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The myth of the subtitle


(Full disclosure:  I always prefer subtitled films, for much the same reasons others do - the sound of the language and the original performances.  I make the following argument for the simple reason that film-watchers assert their preference for subtitling without recognizing the implications for a cinema experience that is primarily visual.  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, the argument can be made that, in fact, the artfully dubbed version is preferred if one believes that film is primarily a visual medium, 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, it's unfortunate that we would no longer hear the sounds and rhythms of the original language, but this exotic pleasure, however delightful, has nothing to do with the director's intentions.  To the director, the language is not exotic. It is, usually, their native tongue.  They traffic mainly 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 almost certainly not centered on the purely sensory experience of the native language.

So, losing the sound of the native language 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?".  This 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.  The film industry should begin a vast and artful commitment to improving the art of dubbing.  

In this ideal industry, the craft of dubbing would begin with the very finest translators, who would capture the full and nuanced texture of the original.  They would deliver the colloquial flavors, the fragmentary utterances, 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 the 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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