Thursday, November 25, 2010

Watching Movies, Reading Subtitles

Watching Movies, Reading Subtitles

“Every film is a foreign film, foreign to some audience somewhere..”

-Atom Egoyan

Watching a ‘foreign’ movie had always involved great deal of ‘reading’ along with seeing. Words have accompanied images from the very beginnings of cinema. Once the initial fascination for the sheer magic of moving images had had its run, words gradually began to creep into the frames in the form of inter titles to introduce, explain, make sense and sometimes as continuity props from one image/scene to another.

If silent cinema was truly global in nature, it was the coming of sound that made it ‘regional’. In the beginning, there was only ‘cinema’ pure and simple, but with sound, suddenly there were several cinemas like the ‘English’, ‘Korean’, ‘Japanese’ or ‘Hindi’. The speech and orchestra that till then ‘accompanied’ cinema from outside the screen, entered the frame. Even before sound, the text and sound were added to the images on the screen through the inter titles that explained or sutured the images onscreen, and in most places, there were the professional narrators who mouthed the dialogues and explained the situations, with the orchestra adding music to it. But reading inter titles of silent films is a different experience altogether, and has to be seen as distinct from subtitles.

In films like that of Charlie Chaplin or Bustor Keaton, DW Griffith or Edwin Porter, the inter titles worked as transition tools from one scene to another (many inter titles started with: ‘Meanwhile….’) apart from giving crisp indications about the narrative context. Interestingly, most of the dialogues onscreen were left out by the inter titles as they were self explanatory – both due to their contextual obviousness and the gesticulations that accompany action. Obviously, these films were conceived as silent films and hence its mis en scene and action/acting followed a pattern that was intended for universal and instant communication across the globe.

But Inter titles were not always mere ‘explanatory notes’ but often worked up a different kind of dynamism vis a vis the image as in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. There, inter titles in fact punctuate the tempo of the film and thus becoming part of the montage. And titles like the cry of ‘Brothers’, and call of ‘One for All!’ ‘All for One’ etc worked almost like placards or revolutionary slogans. They sound more like clarion calls of revolutionary upsurge, urging people to action not only within the ‘film’ (the movie), but also in the ‘theatre’ (where it is screened). In some other occasions, more than the dialogue of an individual in the narrative, it functions like a chorus as if giving voice to the multitude within the frame.

Cinema always was and is a medium of the masses, and in the silent era, it was truly so, because it could communicate to anyone without resorting to written texts. The history of subtitles starts with the very first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1929 when this American film was shown in Paris. Subtitles helped the ‘talkies’ to transcend the limitations of language and talk to the whole world. But with the facility of sound, films became more dialogue-oriented and the plethora of subtitles that accompanied brought with it the prerequisite of being literate, in order for the audience to follow it. So, subtitles, in a way, brings the ‘elitism’ of literature back into cinema, even while helping cinema to break language barriers and making it globally mobile.

The relationship between the viewer and a subtitled film is different from one that is not. Here, the spectator is not only watching and listening to the images and sounds, but also ‘reading’. Our eyes flit between the image and the text. And often, the subtitles at the bottom themselves become part of the image for us. This disrupts the hegemony of the image/sound and opens up a new relationship between the image and the text. Subtitles are not mere footnotes to the image, but another strand that independently addresses the spectator and thus goes into the creation of the narrative. In front of certain films that are dialogue-oriented, we in fact become ‘readers’, though its charm do not end there. For instance, many of the films of Bergman or Godard, Ray or Ghatak, would not be as exciting without the charm of their subtitles!

Yet, subtitles do not simply paraphrase or follow the dialogues mechanically. In fact, it is impossible to do so for various reasons. For one, there is the basic limitation of the length of the subtitle. (Earlier, in the analog era, it could not go beyond a certain length. But with digital technology, it has become much more flexible, both in terms of its font variety and size). If length is a question of screen space, there is the limitation of time too. An ideal subtitle should appear and disappear within the duration of the particular dialogue it is referring to. Apart from space and duration, there is also the question of depth of field. For instance, certain dialogues are whispered, and certain others merely said or shouted. There are instances where the filmmaker does not intend the spectator to comprehend the dialogue (especially in the long shots) while following the image. But when it comes to subtitles, such depth-of-field issues become problematic. The subtitles are either there or not. You can’t garble it or make it illegible, though there are instances of italicizing and highlighting, and in rare cases, animating the letters. Nor can subtitles capture the tonal variations and intonations that the actor in an alien language is playing with. On the other hand, subtitles can also add punch to a certain dialogue through an apt expression or turn of phrase.

There is also a constant interface between speech and text here – while some lengthy speech can be condensed into a few words, the nuances of some spoken words are impossible to capture in a text format. This is especially so with words which have certain cultural connotations. In Indian languages there are a number of words denoting family relationships, which have no parallels in English or other languages, which often puts the subtitler in a quandary! Other common instances are curses or swear words – though one can manage to find parallels or approximations in the target language, it is very difficult to convey the nuance or carry the punch of the original. Also, there are a lot of culturally specific words that do not lend themselves to translation. Take for instance, the word ‘muthalali’ in Malayalam which literally means ‘one who owns wealth/capital’. But it is most often used in a very loose manner to denote all kinds of people – land owners, shop keepers, contractors, traders, capitalists or industrialists. So how does one capture it in English? In one of the popular Malayalam films, the heroine endearingly calls her lover, “kochu muthalali” (‘kochu’ means small or little), and the sub title read: “my dear little bourgeois”!

The advent of the age of DVDs and global television has made the use of subtitles more widespread and also popular. Most of the channels that broadcast films now show them with subtitles, even for English films. The wide and prevalent use of subtitles have in fact globalised our viewing experiences in such a way that the very notion of ‘foreignness’ has become problematic. As Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour puts it, “Globalisation has left its prints on how cinema is made, circulated, and received. ..We need to make sense of the foreign on our own terms. We have to define what is foreign to our individual experience, before we can hope to understand the roots of collective misunderstanding. Subtitles offer a way into worlds outside of ourselves. They are a unique and complex formal apparatus that allows the viewer an astonishing degree of access and interaction. Subtitles embed us.”

Obviously, the act of subtitling involves ‘universalising’ the ‘particular’ which brings the ‘local/regional’ in dialogue with the ‘national/global’. It raises a lot of questions, similar to the ones confronted by a translator: This also poses troublesome questions about ‘regional’ identities and ‘locality’ of a film and the film viewing experience.

Should one ‘translate out’ all the regional and culture-specific nuances to make the dialogues accessible to the global audience? Or, should one maintain the local flavour? If so, how? But the problem with subtitles is that it does not offer any scope for footnotes or explanations. So, subtitling is an act of balancing between the pressure to be concise yet cogent, true yet communicative, local yet global


Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour (Ed) : Subtitles – On the Foreignness of Film, Alphabet Media Book, MIT Press, 2004

The author has subtitled more than 30 Malayalam feature films and several documentaries in English


Blogger iheartsubtitles said...

Nice summary of early cinema history and subtitling :)

7:59 AM  
Blogger Venkatesh Balakrishnan said...

Nice.... but Why do u say that sometimes subtitles add charm to some films?

5:35 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

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6:31 AM  

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