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Subtitles: a request

One of the great things about Netflix, I have discovered in the few months we’ve had it, is that I can watch a variety of foreign films and TV without having to pay through the nose for it. Hurrah, Netflix! Yesterday I watched a Chinese movie with my workout, and today a Danish cop show, The Eagle. Both were fun, and I am definitely continuing with the Danish cop show. I especially like to language-geek about translation choices: I only know about ten words of Chinese, but one of them is “kill,” so I can tell when the crowd is chanting that rather than the “Fight!” the subtitler has chosen to put at the bottom of the screen. And I love thinking about choices like that and when it’s a matter of bad translation, when it’s a matter of cultural difference being recognized, when it’s a matter of subtle shades of meaning.

But the last few days have given me a new plea for subtitlers.

Subtitlers: please, please, please indicate change of language in the conversations you’re subtitling. I can hear the difference between Danish and Icelandic*, but I’m not sure that should be your default assumption when you’re subtitling in English–especially when there’s characterization stuff about who reacts in which ways to the Icelandic. And once you get into Middle Eastern languages, I can tell you that the characters have stopped speaking Danish, but I cannot tell by ear what language they are speaking, except I can tell Indo-European from non-Indo-European given enough time and sample sentences, mostly, sort of. And therefore rule out Pashtun, Persian, etc. if I’m lucky. In the case of this show, I assume that the characters who were not speaking Danish, Icelandic, or Arabic (which was clearly labeled in the dialogue that the character would speak it and why, so good there) were speaking some dialect of Turkish, because culturally that is who is likely to not get labeled in Denmark as unusual or in some way interesting. But it still would have been nice to not be just completely guessing.

It is pure blind luck that I know enough Japanese language structure to be able to say, “Wait, that was Japanese, not Chinese,” and again: only if I am really paying attention to the dialog as it is spoken by the actors and not just as its meaning is conveyed by the subtitles. That is a level of attention I don’t always have available to use, and I can easily imagine situations in which I could not perform the analysis required to get there. And while it can be a fun intellectual exercise, it’s generally not supposed to be the point of the viewing experience for most viewers, I wouldn’t think. It makes the focus on the meta-story instead of the story.

So please. Use different colors of subtitling, or put the language marker in brackets at the beginning when they change, or something. Dumping it all into English–or whatever else you’re subtitling it in–is not enough. I get why, for example, in many Asian languages the translator will choose to use some form of the character’s name when that’s clearly not what the actor is saying: because many of the social-honorific forms don’t really translate to English without needless exoticizing. I just don’t think that switching languages within a subtitled work falls into that sort of subtle judgment category.

So what are your favorite subtitling problems, bloopers, or beautiful incongruities?

*Here is your quick and dirty, entirely parochial, guide to distinguishing the Scandinavian languages by ear: Danish is the one that sounds funny. Icelandic is the one that sounds fancy. Swedish and Norwegian both sound normal, but Swedish sounds the pointy end of normal and Norwegian sounds the squishy end of normal.** And Faroese sounds like you’re trying to talk with a sheep on your head. You’re welcome; don’t say I never gave you anything.

I have no idea whether this is useful to anyone but me, actually, but that’s how I do it.

**Once you’re distinguishing between Nynorsk and Bokmål, you’re a) very inside baseball, and b) really talking about dialect rather than language inasmuch as the two categories are distinguishable at all. So just give yourself a gold star at that point and move on, unless you actually, you know, speak Norwegian.

1 thought on “Subtitles: a request

  1. Bloopers? Best one ever is still the captioning blooper Mike found in a History Channel program on WWII, where some narrator was (allegedly) talking about “Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Gerbils.”

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