Subtitles Matter.

I have a favorite t-shirt. It’s from the Flickerings film festival. It’s bright red, and on the back it says “So many subtitles, so little time.”

I have friends who groan when they learn a movie is subtitled, and some of them lose interest entirely when they learn a film is in a foreign language. Me, if I charted my rate of enjoyment, I’d probably find that I enjoy films from outside of America far more often than enjoy films made in America. Subtitles don’t bother me at all. In fact, lately I’ve been watching American films with the subtitles turned on, just because I tend to appreciate the dialogue more when I don’t miss key lines in the crowd noise or the actor’s mumbling.

But have you ever watched a foreign-language film on DVD with the subtitles turned off?

I recently watched Karen Shakhnazarov’s film Day of the Full Moon without the benefit of English subtitles. Imagine watching Crash or Magnolia but not understanding a word they’re saying, and you’ll have some idea of my experience. It was fascinating, and it liberated me from the “tyranny of the narrative” so that I could examine interesting juxtapositions, settings, and tones. I do hope to see Day of the Full Moon again with English subtitles, but that’s currently unavailable on Region 1, so… here’s hoping.

I’ve been thinking about subtitles today, though, and how I often wonder whether what I’m reading is really what they people are saying to each other.

Today, Jeffrey Wells pointed to an alarming commentary on the subtitles being provided with the Region 1 DVD of Let the Right One In. This was one of my favorite films of 2008. The inaccuracy of the subtitles gives a new layer of horror to this memorably frightening film.

Any bilingual Looking Closer readers out there? Have you ever encountered a case of bad subtitles?

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  • Timothy

    I recently watched El Norte. I watched it with the English subtitles, but I’m learning Spanish and I was very aware of where the translators were less than literal or simply summarized what was being said. The subtitles were very well done, I think, but changes have to be made, and some subtleties will almost always be lost.

  • Margaret Deaton

    I was glad to see Neil Das’s comment about the dubbing and subtitles on Babette’s Feast. The first time I saw that movie, it was with subtitles and I loved it so much that I recommended it to friends who were a little intimidated by subtitles so we watched the dubbed version with them. I thought the dubbing was HORRIBLE. In an effort to match the timing of the original lines, they shortened or lengthened or changed things so much that they lost the poetry that the subtitles had managed to convey. The highlight of the movie, the general’s speech at the dinner, was ruined for me by losing the line from the Psalms about ‘righteousness and grace kissing each other.’ So the skill of the subtitle writer makes a huge difference.

  • Lucky for me, I went to see The Class with a friend who grew up in Paris, not so much because the sub-title’s were wrong, so much as it gave the nuance of the situation in class that leads to the climatic conflict.

  • As an aesthetic experience I like to hear the voice of the original actors as opposed to dubbed voices. I generally trust the subtitles are accurate, but these comments make me wonder. I have watched Babette’s Feast both dubbed and with subtitles and found the dubbed version almost comically different at parts. Again, I do not know which was more faithful, but I certainly preferred the subtitled version. In that case it seemed more nuanced.

    Recently, watching Slumdog Millionaire and knowing some Urdu, which is very similar to the Hindi or Urdu which is spoken in the film, I noticed that even the very rudimentary phrases they used in the film sometimes had slightly different subtitles than their exact meanings, though it was not a huge problem. That film also technically had very readable subtitles. If I remember correctly, they were transparent bars of color with the text superimposed on these. The bars also changed colors and positions on the screen. Now that suited the visual style of SM quite well, but might be annoying in other films. The very readable quality of the subtitles, though, might be useful even on the bottom of the screen, provided it did not take up too much space.

  • David H.

    Jeff, I was delighted to see your reference to “Day of the Full Moon” — as you know, a favorite film of mine. One subtitle problem that I’ve occasionally encountered and that drives me nuts is when the translation might be perfectly good, but the subtitles are just very hard to read (e.g., you lose a whole section of dialogue because the characters are talking in a snowy landscape and the subtitles are in white letters). Another interesting issue is the way that movie titles are translated — or not translated — from language to language. Sometimes this is a matter of completely changing a foreign title for an English audience: for instance, Zhang Yimou’s films “The Road Home” (which in Chinese has the workmanlike title of “My Father and Mother”) or “House of Flying Daggers” (which in Chinese is titled “Ambushed All Around”). Sometimes it’s more subtle — Nikita Mikhalkov’s film “Exhausted by the Sun” was changed in English into “Burnt by the Sun” (probably because the original Russian film title is a play on the title of a old popular song, “The Exhausted Sun,” that would be lost on an English audience). Alternatively, sometimes it’s interesting to see when a foreign film title is not/not translated when it’s distributed abroad — for instance, Edward Yang’s film “Yi Yi” (which literally just means “One One”) or Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” (why not use the perfectly respectable “Goodbye, Children”?). Of course, there’s also the amusing way that the names of English films or television shows are translated into foreign languages (e.g., one of my favorite U.S. shows, “Lost,” becomes the rather silly-sounding “Stay Alive” in Russian). I’m sure I could think of many more examples in all of these categories, but you get the basic idea.

  • Daniel

    I just got the Let the Right One In DVD today. I was disappointed to see the reports of just plain stupid subtitles. Luckily, the company has replied to the outcry and stated that all DVDs will now have the original subtitles. No word yet if we can exchange them…
    But I also recently bought a dubbed version of an anime show, Ouran Host Club, and I’m glad to say both the subtitles and the new English dialogue are just fine.

  • Joel: Your Kurosawa story reminds of me the time I watched Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire with both the subtitles and the dubbing; the discrepancies between the two translations were so broad at times that, when one character cites the name of a famous Catholic clergyman as a sort of joke, each translation used the name of a different clergyman. My hunch is that the two translations may have been done for different English-speaking territories, where different names and different words would have a different resonance; but I suspect the dubbed dialogue was also affected by the need to resemble the actors’ lip movements.

  • Elrond

    I Holland only cartoons and children’s movies are dubbed. And even they have versions with subtitles for adults because it’s regarded as childish or unnatural to watch a movie that’s dubbed. Most subtitles are quite good because it’s really an art where you have to leave out a lot of what is said without the viewers noticing it. Sometimes there are small mistakes where the translator mishears things or doesn’t know what something really means, but I don’t remember any specific mistakes.

  • Steve

    Interesting – I wonder why nobody has pointed out that subtitles or closed captions are absolutely necessary for those of us who are deaf and have no other way to enjoy a movie?

  • linds

    Wow – just wow. What a way to destroy a fabulous film. It’s like reading the American version of the first Harry Potter book.

    I’m not bilingual, but my French is pretty solid, and I can’t stand to watch French films with subtitles – the subtitles lose all the color of the language. It’s like trying to read the Psalms in New American Standard. Ick.

  • I once watched a DVD–can’t remember exactly, but I believe it was a Kurosawa film–with both the subtitles and the dubbing on and found the discrepancies to be alarming. It was almost humorous to hear entire phrases being spoken that were nothing like the subtitles. It does make me wonder what gets lost in translation. Yet subtitles force me to focus on the body language and subtle communication of characters, making me realize how a raised eyebrow or a shift in the tone of voice can make those tiny sentences at the bottom of the screen come alive.

    @Tyler, I had the exact same experience. I had to reset the sound 10 minutes into the film after I realized what was happening.

  • Do you know if the same thing happened with the dubbing track for Let The Right One In? I started watching the DVD and was confused that I could understand what everyone was saying, so I went back to the menu and figured out that the default setting was for English dubs. I switched it to the Swedish language track with English subtitles and watched the rest of the movie that way.

  • Carlos Rojas H.

    In my country people usually avoid dubbing as the original versions are considered superior even if it means reading off the screen. That is why some very hyped movies for older children are released in both subtitled and spanish dubbed versions (“The Dark Knight” comes to mind). There are exceptions, most people I know (including me) went to see the dubbed version of “The Simpsons Movie” as the voices were the same used on TV and are simply amazing.

    I have done some translation work (though not subtitling) and can imaging how difficult it must be to write subtitles. One would have to strike a balance between readablility (how fast does an average person read? what would be the correct wording for fast reading?) and fidelity (how to summarize an idea faithfully? what can you omit without hurting narrative or a character’s cadence?). Recently I sat down to watch “Kagemusha” and automatically set up the subtitles and 15 minutes into the movie I was appalled by how little I was understanding, then I set up the spanish dub and was amazed at the difference: the subs were horribly cut short, omitting names, places, events; they simply made no sense.

    An interesting thing I have observed is how (without noticing it) people subordinate what they are reading in native language to what they hear in foreign, even if they don’t understand much. For instance, when seeing commedies people usually laugh at the exact punchline even if the entire joke is written on the screen (yesterday my wife and me were watching old “The IT Crowd” episodes with subs and I noticed it again). I suppose subtitle writers learn to trust the audience to understand the actors body language and inflections in order to help their work.

  • When I took a course on the films of Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal, The Barbarian Invasions, etc.) at university, most of his dramatic films had subtitles, but for some reason his documentaries did not. That was more than a little frustrating — though some of the comic juxtapositions in his documentaries still came through loud and clear (like the sequence in Comfort and Indifference where all the politicians start tossing out numbers, predicting the great financial loss that Quebec will suffer if it leaves the country, followed by a sheep going “baaaaa”).