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Subtitles Subtle Impact
by Marinell Haegelin

The first American sound movie debuted in New York City on October 6, 1927, and in London on September 27, 1928: The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. In January 1929, the first European feature flaunting synchronized vocal performances with a recorded score was a German, sans dialog, production: Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame). The first European talkie, Blackmail by Alfred Hitchcock, was released in Britain in 1929, followed by talkies in Austria, Sweden, and France, with the inevitable domino effect throughout Europe during the 1930s.

Naturally, with talkies came a dilemma, and those importing films had to make a choice: while most of Europe opted for the quick, economical displaying of translated dialog—subtitles over the picture, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy chose the time-consuming, costly form of dubbing voices. Historical implications also contributed: during the 1930s Germany, Italy, and Spain were able to censor politically unacceptable foreign ideas and viewpoints from the populace; perhaps that accounts for many of the dubbing voices even now frequently sounding like they are reading text.

While the process has changed to accommodate technological advances, eighty years later the principle continues. Apropos film work: the subtitler watches a movie, and line for line translates the dialog—a written version of the text is not always available. The challenge is twofold: To translate the dialog correctly, and to condense the essence to fit on the screen in the time allowed, e.g. during a conversation and/or before scene cuts. While subtitles allow the original actors’ voices to be heard, oftentimes dialog subtleties are lost in the translation. Too often subtitles are in white text, and with low-cost productions the finesse of semantics coherency suffers.

Luckily for me as a native English speaker, many of the foreign films shown during film festivals use English subtitles. This year I noticed two recurring problems: White text making the subtitles virtually unreadable against the background—totally needless, and grammatically incorrect English translations. The following films owe their success, or lack of, in varying degrees to subtitles.

Valley of Saints, an India / USA production with English and Kashmiri dialog, has a simple storyline about two young men whose desires and loyalties collide when external forces introduce events that allows time for each to reevaluate his life and what is most important. Living on a man-made island in Dal Lake, a tourist mecca, Gulzar is further torn when he meets Asifa who is completing her environmental research that focuses on the lake’s cataclysmic pollution. The location and its inhabitants have a mesmerizing effect, embellished by the music. American director Musa Syeed’s parents were forced to escape Kashmir; in his debut feature film, the grammatically correct English subtitles flow in yellow, easy-to-read text.

Law of the Jungle, a Danish production with Spanish dialog, is about a group of indigenous Peruvian Amazon Indios swept up by a life-threatening confrontation with the Pluspetrol oil corporation. Their peaceful demonstration at the company’s rural airstrip is distorted to appear as an attack; the Indios are accused of murder, tortured, jailed; the trial is in a city a days travel from their homes. A lawyer’s dedication, and one of the group’s principal’s Fachin Ruiz’s, innate savvy, patience and maturity in dealing with the situation, help them navigate what appears to be a hopeless situation, since their one eyewitness vanishes. A David & Goliath story: The support of honest-to-their-code justice-system persons makes the outcome all the sweeter. Michael Christoffersen and Hans la Cour direct this intense, riveting documentary. Regrettably, the white subtitles, often over white T-shirts, etc., make significant amounts of crucial dialog unreadable.

The Last Cangaceiros, a Brazilian production with Portuguese dialog, has a beguiling story. Two banditos survive from the 1930s–1940s living in anonymity, and capture our interest as they tell their tale. Archival footage collaborate Moreno and Durvinha’s story; time dilutes the reprehension of the gangs’ deeds that included murder, abductions, and giving babies away. However, sloppy editing, lack of time-placement cards, and poorly translated English subtitles result in a fairly convoluted interpretation of this distinctly interesting period. Maybe seasoned director Wolney Oliveira was counting too heavily on the mesmerizing effect of watching these nonagenarians? Wrong choice. The questions arising because of the lack of information and confusion of the sequential facts, combined with subtitles requiring interpreting-while-viewing, make this a forgettable documentary.

Song of Silence, a People’s Republic of China production with Chinese dialog, is from first-time director Chen Zhou. The long-winded storyline and protracted silences neither engage nor elicit our curiosity and compassion: Jing’s divorced parents dump their deaf adolescent with her grandfather until she seduces the only person paying any attention to her. Mom implores dad, who is reliving his youth with a much younger girlfriend, to take Jing in; consequently, dad has two competing juveniles to deal with. These ambivalent, self-centered people allow situations to escalate, with overwhelming repercussions. The only winners are those who cause the most pain. Although minimal in dialog, the English subtitles contain grammatical, spelling, and word definition mistakes. On the plus side, subtitles were yellow and white.

I do not understand why these problems continue, specifically because there is no law saying subtitles have to be white, or that they cannot be interchangeable, i.e. using yellow text instead of white against backgrounds where readability would otherwise be impeded. Poorly translated English and grammatical mistakes interrupt the flow of a story; the viewers’ attention is broken by the effort of trying to make sense of the dialog. With globalization, and the Internet, native-speaking cinephiles are available to help no-budget filmmakers. For titling companies there is no excuse: Being so stuck on tradition that the clients’ target, the audience, is penalized is utterly confounding.