Monday, April 28, 2003

The art of subtitling

This piece in the Los Angeles Times is about the art of subtitling motion pictures. In pariticular, it is a difficult art. You have very little space, and often complicated and non-standard language to translate. Particularly interesting, though, is this point.

But Sony Pictures Classics' Barker maintains that younger audiences are far less resistant to subtitles.

" 'Run Lola Run' and 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' became huge because the younger generation, who are used to reading instant messaging on their home computers and CNN crawls at the bottom of the screen, are much more open to subtitles than people in their 40s and 50s," he said. "That bodes well for foreign films aimed at a younger audience."

This is against conventional wisdom. The last 20 years have seen fewer and fewer subtitled films released in the United States, and independent cinemas have shown more and more independent films made in English and fewer and fewer Europeans films shown with subtitles. European filmmakers have made more and more of their films in the English language because they believe that this is necessary to pick up English language (and particularly American) audiences. (Lars von Trier set Breaking the Waves in Scotland, and Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar set The Others in Jersey because films in English were easier to finance and sell. Early drafts of both screenplays were set in places where English is not the local language). The exhibition and distribution industries are certainly often reluctant to book subtitled films, and there have been quite a few times when I have been warned that a film has subtitles when buying a ticket. Presumably the people at the ticket office have been instructed to do this, and presumably management have told them to do this because people sometimes do go into a film, see that it has subtitles, and then demand their money back.

However, when I think about it, I think the rep from Sony is probably right. Younger people multitask better than older people, and are used to reading and doing other things at the same time. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was by far the most successful subtitled film in the US ever. Amongst the people who saw it, the fact that it was in Chinese with subtitles was barely the point. (Of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a Sony distributed film, so their feelings must be helped by having made so much money from it).

Personally, my parents (bless them) started taking me to see (mostly French) films with subtitles when I was about ten, and I tend to see them as just a normal part of moviegoing. (Of course, when I first visited France at age 23, I found the fact that people actually spoke French to be slightly perturbing. Up until then, my subconsciousness had decided that French was a language merely used for movies). However, about five years ago, I had a peculiar conversation with my father. Dad loves the movies possibly even more than I do, and while having a film related conversation with him, he discovered that I had didn't have great enthusiasm for modern European cinema, and I had no great desire to see one particular French (or was it Italian) film he wanted to see. He asked me what I found to be an extraordinary question, which was whether "I didn't like movies with subtitles"? I found this a shocking question, because I saw and see lots of non-English language films, and I thought he must have been aware of this.

However, when I thought about this, I realised that I see a lot of Asian cinema. I see a lot of films from greater China (ie including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and I see a lot of Japanese cinema (including a fair bit of anime), with also the odd film from India, Korea, or various other places. While my Dad certainly does see Chinese films from time to time (He likes Zhang Yimou, although I am not sure if he has discovered Chen Kaige) and I certainly see European cinema from time, our tastes diverge somewhat. My lack of enthusiasm was for recent European cinema rather than for subtitles. (Of course, there continue to be good French and other European films made, but I think the overall quality is not what it once was).

it will be interesting to see when we get another subtitled film that is as big a hit as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I am sure we will get one, and I am sure its audience will again skew young. It will be interesting to see where it comes from. Maybe China again. Perhaps Japan. (I would love to see a Japanese animated film breakthrough in a bit way, although they tend to be dubbed rather than subtitled for the US market). Perhaps even Bollywood.

Update: There are also good reasons for preferring subtitles to dubbing when you are in a foreign country. When you are feeling culture deprived due to the absence of anything in English on the hotel television except for CNN, CNBC, and BBC Worldwide, there is nothing like a Hollywood movie to make you feel better. If you are in a civilized country that prefers subtitles to dubbing, you can just go along, listen to the original soundtrack, and try to ignore the subtitles. When in Tokyo a couple of years back I saw quite a few movies for this reason. Tickets cost something like US$20 each, but I didn't care. I needed movies.

An odd thing about seeing this way was that the first few times I did it, I was watching films with English soundtracks and French subtitles, and I found the subtitles oddly distracting. My mind had sort of figured out from years of practice that if there were subtitles on the screen it should pay attention to the subtitles and ignore the dialogue. Therefore, I found myself ignoring English language dialogue and trying to figure out what the French subtitles meant, even though I don't undertand French. Curious. (This has never happened when the subtitles have been in languages with non-Latin scripts, however. My mind has never tried to figure out Chinese our Japanese subtitles, thankfully).

Of course, if doing this, it is necessary to make sure that the film is actually in English. Once, due to a lack of proper thought, I sat through Buena Vista Social Club in Spanish with Japanese subtitles. This wasn't actually so bad, as the music in that film was still superb. Still, I didn't understand a great deal.

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