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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.

Comments (8)

I noticed last night during the Dylan documentary that Scorcese used subtitles when the audience in Newcastle was talking, in case we had a hard time deciphering it.

Posted by Scott in Maplewood | September 27, 2005 12:06 PM

Dan -

Euan Kerr wrote the above piece, not Ms. Curtis.

Posted by Scott in MN | September 27, 2005 12:08 PM

I don't think subtitles detract at all. Even though I may be reading the words, I still get the emotional conveyance of those words aurally. When watching French, Italian, Spanish.... movies with subtitles, I sometimes catch myself turning up the sound. The way people sound is equally important as to what they are actually saying.

Posted by Jane Grage | September 27, 2005 12:35 PM

Subtitling Enlglish-language films for English-speaking audiences is a tricky issue. Some people say they have trouble understanding UK accents in films (Scots and Geordie can pose a particular challenge for some audiences), but the best cure for that is exposure; i.e. hear it more, understand it better. It can improve one's ear and even one's vocabulary. If English is your native tongue, it is always good to broaden your understanding of your native language. Seeing some words and expressions spelled out in the lower third could help in that process. Ultimately, though, there are no fast answers; it comes down to individual preference.

Posted by Luke Taylor | September 27, 2005 2:04 PM

Stephanie here...adding my two cents on subtitles. Having survived the amazingly impenetrable Glaswegian accent when I was in Scotland studying film, I am grateful to have the English subtitles when faced with certain British accents...I wish I could have had subtitles running under real people's lips when I was in Glasgow. But I do feel guilty/lame about using the setting on my DVD player.

But you know what is real fun? Watching a Bollywood musical without the subtitles (I am assuming that you, like me, do not understand Hindi or Tamil or any other language of the Indian subcontinent). I attended many screenings at the Oak Street and other theaters around town when they played the chirpy, colorful film extravaganzas that are the specialty of Mumbai. I may have missed some plot (okay, I missed a lot of plot) but the plot isn't really the point in these romantic comedies. It's more like watching an opera. You may not know Italian, but you know who the bad guy is, who's your hero and who the lady loves. The emotion, not the specific dialogue, is what really matters.

Posted by Stephanie Curtis | September 27, 2005 4:53 PM

here's my two Canadian cents worth less than a US penny...there's nothing inherently wrong with using subtitles for English flixs unless you've got some wacky elitist attitude about the whole thing. it might even help you figure out the accent at some point to where you won't need them any more.

Posted by worm2 | September 28, 2005 11:52 AM

I am not arguing whether subtitles are right or wrong, I am just wondering how they change the experience.

Years ago, when I was a teenager visiting Copenhagen in Denmark, I went to see Terence Hill in one of the "Trinity" movies. (The movies were spoofs on spaghetti westerns, made in Italian.) I can't remember much about it, except that it had been dubbed into German, and had both Danish and English subtitles. What ended up happening was that different sections of the audience would laugh at different moments. Sometimes the joke would be cracked first in the dialog, and then the subtitles would catch up. Sometimes (not often) the subtitles would get the jump. I ended up watching the audience more than the film.

I am surprised we don't see more of the strategy used in the Jimmy Cliff classic "The Harder They Come." In that movie (at least in the version I saw) the producers ran subtitles under the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, giving people unfamiliar with Jamaican patois a chance to get the feel of the language. Then the subtitles stopped, and you had to sink or swim. I never heard of anyone who sank though!

One other thought about subtitles being used to make a point. Back in Scotland there was the time the makers of the cult TV comedy "The Rab C. Nesbitt Show," which is all delivered in Glasgow streetspeak, began putting subtitles on their show. Some TV execs complained, demanding subtitles so people could understand what was being said. The producers obliged, but only put subtitles on Londoners who appeared on the show, in Glaswegian of course.

Posted by Euan Kerr | September 28, 2005 12:29 PM

My husband and I use the subtitle feature frequently on our home theater, especially for British films. We even use it for network TV programs (like Bones) where the conversation is very rapid. For many programs, however, the subtitles run ahead of the spoken dialogue and give away the show! If I'm alone, I tend to turn off the subtitles during thrillers.

Posted by janice | September 29, 2005 12:17 PM

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