Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Languages and dialects

In the comments thread on my recent post on subtitles, I recently mentioned the fact that some of the dialogue for the film Trainspotting had been rerecorded with the same actors but less broad Scottish accents for the American release of the film. James Russell commented that

On the subject of "Trainspotting", may I just take this opportunity to express the offence I take at films made in the English language being redubbed or subtitled for other English-speaking territories because the latter can't understand the former's accent and refuse to accept that they are in fact speaking the same language. I take particular offence when this happens with Scottish films.

The trouble with this is that it isn't really true that there are hard dividing lines between languages. Linguists usually argue that the two people are speaking the same language if the languages they speak are mutually intelligible, but there are still lots of cases where A and B can understand each other, B and C can understand each other, but A and C cannot understand each other. The dividing lines between languages are often more political than lingusitic. These political divisions can turn into genuine linguistic divides because they are the points at which mass media and teaching in schools stops being in one standard language and starts being in another. However, even in this case this is something of an artificial imposition.

If a film is genuinely being redubbed because the distributors want to make it blander for local audiences, and because the distributors believe that local audiences are going to be put of by the local culture of somewhere else, then sure. I agree. (A classic case of this is the dubbing of "Mad Max" into American, which should have been defined as a crime against humanity under the Geneva convention). If it is a case of subtitling the movie is a way of indicating that the accent of the characters in the movie is something strange and to be laughed at, then I agree with James. However, if it is genuinely a case of intelligibility, and an audience isn't going to be able to understand and hence appreciate a film without subtitles or dubbing, then I think there can sometimes be justification for doing it, even if the film and the audience are both nominally English speaking. I don't think that you can say that because we are B above, and we can understand both A and C that therefore people who are C should never be able to appreciate films from A. I can't really see how this is different from saying that films made in Spain should never be subtitled into English because English speakers should really learn Spanish instead.

Personally my preference is for subtitles rather than dubbing wherever possible, but even then I don't see this as entirely clearcut. I think the Trainspotting situation is rather less egregious than some, particularly given that they got the same actors to do the dubbing. It may well be that a relatively mild Scottish accent has the same or greater impact on an American viewer as does a strong Glaswegian accent on an English viewer, who is more familiar with Scottish accents. And I am not sure how different this is from an actor in a play or a movie simply enunciating more clearly than he would in a normal conversation, simply because it is important that the audience understand him. A fictional film is inherently stylised compared to life. The fact that speech patterns are not the same as in life is part of the way in which it is stylised. (How many people say "flipping" as an obscenity in real life? Ideally they would use actual obscenities in PG rated movies, too, but this is something we are stuck with).

Even if you do argue that nobody should ever dub or subtitle a Scottish accent, there are forms of English that are even harder than broad Scottish for speakers of standard versions of English to understand. (Many of these are spoken in the Carribean or in New Guinea or on certain Pacific Islands). The speakers of these languages consider themselves to speak English, and they pass the A, B, C test above, in that there are speakers of intermediate forms of English, but they are not something you or I could understand.

My point I think is that I don't think you should draw a hard and fast line. There are actually degrees of good and bad here. There are practices that are clearly good, and practices that are clearly bad. But there is also a level of murkiness in between. I strongly prefer films to be subtitled rather than dubbed. This is equally true when we are dealing with a film originally in Spanish, however. As a practice I dislike dubbing. But there are still occasionally times for it. There are fewer times for it when you are dealing with different dialects of the same language, but even in this case, saying that it should never be done strikes me as going too far.

One thing that we should campaingn for is DVDs that have as many possible soundtracks and sets of subtitles as possible. That way, when the producers have made some sort of compromise like this, the audience will have the choice of decising which to watch and listen to.

No comments:

Blog Archive