From misinterpreting drag terminology to butchering the UK’s regional accents, Drag Race UK proved that the subtitling industry is in desperate need of a makeover.
Last year, RuPaul’s Drag Race celebrated its 10th anniversary. Back in 2009, few could have predicted the show’s stratospheric global success – but its evolution from cult favourite to cultural phenomenon has defined the past decade.
The Emmy Award-winning reality show follows the competition to crown ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’, and is renowned for its jaw-dropping runway looks, nail-biting lip-sync-for-your-life battles and ever-growing roster of A-lister celebrity judges.
Given the seemingly insatiable international appetite for the Drag Race franchise, it was inevitable that the show would eventually make its way across the Atlantic. After kicking off on BBC Three back in October, Drag Race UK took the small screen by storm and a second series has already been confirmed.
But despite the success of Drag Race UK, it also highlighted an issue that appears to rear its head with every new Drag Race season: the show’s substandard subtitling.
Category Is: Shady Subtitling
When Drag Race UK launched back in October, it wasn’t long before fans took to Twitter to flag up glaring subtitling errors.
On Drag Race, RuPaul endearingly refers to the judging panel as her ‘squirrel friends’ (which, for those unfamiliar with the show and/or the drag scene, is a slang term for fellow drag queens). However, the BBC Three subtitler appears to have misheard the word as ‘girlfriends’, thereby omitting the reference entirely.
Although BBC Three was equally been praised for Drag Race UK’s particularly vivid and descriptive Subtitles for the Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing (SDH) (among which are the achingly-funny references to Drag Race tropes such as the ‘SHADY RATTLESNAKE SOUND’), you can also find examples of significant subtitling mishaps in every single episode – which mainly concern LGBTQ+ and drag culture-specific slang and lexicon.
But the BBC isn’t the only platform guilty of subtitling inaccuracy. Drag Race fans have been calling out the second-rate subtitling of the series for years, particularly across platforms like Netflix, YouTube and WoW Presents Plus.
On top of this, the popular Sky-owned streaming service Now TV doesn’t (at the time of writing) have any subtitling option for the Drag Race‘s behind-the-scenes series Untucked!, nor does it include subtitles for the third season of Drag Race: All Stars.
What’s more, the inaccuracy problem only seems to get worse when the subtitling involves translation into other languages. International Drag Race fans have pointed out that some of the subtitle translations in foreign languages are cringe-worthy at best and downright offensive and derogatory at worst.
Subtitles and Accessibility: What’s The Tee?
So, what’s the big deal about Drag Race subtitling?
According to the World Health Organisation, there are 466 million people in the world with disabling hearing loss. This represents over 5% of the global population. This means that accurate and efficient subtitles are crucial for increasing accessibility across all video content – but this seems particularly pressing in the case of Drag Race.
And whilst the show cannot and should not claim to represent the global drag community, one can’t deny that Drag Race has been monumental for giving drag and LGBTQIA+ culture well-deserved visibility around the world. The show has thereby built an indispensable mainstream platform for celebrating diversity, inclusion and drag culture in all its glory.
Alongside all the glitter, glamour and gag-worthy looks, Drag Race has also been a pioneer for sparking candid and honest conversations about issues that affect the LGBTQIA+ community, which has encompassed life under Section 28, same-sex marriage, living with HIV and the Orlando nightclub shooting.
It’s for these reasons that it is ever-more critical to get the nuances and terminology right, not only for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, but for anyone who relies on subtitles to enjoy the show.
Drag Race UK: Regional Realness
When the Drag Race UK line-up was announced, fans were excited by the prospect of the show bringing together 10 queens from regions across the UK. Contestants came from Essex, Liverpool, Yorkshire, Belfast and more.
It became a running joke that international Drag Race fans had to watch the show with subtitles to decipher what the UK queens were saying. After all, Drag Race UK featured contestants with accents and dialects not frequently heard in mainstream English-speaking media, especially for global audiences.
However, the series was peppered with instances in which The Vivienne’s Scouse-and-proud speech or Blu Hydrangea’s Northern Irish twang was butchered in the subtitles thanks to the mistranscription.
This raises an important point about on-screen representation of class and regional accents. The implication is that those with accents that deviate from Estuary English are less likely to be afforded faithful, error-free subtitling. On a platform as wide-reaching as Drag Race, which is all about showcasing a queen’s unique and authentic voice, this seems unacceptable.
Subtitles? They’d better work
It’s possible that Drag Race‘s subtitling problem reflects the industry as a whole – an industry that desperately needs a makeover.
In the age of social media, language and pop-culture are ever-evolving. Memes sprout up at lightning speed, and are forgotten as quickly as they appeared. Internet lexicon permeates offline life. Communities create and adopt their own codified language in a couple of clicks. The subtitling industry must keep up with this linguistic evolution.
When Drag Race UK returns, we should advocate for a more diverse, more inclusive and more forward-thinking subtitling industry.
We should ask that subtitlers are knowledgeable and respectful when subtitling shows that are important to traditionally-marginalised communities. We must demand better quality control of subtitling services, so that mistakes don’t slip through the net.
We should also lobby platforms like BBC and Netflix to provide a better service for all of their customers. After all, everyone should be able to enjoy the cheeky puns, in-jokes and inclusionary celebration that defines Drag Race – not just those who are able to watch the show without subtitles or can understand it in its original language.