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It’s time to celebrate the humble film subtitler

Scene from A Bout de Souffle by Jean Luc Godard, who has refused subtitling in some films

In his seminal teaching notes on filmmaking, Alexander Mackendrick, the director best known for Whisky Galore! and The Ladykillers, defines cinema as an essentially “pre-verbal” medium. A good movie, he says, should be 90 per cent understandable even if it’s in a language that nobody in the auditorium speaks.

But what of the other ten per cent? If it happens to be in a language we don’t understand, we are reliant upon subtitles. But even as Nordic noir muscles onto our television screens and new foreign films by the likes of Michael Haneke and Thomas Vinterberg win acclaim at Cannes, this crucial tool remains underexamined.

Perhaps it is because the mark of a successful subtitle is its invisibility. A dozen years ago, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became the first foreign language film

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Hephzibah Anderson

Hephzibah Anderson
Hephzibah Anderson is an associate editor of Prospect and the author of "Chastened" (Chatto & Windus) 

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