speak Japanese, but that either says something about Tamama or it's directions to an Outback Steakhouse in Yonkers."
  • The two-volume manga Q Ko Chan ends with a translator's note that pretty much admits that he or she had no idea what in the hell was going on, and encourages the readers to put some effort into interpreting for themselves. "Why do you think the general said, 'I'm a dead man' in his last appearance? I have no idea."
  • In the second episode of the anime for Bleach, Orihime is seen speaking nervously, with her speech eventually being subbed as ???????? as she begins to walk away.
  • At least one Fan Sub of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni does this when Shion is getting bullied by a gang of bikers: after they finish talking in their extremely vulgar accents, she meekly replies she has no idea what they just said.
    • Higurashi's ending is sung in English by a singer who clearly has an accent. Before the official lyrics came out, the three fansubbing groups who took on the show each had a different interpretation of what she was saying. WIND fansubs took the cake for one unintelligible line, simply putting "(insert line here ;_;)"
  • A fansub of Akahori Gedou Hour Rabuge episode 6 had a scene that had so many reporters (and later Love Pheromone themselves) speaking over one another, that the subtitlers noted at the beginning of said scene that they didn't even bother to attempt translating it.
  • When Sanji first saw his horribly drawn bounty poster in One Piece, one fansub had his completely unintelligible mumbling subbed with one of the symbol fonts in Microsoft Word. This is probably a reference to the fact that in the manga version of the scene, Sanji's speech bubble is filled with geometrical symbols.
  • Whenever the foreign soldiers of Plumumb in Simoun speak, the subtitles on the Media Blasters release only reads Foreign. Their dialogue, however, is Japanese played backwards.
  • A set of subtitles for the first Rebuild of Evangelion movie the background text during the first launch sequence is translated as "ballsballsballsballs".

Comics

  • Scott Pilgrim often has expository subtitles for characters, but not even the subtitles know Ramona's age, or much else about her or about other mysterious characters. On one occasion when random background characters are talking, one girl is given a name and the other is labeled, "I don't know this girl". This might indicate that the subtitles are from Scott's point of view.
    • And then again, Scott learns that Knives Chau had turned 18 from the subtitles.

Film

  • The "English English" sequence between Austin Powers and his father during Austin Powers in Goldmember.
  • Brad Pitt's character in Snatch is deliberately unintelligible as a response to complaints about hard-to-understand British actors in the director's previous film. At times, one suspects that his script is actually just saying 'watermelon watermelon' or something. Certainly his subtitles have gaps.
    • The DVD commentary reveals that Pitt came up with the gibberish on his own and even he has no idea what he's supposed to be saying. There is an option on the DVD to turn on "Pikey Subtitles," which explain what his and other Pikey characters are saying, but at one point even they are stumped, and resort to the aforementioned "???"
  • Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla's Tristar subs have ??? whenever the subject of space titanium is brought up.
  • The Empire Strikes Back: Someone managed to mishear Threepio calling Han Solo as "Captain, turn it! Captain, turn it!"
  • Happens in The Comebacks, while a bunch of locals are talking to the new coach in a barber shop.
  • In the Soviet movie The Diamond Arm, the foreign smugglers speak nonsensical gibberish dubbed into Russian in the background. Eventually they get into a heated debate, obviously starting to call each other names, and the translator says in a deadpan voice, "What follows is untranslatable wordplay using local idiomatic expressions."
  • In a deleted scene on the Remember the Titans DVD, Coach Yoast enters a church with a black congregation singing "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms". The subtitles seem to think the lyric is "He Is Of The Everlasting Arms". They also think "peace of mind" is "piece of mind", and so on.
  • The only DVD release of 1938 French film The Baker's Wife is absolutely terrible with its subtitles. It's like the subtitler watched the movie once and just didn't put in anything he couldn't understand. The worst is the baker, who doesn't exactly enunciate his lines, and so the subtitler leaves out many of his lines (and he's the main character!), including what one assumes is an absolutely beautiful speech at the end.
  • The French film Amélie has English subtitles that can't seem to keep up during the scene where Lucien is making fun of Mr. Collignon. It's probably because all of his taunts are done in rhyme (e.g. "Collignon, dead and gone"), and rhymes and wordplay don't tend to translate well to other languages, so they just came up with a few English equivalents and left the rest untranslated.
  • Due to poor sound quality, bits of the German film Violent Shit remain unsubtitled.

Literature

  • Even a book did this! The Daily Show's America: The Book gave us a frustrated translator trying to tell us what all of the Australian slang in Waltzing Matilda meant, ending with "English-speaking country, my ass".
  • The only translator's note in the French edition of Good Omens occurs on page 401 out of 466. It reads "Ici, le traducteur rend les armes et se borne à signaler qu'en argot américain, le mot faggot désigne un homosexuel", or "Here, the translator surrenders and will merely point out that faggot is an American slang word for homosexual". This is the scene where Shadwell misunderstands Newt about burning people.
  • Alice in Wonderland is such a nightmarish book to translate that in one Spanish edition there is a massive footnote by the translator in the very first page saying something along the lines of "you know, Lewis Carroll wrote an unending roller coaster of linguistic puns and multiple meanings, so whole paragraphs have been made up to make any sense in Spanish."
    • To be fair, it's a tough book to understand it even in English.

Live Action TV

  • The Eddie Murphy skit "Buckwheat Sings" - or rather, "Buh-weet Sings" - from Saturday Night Live. When Buckwheat starts singing "Bette Davis Eyes," the caption just says, "?????" because he's so unintelligible.
    • In another sketch, a TV translator working live for a Gorbachev speech gets confused, mixed up, and discombobulated, with humorous results. He finally pretends that Gorbachev is saying that he's so ticked at the translator that he's going to switch into unintelligible nonsense. Better yet, the sketch is partly a jab at the then-fledgling Fox network.
  • There's a twist on this in a episode of Thirty Rock where Liz is speaking German to some Germans (with normal subtitles) and then the Germans speak, almost too fast for the subtitles. The subs say "We acquire to... ... ... ...hubcap... ... ... ... ??????"
    • They are speaking too fast for Liz. The subtitles represent what she understands, i.e. not much.
    • There was also the episode where Jack demonstrated how handsome people think they can speak French, but actually can't. He says something in French which gets translated to random letters in the subtitles.
  • One line of the Gag Sub for the Jet Jaguar Song is written as YAHMMMAAHOAAHOAAAUGH!
  • The subtitlers for the Firefly DVDs weren't the best. ("Grab any supplies that are low" becomes "Gravity supplies are low." Does it come in bottles?) With the Chinese phrases they just put in "[SPEAKS GALACTIC LANGUAGE]" What's especially hilarious? They fail to realize that the galactic language is Chinese even though at one point Mal explicitly points out it's Chinese. This was carried over into the movie, where Simon says something in Russian, but the subtitles say it is Chinese.
    • Which really irritated non-Chinese speakers who turned on the subtitles with the hopes of finding out what the insults meant.

 "Gotta say, Doc, the town's real and the folks are near miraculous!" ("Gotta say, Doc, your talent for alienatin' folks 's near miraculous!")

"You're a rabbit, Mal!" ("Gorram it, Mal!")

"Mine is an evil lair!" ("Mine is an evil laugh!")

    • And apparently, the subtitlers thought that "YoSaffBridge" was "[Speaks Chinese]"
    • And let's be sure not to forget about those all-important "eye dents." (That would be 'idents', or identification.)
  • Viva La Bam - Whenever Don Vito freaks out he talks too fast, making subtitles which often degenerate into question marks necessary.
  • In the Royal Pains episode "TB Or Not TB," Evan tries to interpret for an Italian girl with his rudimentary Berlitz-course Italian. The subtitles for his speech are ungrammatical and in a wobbly font; the subtitles for her speech start off legible, and then degenerate into "Etc.... Etc.... Etc...." as she speaks too fast for him.
  • There's a scene in Scrubs when Dr. Cox is talking to his young son Jack. He points out that as Jack is getting older, his baby talk is getting more and more comprehensible. Jack then says something subtitled as "I like pizza... ??????... lightning!"
  • One episode of Myth Busters had Adam talking with an exaggerated French accent and accompanying subtitles. Eventually, the subtitles state "...I think I'm losing my marbles" and start flashing "?????". (The episode is Steam Machine Gun)
  • The reality show Solitary used this one. One challenge involved wearing a ball gag for as long as possible. Subtitles were used to translate the mumbling, but at one point, it turned into "???"
  • This is played with in Father Ted, where a woman is singing on TV, accompanied by another woman who is signing the song lyrics. When the singer gets to the line "Women rule the land of T?na n?", the woman signing simply shrugs and gives up.
  • Averted in De Lama's, the Dutch version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. A couple of times in games, players would just rant off in made-up foreign languages. The DVD subtitles would just subtitle words that were correctly used, and would subtitle the rest as [fake (insert language here)]. For example:

 Je suis [fake French] dans de rue de la [fake French] avec mon paraplu

  • An episode of The Amazing Race put up "???????" while showing one-time Big Brother winner Jordan Lloyd talking while eating a baguette.
  • Have difficulty understanding the dialogue in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or any of the subsequent series? Too bad, because the transcriber did, as well. There are frequent errors and audible dialogue is sometimes marked as "[Unintelligible]".
  • The UK subtitler for The Wire apparently didn't understand the line "he's got a kid riding shotgun"; it appears onscreen as "he's got a kid riding in a Shogun".
  • One Discovery channel documentary-esque show about the various theories of the origin of life had a hearing-impaired closed caption that was apparently being typed as the show went on, rather than being prepared beforehand. The transcriber apparently did not know the word "panspermia" and just skipped over it. As you can imagine, the good half of the show devoted to the panspermia hypothesis was painful to read.
  • Lost frequently aired clip shows to help viewers catch up on important plot points before a season premiere, or after a long break between new episodes. These were usually narrated by a cast member or the showrunners, and those in charge of the closed captioning didn't benefit from having the script ahead of time like they did with the actual episodes. This once caused a narrator's statement that "Jack assumed Faraday's plan" to get subtitled as "JACK ASSED FARADAY'S PLAN."
  • Smallville's closed captions have "She speaks unintelligibly" when Zatanna uses her Magical Incantations. Which is a shame, because it sounds like the writers and actress went to a bit of effort to actually do the "backwards speech" thing.
  • Skins has Jals rapping brothers talking in slang. This is sometimes subtitled in the regular episodes and then even with completely different lines as what they are saying. The DVD subtitles most of the time manage to transcript what they say but a rap song in season two was cut short one line in with the captioning [fast rap].
  • At least a few times on The Osbournes, the closed caption would simply say "Ozzy mumbling".
  • On Psychoville when Mr. Jelly shouts "Red raw stump!" while showing little children his, well, stump, the subtitlers apparently completely missed the point of the scene and captioned it "WHERE DO I START?".
  • In Jonathan Creek , if the subtitles are on, Roy Pilgrim's singing in the old music video comes out as "INDECIPHERABLE LYRICS".

Music Videos

  • "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Smells Like Nirvana" (pictured above), which is all about how nobody can suss out what Cobain is singing: "It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss??? / with all these marbles in my mouth." What makes the joke even funnier is that these are the official lyrics.
  • In the video for The D Generation's "Five in a Row", they ran sign language translation for a parody of James Reyne that featured the translator giving up and signing "I can't understand him either".

Stand Up Comedy

  • Michael McIntyre once claimed to have seen a nature documentary in which David Attenborough found and named a new species of fish. The problem was that, since it was a late-night repeat, the show was being translated into sign language by an interpreter, who apparently hadn't been prepared for this. When the newly-discovered fish was revealed and dubbed, the guy in the corner panicked, and resorted to miming the fish.
  • Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has a bit in one of his routines in which his puppet Peanut claims to have deliberately rattled off a string of nonsense words, and then pretended to talk without actually saying anything, in order to confuse a group of deaf people watching the show with the help of a sign language interpreter.

Video Games

  • Kingdom Hearts: When Sora and company run into Tarzan, he uses a gorilla word that the subtitles render as random symbols.
    • Specifically, the sounds "Eh oo, oo-oo ah" are captioned as *&&X%. Apparently that's gorilla for "heart."
  • In Mercenaries Playground of Destruction, if someone speaks in a language your character doesn't understand, the subtitles appear as "Speaks a foreign language".
    • Interestingly, the game has the relevant subtitles, it's just that it will only play them for the character who speaks that language. Each of the three Mercs has a different second language that allows them to understand the pre-briefing conversations with one of the three non-American contacts.
    • They're also linguistically correct, so a player who speaks Chinese, Korean or Russian might not need them.
  • In Tales of Destiny fan subbing of the body switching skit, the trope was invoked in the middle of the skit when everybody started to talk at the same time.
  • In Fortune Street (the one released internationally) Donkey and Diddy Kong speak in monkey noises translated in parentheses. Except their "promotion song", which is a long string of monkey noises, translated as the same string of monkey noises.

Western Animation

  • The closed captions for "Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost" Have the term "We may look bad" in the Hex Girls Self-titled song as "We Make Love Bad".
  • In an episode of Family Guy, Peter and his Irish dad had a Drinking Contest and spoke "drunk" to each other. It sounded like incoherent gibberish, but according to the subtitles, they were actually having an uncharacteristically intelligent argument... until the end, when Peter's dad rambled off a couple lines of untranslatable nonsense right before passing out.
  • In one of the 1960s Popeye cartoons, Popeye goes to rescue Olive from a pyramid, encounters the natives, who speak absolute gibberish (even by his standards), and proclaims, "What this conversation needs is some subtitles." Said subtitles then promptly appear, but Popeye must read them out loud to understand them.
  • An episode of SpongeBob SquarePants has Spongebob and Squidward traversing an endless wasteland to deliver a pizza, while an increasingly exhausted Spongebob sings a rapidly decaying "Krusty Krab Pizza" jingle. Watching the episode with Closed Caption turned on results in the caption "Incoherent Mumbling."
  • A Goofy Movie features the title character unintelligibly (out of context, anyhow) singing, and the closed captions say "Grandpa Grandpa." It's clear from context that he's still singing the same song, and the line is "grab a friend".
  • A Mad short did a parody of Toy Story 3. At one point, Buzz realizes he can speak Spanish and the subtitles change from English subtitles for when he speaks Spanish and Spanish subtitles for when he speaks English. Then he says "I can haz Spanish" and the subtitles are pretty much rendered as "?????".
  • Phineas and Ferb's song "My Ride from Outer Space" causes the subtitle writer to just say that the singer is "unintelligible" when the singer sings the faster lines.
    • Subtitle-free variant in another episode, in which Ferb translates his grandfather's bizarre British slang. After a particularly odd statement, he simply says, "I have no idea."
  • The subtitles for The Penguins of Madagascar sometimes provide a translation of what Rico is saying. The rest of the time, it's transcribed as "[Mutters gibberish]".
  • In the original English VHS release of Aladdin, when the Genie turns into a submarine to save Aladdin from drowning, everything after "Up scope!" is rendered as "Babbling in German." Of course since this is Robin Williams we're dealing with here, it's very possible he was just spouting German-sounding gibberish anyway.

Web Original


Other

  • One of the episodes on the Home and Garden Channel had an episode of a family in Scotland buying a house. Nobody understood a word they said, so they needed subtitles throughout the entire episode, and most of the subtitles were plain gibberish.
  • This Tourettes Guy video. (2:00 if time doesn't jump)
  • This trope occurs when a Predator tries to sing.
  • In a YouTube video of Leslie Uggams losing the lyrics of June Is Busting Out All Over, subtitles go into #&$&# at one point.
  • Pick one of Raocow's gameplay videos. Any of them. Prepare for hilarity to ensue.
  • Real Life drug dealer Frank Lucas's speech is apparently too garbled for captions, which frequently became "unintelligible".
  • Happens often in Japanese CD booklet supplements of English-language CDs (which provide Japanese language translations as well as the English lyrics). In Rancid's "Life Won't Wait" CD (which has never had the official lyrics printed anywhere) supplement, the English translation often just said "Unintelligible" and many of their guesses were off ("I can see 360" became "I can see gray sixty"). Not surprising given the way the singer sings...
  • Official transcripts of live TV shows often suffer from this. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and [CROSSTALK] are popular solutions to "what did that guy just say?", along with the [PH] (for 'phonetic') tag when the transcriber isn't sure if he spelled that right, or if it's even a word.
  • If you ever watch a live show with closed captioning on (such as a news program), you'll notice that the captions are generally a few lines behind the onscreen dialogue, presumably to give the captionists time to figure out what's being said and edit accordingly. Still, however, you might still occasionally see some unintentionally hilarious misinterpretations. In some areas they're about one line behind, and truncated to the point of not even saying the same thing as the anchor. Others tend to write out nonsense words, mistype something and have to go back and delete it, leaving the subtitles further behind. One Egregious example had the captionist type out a word that didn't exist, partially delete it, then finish it with a different word that didn't exist. Good luck trying to get the news from this...
    • Rick Reilly comments on this.
    • This plays havoc on hearing impaired and deaf communities because homophones are entirely for a person who can hear. If you don't understand the various sounds and how they can combine to produce sounds similar to others then "Pair of Shoes" is nothing like "parachute."
  • YouTube has a feature that attempts to generate closed captions automatically from the audio. Key word being "attempts". It seems that even Google, with all of the smartest programmers on earth under one roof, is nowhere near capable of creating decent automated speech-to-text software. You'll be lucky if one line in a video is correct word for word.
    • An example: Rhett & Link have a skit where they act out a scene, have YouTube close-caption it, act out the scene again with YouTube's new dialogue, Have YouTube close-caption it again, and perform the scene a third time with the double-mutated dialogue, which is by now complete and total gibberish. Presenting: Caption FAIL.
    • YouTube can sometimes even be meta about it where all that would show in some scenes is "uh...".
  • This interview with Hongkong's Douglas Kung, the director of Shaolin Vs Evil Dead, on his time in Mandarin-speaking Singapore. As a Hongkonger, Doug speaks Cantonese as a first language and his mastery of Mandarin is sketchy at best, so any time the subtitles aren't in Chinese characters is this trope.
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