Thursday, May 31, 2007


Subtitling is a topic that has not been mentioned on this blog, though it is of course a kind of translation. So I was interested by an article on subtitling movies.

In this article, the director Timur Bekmambetov is quoted as saying, “We thought of the subtitles as another character in the film, another way to tell the story.” This is certainly a different view of subtitling than the usual idea that it is a somewhat unfortunate, distracting necessity. Subtitles were often expected to be as unobtrusive as possible, whereas this director wants to highlight them, and make them a real part of the movie, and he does that by using colors and effects.

The article goes on to explain: “The subtitles that will allow non-native viewers to follow the stories are crucial because no matter how flashy or impressive a movie may be, it’s the subtitles that can stifle or showcase its quality. Although many audiences around the world, most of whom see foreign films dubbed, consider them the cinematic equivalent of Brussels sprouts, subtitles remain an unsung yet essential tool of moviegoing. And with technology improvements, more people speaking foreign languages and the modern habit of multi-tasking, the traditional aversion to watching a film while reading it just might be on the wane.”

One small quibble I had with the piece was the idea that while “literature [which] has the safety net of footnotes, film subtitlers have to make it work in the moment, all while trying to adapt wordplay and cultural references.” I think many translators of literature would be surprised to hear this, since they obviously also attempt to wordplay and cultural references and make the story or poem work as it is, without resorting to footnotes. It’s true that translators can use footnotes or endnotes if necessary, but many would prefer to avoid it, so as not to take attention away from the piece.

It was interesting to learn how much time (1.5 seconds per subtitle) and space (45 characters per line max) there is for subtitles and also to be reminded that there “are logical rules as well, such as finishing a subtitle when a character stops speaking and not extending it over a cut, which can be disorienting. Good subtitles work with the rhythm of the scene, based on accurate spotting that captures that timing.”

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