It’s time to celebrate the humble film subtitlerby Hephzibah Anderson / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
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 to play in multiplexes across the American Midwest, a survey found that by the time the credits rolled, a portion of the audience had stopped noticing that it wasn’t in English. The very best that a subtitler can hope for, it seems, is to be overlooked.
Their work tends to go equally unsung within the industry—it’s not quite cinema, nor is it much acknowledged by literary translators. “It’s a lonesome profession,” a studio executive confirmed. Asking who the subtitler is on any given project, she says she’s often told something along the lines of “Oh, the director’s second assistant speaks good English.” Worse still, they will resort to a subtitling agency.
Yet subtitles are almost as old as commercial cinema itself. Rooted in silent movies, subtitles predated the talkies, whose international distribution they evolved to facilitate. As translation, in addition to conveying connotations, jokes and puns, they must submit to a unique set of temporal and spatial constraints. After all, the eye can only absorb so much text in a given amount of time. Done well, subtitling is an idiosyncratic art form—one that’s long overdue an ovation.
As one of Woody Allen’s favoured translators, Candace Whitman is well versed in its challenges. An American who has lived in Europe since 1970, she is fluent in five languages and spoke to me from Barcelona, where she’s working on making Allen’s latest film intelligible to Catalan-speaking viewers.
“The best subtitle is the one that isn’t on the screen,” she says. “A film…