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Movie Natters: September 26, 2005 Archive

The writing on the wall for subtitles

Posted at 6:05 PM on September 26, 2005 by Euan Kerr (8 Comments)

A couple of weeks back I watched Ken Loach's tough coming of age movie "Sweet Sixteen." As with many other Loach films over the last 30 years ("Cathy come home," "Riff-raff," "My name is Joe") he uses a cast of unknowns to tell a story about the gritty realities of British life.

"Sweet Sixteen" is set in Greenock, a port town just a few miles down the River Clyde from Glasgow. First-timer Martin Compston puts in a magnificent performance as Liam, a teenager who, in his desperation to keep his family together while his mother is in jail, becomes a drug dealer.

I was watching with my wife who casually mentioned at the end of the film that she had enjoyed it, but then admitted to a few moments (well, a lot really) when she couldn't follow the dialog because of the accents.

Of course, this is always somewhat irritating to us Scots. We have no problem understanding people speaking with other accents, so why shouldn't other people have to soldier through what we say?

Anyway I was about to launch into THAT diatribe, when she pointed out that as we had been watching on a DVD, we could have turned on the subtitles.

And that got me thinking.

I am really wondering how it would change the experience. I must admit I didn't catch everything said in the film. But maybe that's as it should be. Part of the charm of any movie is trying to work out just what the heck is going on.

Another experience added further fuel to my internal debate. When I was in Toronto I talked with Annie Griffin, the director of "Festival," a new film made in Edinburgh, the town where I grew up. There is a broad range of regional accents all through the film, which chronicles the adventures of people attending the annual Edinburgh International Festival. There are a couple of scenes where again the accents get very thick.

She told me she has been discussing whether she needs to put subtitles in some of the scenes for a release outside Britain. Griffin is originally from the US, although she's lived in Scotland for year, and she vehemently opposes the subtitles. She says that even if people don't understand the exact words, they will certainly understand the intent of the people in those scenes. I'll be interested to hear what happens.

Do subtitles make us lazy? Do we miss anything by depending on a translation that has to be truncated to become the typed words across the bottom of the screen? I don't know. I'd be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.

As an experiment I am going to go back and watch "Sweet Sixteen" with the subtitles on. I am also going to get a French movie and see how far my high school lessons will get me without the subtitles. I'll let you know how it works out.

And please give us your thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly on subtitles.

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