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The myth of the subtitle


(It's understandable why people watch subitled rather than dubbed films - the sound of the language and the original performances.  As the current craft of dubbing is so poor, I will not watch a dubbed film.  So, I make the following argument not to convince viewers to change their habits, but simply to point out that subtitles complicate visual experiences in ways that the filmmaker did not intend.  The argument is meant to honor a particular shape of film-watching experience, one in which plot is conveyed less by script points than by visual texture, sense, and rhythm.)


While the subtitled foreign language film is almost universally considered the purest, most true presentation of the original, an argument can be made that, in fact, an artfully dubbed version (which does not yet exist) would be preferred if one believes that film is primarily visual, as opposed to theatrical or literary.   

Say we have a close-up of a woman, stoically listening to her husband speaking off-screen.  The husband is confessing his infidelity.   Her pride, and the complexities of their relationship (complexities revealed, as a matter of fact, by our direct experience of this stoicism - we stare, unwavering, at the granite facade of her expression), will not allow her to acknowledge the pain caused by his confession.  Attempting to break her, the cruel husband decides to lie about the woman with whom he was unfaithful.  When he says, "It was your mother", a tiny shock of pain passes through her eyes, which then quickly regain the cold indifference that she has maintained up to that moment.   That almost imperceptible twinge is the dramatic heart of the scene.  We are profoundly moved by her strength, now that we understand how secretly vulnerable she is to her husband's cruelty.   A great scene. 

But we missed it.  We didn't see the scene.  Her unflinching stare was not experienced by our nervous attention darting between text and image, reading and seeing.  And at the critical moment, when she flinched, we were looking at the lower third of the screen, reading the white letters:  'It was your mother.'

The subtitles are the script of the film.  They take us away from the film itself.

Of course, dubbing the film would take fromus the sounds and rhythms of the original language, but this  pleasure, however exotic and delightful, may have little to do with the director's intentions.  To the director, the language is not exotic. It is, usually, their native tongue.  As filmmakers they do not traffic in the strangeness of their own language, but, hopefully, in images and their relations to the sense of the words, with felt textures provided by the actual sounds, as in poetry, or refined prose.  

The director uses sound, and image, and the physicality and sense of each, to convey something he or she considers worthy.   That something is likely not entirely centered on the quality of strangeness in their own language, but it probably does consider the textural and rhythmic experience of their native.  

So, losing this texture and rhythm is unfortunate, but would we rather miss this than the actual, visual experience of the film?

This is putting entirely aside the fact that the subtitles are not even a full, or even accurate version of the script.  The husband's line, literally translated from the original: "I never even thought of you when I was with her.  Why would I, I was with her, not you?", would, at best, be translated as, "I never thought of you when I was with her".   Time needed to read prohibits a full translation.  The critical, and especially cruel, "..why would I, I was with her", is omitted, and we are bereft of the special sadism of the husband.

Granted, dubbing techniques are famously slipshod.   But this need not be the case.  In a perfect world, the art of dubbing would be refined and practiced with the most rigorous craft. 

In this ideal industry, the art of dubbing would begin with carefully chosen translators, whose task would be to capture the full and nuanced texture of the original.  They would deliver the colloquial flavors, the fragmentary utterances, the passing asides, and the particular rhythms of the original speech.  The translation should share ambitions with translations of serious literature.

As much as possible, the translations would even sound like the original, to the extent that the two languages allow such approximations.  


Catullus:  Assiduo valentem excercete iuvientam.


Louis Zukofsky's translation: Ah see those valentines exercised in the young time.


Such similarities in sound also make it easier to do convincing lip-synch.


Further, the dubbing actors would be very carefully chosen for the quality, body, color, timbre of their voices, the better to match the visual presence of the original actor, the better to mimic the experience of the film as it was for the native speaker of the original.  They would be capable of their own language's accents that bear specific socio-economic/cultural similarity to any accents present in the original.  These dubbing actors would work with the film's director, with the translator, and even with the original actors, to fully recreate, as closely as possible, the original performance.

I would like to experience, without glancing away and reading, the wife's unblinking expression and the tiny, ephemeral fissure in her mask, and the particular way in which the husband's voice and words provoke this.  I don't want to read about it.



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