Read My Lips

A still from the movie of Deva Anand

The ignored and necessary art of movie subtitling

I had asked you for love but you gave me a blemish. "Fate and circumstance forces me to show up in this colour." "You've encased my soul in your dimple." Or even, "Oh exploded cucumber I will extract your shyness."

Anyone who's watched an Indian movie with English subtitles knows the weird or wooden touch they bring to an otherwise dignified film. They destroy any wordplay or poetry, and they reduce serious characters into these strange babblers. For more, I recommend Paagal Subtitle, a crowdsourced project devoted to the magnificent errors of Bollywood movie subtitling (itself inspired by the even funnier Hong Kong subtitles meme: "Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected").

Though they've been around since talkies began, subtitles still get little respect. They are among the lowest rungs of translation, barely a step up from the news ticker. The subtitler is a spectral presence, who usually gets only passing mention in the credits. But getting captioning right can be a demanding and subtle balancing act — Woody Allen subtitler Henri Behar once said that subtitling was "like playing 3-D Scrabble in two languages".

When done with care, it is also an attempt to render the crackle and idiomatic punch of spoken lines, and render one culture in terms of another (Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon saying, "I declare my independence, it's the new me, 1776" becomes, in the French version "Je déclare mon indépendance, le nouveau moi, 1789.") But unlike translating writing from one language into another, film subtitling is just a sorry necessity. Movies are all about the glory and supremacy of the moving image, and the white crawl at the bottom is a distraction. Subtitles divide your attention. You see and sense what's going on, but you're still forced to rely on an inept interpreter.

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