Word Play

The art of subtitling

Text by Michael Brooke

There is something about the mastery or even occasional use of a foreign language that confers on a native English speaker the impression of exceptional intellectual achievement. Never mind that other cultures are routinely polyglot and that it's not remotely unusual to encounter good English speakers elsewhere. In Britain, mere willingness to expose yourself to different languages labels you a cultural sophisticate (or pretentious pseud, according to taste) even if such exposure is limited to watching foreign language films while wholly reliant on the subtitles.

Silent cinema notionally had universal appeal, though the vast majority of screenings were accompanied by intertitles in the audience's language or, to compensate for poor literacy, a live reader/translator. When sound came along, studios initially experimented with shooting films in multiple languages. With Dracula (1931), Tod Browning directed Bela Lugosi in English by day, while George Melford replicated Browning's material with Carlos Villarías by night.

This was too expensive to become common practice, so from the early 1930s films in foreign languages had some kind of translation imposed. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, this involved other actors replacing the original soundtrack outright. And in Fascist Italy, dubbing became compulsory, after Mussolini banned foreign language films in case they contained subversive messages. But it was still an expensive option, and so distributors explored cheaper alternatives as voiceover translation (still widely used in eastern Europe and Russia) and onscreen subtitles.

The advantage of subtitles is that they leave the soundtrack untouched, which is why purists prefer them. Even if they can't directly understand what's being said, the simultaneous translation facilitates the illusion, enhanced by being able to hear the actor's original timbre and tone. But no translation method is perfect, and subtitles have their own drawbacks.

For starters, it's a different medium. Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967) opens with a woman telling an explicit sexual anecdote. The soundtrack is deliberately distorted, swamping her speech with a recurring orchestral crescendo, making it hard to latch onto details. However, the English subtitles spell everything out, holding whole sentences onscreen for several seconds longer than the words were ever uttered individually. The timing can also throw the intended effect of a comic or dramatic scene, revealing punchlines before their verbal delivery, and leaving audiences unsure of when to laugh.

Conscientious subtitlers are aware of the problems. Sonia Mullett is the producer of the BFI's ambitious three-year project to release 32 Yasujiro Ozu films onto the home video market, currently at the halfway mark. The trick, she says, is not to attempt a pedantic translation of everything, but to convey as much as possible with maximum efficiency. Ozu's images tend towards limpid simplicity, so swamping them with text works against the effect.

Her most recent release, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), illustrates some of the challenges. The original title, Sanma no aji, means "the taste of sanma", or mackerel pike - popular with the working classes. Only a Japanese audience would have registered this detail without footnotes, hence the decision (taken at the time of the film's original release) to echo earlier seasonal Ozu titles like Late Spring, Early Summer and Late Autumn, many of which are indeed direct translations.

The trickiest scene involved wordplay. This is a headache for translators in any medium, but especially difficult when the original is clearly audible at the same time. The Japanese dialogue features a misunderstanding over the words "ham" (an expensive fish requiring elaborate preparation, unlike sanma) and "ham". The US Criterion DVD release matched the alliteration, but their confusion of "seal" with "sea-eel" was somewhat contrived. Mullett therefore favoured an alternative version that involved 'peach' and 'perch', which at least retained the sense of confusing a common, cheap food with an expensive delicacy.

If even a sensitive producer constantly risks falling into linguistic elephant traps, the potential for chaos is far greater when there's less quality control. Before 1997, the then British crown colony of Hong Kong required film distributors to cater for English speakers. However, because local films were usually subtitled by native Chinese speakers translating to tight deadlines at breakneck speed, the end results were often hilarious. Entire websites celebrate lines like "Bald-head, you are looking for death", "Mr Chao, beat him hardly" and "Suck the coffin mushroom now!", but sometimes the mistakes are subtler. Tiger on Beat (1987) includes the baffling, "My brother is not easy to deal with: he's tear and I have mucus," presumably a reference to the ancient Chinese (and Greek) notion of the body's four humours, which the translator may have erroneously assumed still applied to western medicine.

This shows that effective translation often has to reach beyond the merely linguistic. Indeed, many things are ultimately untranslatable, even when derived from neighbouring European cultures. The novelist and critic Gilbert Adair is notionally completely bilingual, but was forced to admit when reviewing Same Old Song (1997), Alain Resnais' Dennis Potter tribute, that the ideal viewer would need to have grown up French to truly understand the use of popular songs to evoke shared cultural memories. Its near-contemporary La Haine (1995) subtitles its multicultural street slang from the Paris banlieues with a black American equivalent. This mostly works surprisingly well, although a verbal reference to "Eurodisney" is rendered as "Disneyland", thus missing the implied point that the former is a French imitation of an American original, widely regarded with contempt at the time the film was made.

At least La Haine is tonally consistent. By contrast, the DVD version of Polish drama series Londoners (2008) begins with inhabitants of the British capital going downtown via the subway or calling their asshole neighbour a faggot. However, episode two is much more geographically accurate, but the third part reverts to US English again. The end credits reveal that two different subtitlers handled alternating episodes.

Idioms are a constant challenge. When Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting (1982) was premiered at Cannes, the onscreen title was accompanied by 'Au clair de la lune', a nonsensically literal translation. The same is true of the English title of François Truffaut's debut feature - "faire les quatre cents coups" translates roughly as "sowing one's wild oats", and Wild Oats would arguably have been a better title than The 400 Blows (1959). That said, it paid dividends: the teenage Harvey Weinstein claimed to have had his arthouse epiphany with this film, once he'd got over his disappointment that it wasn't a logistically ambitious porno. Years later, as co-founder of Miramax, he would turn subtitled films into a serious money-spinner.

The last decade has seen a revolution in both the availability of English-subtitled versions of films previously off limits to monoglots, and the ability to create alternative versions to suit one's own tastes. The DVD format was designed to offer multiple languages, a single disc capable of hosting several soundtracks and an even greater selection of subtitles. As the Londoners example demonstrates, many foreign DVD labels routinely add optional English subtitles, even if the discs are never sold directly in English-speaking countries.

Access to foreign-language titles is widened further by 'fansubs': unofficial translations created either in the absence of official versions, or which seek to improve on official inadequacies. These started in the 1980s when bilingual fans of Japanese anime videos and television series then unavailable in the west began producing their own homemade versions. Originally, this was an expensive process and the results had limited distribution, but in the online era it's easy to track down subtitles, along with software that can be used to superimpose them over DVDs and other video files. It's also possible to edit individual subtitles and even to run them through Google Translate. The results often make classic Hong Kong subtitles seem like models of coherence and polish, but at least the gist can now be got.

However, sometimes subtitles have deliberately-engineered inadequacies. Jean-Luc Godard recently applied 'Navajo English' subtitles (his term) to Film Socialisme (2010), translating perfectly lucid French into upper-case pidgin English. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet sometimes refused to permit subtitles at all, and at other times, as in Class Relations (1984), they translate only the barest narrative bones, forcing the viewers to engage the spoken content even if they don't understand German. A more politicised example comes with Roman Polanski's request that certain lines in Knife in the Water (1962) not be subtitled. Originally included to appease Polish communist censors, the dialogue had no useful dramatic function.

More recently, people have added deliberately ridiculous subtitles to existing footage, publishing the end result on YouTube to a potentially huge audience. The most famous example involves a scene from Downfall (2004), in which Adolf Hitler is made to rant about a current topical event, such as the breakup of Oasis or the News International phone-hacking row ("G'day," says Hitler/Murdoch as he answers the phone). The best of these are mini-masterpieces of wit and timing, relying for their effect on a phenomenon observed at the start of this piece: that most fans of subtitled films have no idea what the actors are actually saying.

  • Word Play - the Art of Subtitling
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