“That whole thing’s your name?” Captioning names in The Fifth Element

A frame from The Fifth Element featuring Milla Jovovich pointing a gun at the camera and her character's full name in the caption

On the importance of verbatim captioning, especially when names are involved.

One of my favorite scenes in The Fifth Element (1997) is the formal introduction between Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. Willis’ comedic timing is, as always, delightful. Jovovich’s quick, monotone delivery is hilarious. Seeing the full name spelled out in all its hyphenated glory is one of the highlights of the captioned viewing experience: Leeloo Minai Lekarariba-Laminai-Tchai Ekbat De Sebat.

The official DVD of The Fifth Element contains two caption streams: a bitmap stream of speech-only subtitles (the video example above), and a text stream of full closed captions (in which all significant sounds are supposed to be captioned, both speech and non-speech). While the closed captioned version below includes verbatim speech (unlike the subtitled version above), it cops out on Leeloo’s full name, opting instead for an unhelpful non-speech caption: [Speaking Unknown Language]. But that’s not an unknown language, it’s her name!

Would anything short of the fully captioned name work in this case? Probably not. Major characters’ names are always important, regardless of length or familiarity. Willis puts special emphasis on Leeloo’s full name when he refers to it colorfully as “that whole thing.” (In the subtitled version, this is unfortunately summarized as “All that’s your name?”) Caption viewers deserve access to “that whole thing” so they can experience it for themselves. (The full name is surprisingly popular, which is one more reason why it should have been captioned fully.)

Put simply, the scene is an introduction and introductions need names. Edited captions and short descriptions make little sense here.

I find the contrasts between these two versions of the official captions puzzling: The speech-only version doesn’t present speech verbatim, while the full version (speech + non-speech) — i.e. the stream intended for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers — doesn’t caption Leeloo’s full name. Because there doesn’t appear to be a good reason to edit speech in this case, and because caption viewers deserve access to characters’ full names, both streams should have included verbatim speech and spelled out Leeloo’s full name.

  Verbatim speech Leeloo’s full name
Speech-only version No Yes
Closed captioned version Yes No

Putting both streams together into the same video helps to illustrate the differences. (I moved the closed caption stream to the top of the video so it wouldn’t overlap with the subtitle stream.)

So how do we explain these differences? Well, it’s hard to know for sure from this removed vantage point. I’d welcome input from professional closed captioners on this. Given the marked differences in timecodes for individual captions and my own recent conversations with professional closed captioners, I think it’s safe to say that these two caption files were produced by different captioners, at the very least. Each captioner had no knowledge of the other’s work. The two caption streams may have also been produced at different times by different companies. My own experience with multiple caption streams for the same show (e.g. one made for TV, another for the DVD) has prepared me to expect more than one official version of the captions, regardless of type (closed captions or subtitles).

But rather than try to explain the differences, we need to focus our attention on the importance of verbatim captioning, especially when names are involved and those names are hilariously long and alien.

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S. Zdenek

Dr. Sean Zdenek is an associate professor of technical and professional writing at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Reading Sounds: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


3 Responses

  1. I thought that was an interesting side by side. For example, in the first second, doesn’t he say, either, “Hi”, or “I-I drive a cab”

    And the subtitles skip “This is me”

    Both captions ands subtitles skip “You” in “You take it. Go ahead”, and the Subtitles skip “Go ahead”.

    None of these things actually impact the movie, like the skipping of the long name, but seem oddly absent. Probably just human error – lack of time and easy to overlook on a long project.

    But I imagine that captioning the name, one would have had to have some access to that information – It’s not in IMDb under character names, just under quotes.

  2. Great post. I absolutely agree, both that different people (working independently) produced each track, and that both should have been verbatim. This clip reminded me of when I had to caption Barbarella, in which the word “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch” was used as a password. I’d seen it in print but had never heard it spoken before, so I initially assumed they were using a word that they’d made up specifically for the movie and transcribed it “Panfirepufkingithgolgerechcandithinalgolgolgoth”. But when I went on Barbarella’s IMDB page to check something else, the line was mentioned under “memorable quotes”, so I was able to go back and correct the captioning transcript before sending it out.

  3. It would not surprise me at all if the captioning track was directly copied from the VHS release, while the subtitle track was newly authored for the DVD. This is something that I’ve seen on a number of other releases for movies and TV series that predate the DVD format– where errors from the captioning on the original VHS release or TV airing were preserved in the DVD release’s Line 21 captions but not in its subtitles.