Subtitles are Enemies, Foreign and Domestic: Why Every Good Film Should Be Released As-Is

by Christopher Campbell
March 21, 2011 1:58 AM
6 Comments
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Should the "Critters"-like, Edgar Wright-produced English film "Attack the Block" be released in the U.S. with subtitles? This question was met with much debate late last week and through the weekend, as the film picked up an audience award at SXSW and continued to gain fans and positive reviews. Today's Film Blog Water Cooler quotes some of the points around the web and offers up my own subjective take on the issue.

Maybe this isn't the case for everyone, but if I'm watching a movie in a language I understand, but there are subtitles or captioning at the bottom of the screen, I'll still read that text regardless of my auditory comprehension. I'll pay more attention to what my eyes are seeing written out than to what my ears are already hearing. And it's not that uncommon for English to be subtitled these days, especially in documentaries, whether the speaker has a thick accent and/or does not have a great handle on the language (such as in "The Redemption of General Butt Naked") or the sound recording of dialogue is deemed unsatisfactory (seriously, way too many docs have this problem lately). So it's a shame when a film that doesn't really need subtitles has them, because that attention to the bottom of the screen keeps me from seeing the whole picture.

It's more annoying with English-language films where I could, perhaps with some strain, get what's said anyway, but I'm also annoyed by subtitles in general for the same reason. It distracts from the most important part of the movies, the visuals. Being that I can't comprehend any other language besides English, I do require the translated text for foreign films, and my solution is typically to sit as far back as possible so that the entire frame of the screen is visible even if I'm reading the titles. I often wonder, since much of the world can comprehend English, do they watch a film in their own tongue subtitled in English and have trouble not reading that text? I feel like I would, and that'd really annoy me. This is why, as taboo as it is to say without being marked a dummy, I admit that I hate subtitles.

During the Twitter debate on whether or not "Attack the Block" should be subtitled, Film School Rejects' Neil Miller tweeted, "Subtitles don't change the content of the movie. They clarify," and "It's not changing someone's art. Does it change a Japanese film when subtitles are added? No. Same film, just accessible."

I have to disagree, first, for the simple fact of the distraction element. That's an aesthetic change. And typically, in theatrical release more than DVD/Blu-ray, subtitles are imprinted onto the image, which does indeed change the picture and art from what was originally intended and presented. Then there is the matter of translation, much of which has historically come out as being simplified or incorrect or sadly insufficient at communicating certain aspects of the source language, particularly where comedy is concerned. Recall the controversy over the apparently dumbed-down subtitles for "Let the Right One In." And around that same time I was curious if the translation of "The Class" was sufficient, or if it even could be sufficient because it's so much about specific French word usage.

Miller later wrote up a clarification of his own, explaining at FSR, "Subtitled or not, distributed by a smart company or not, you should give it your support. However, as I’ve just explained (for anyone of those businessy-type folks in the audience), there is a way to do it right. And it doesn’t have to include subtitles."

Fortunately, according to Devin Faraci at Badass Cinema, the companies looking at "Attack of the Block" are reportedly not concerned with the accents He writes, "I don’t know the exact intricacies of the Attack The Block distro negotiations, but I can tell you with confidence that the accents are not getting in the way at all. Although if everybody keeps obsessing about the accents at the expense of talking about how fucking great the movie is, maybe the Twitter chatter could turn into reality."

Whether or not the distributors want subtitles, director Joe Cornish is fine with them, agreeing somewhat with Miller's tweets. He told i09's Meredith Woerner, "Yeah, well whatever it takes. I would just love people to see the film. You know, deep down, I think that you guys can deal with it. I think distributors should be adventurous, and I think it's easy to underestimate the public. As long as the subtitles were switch able to switch off so the more adventurous people could just watch it as it is."

He also makes a good case for why it's unnecessary, though, in the same interview: "I was very careful to choose a glossary of about 10 words. And we used them again, and again, and again. The idea being that even if you don't understand the word itself because of the context you'll eventually be able to understand it through context. And we made sure they enunciated, these kids. So that even if there will little bits that you missed, you got the general drift."

Earlier, he was quoted from the first SXSW screening of his film, prompting fans to let the distributors know there's no need for subtitles. From 24 Frames: "My gut feeling is maybe they underestimate you guys," responded Cornish. "With 20 years of hip-hop culture, with 'The Wire,' did you feel this was difficult? No? Well, tell your local distributors that that's the case."


Here are some other bloggers who've spouted their two cents on the issue:


Kevin Jagernauth at The Playlist:

the subtitling-British-movies worry comes up every now and again, usually when there is a film generating some heat and there is some concern that the flyover states won’t understand the pic. And nothing happens. Ever. If all that changes with “Attack The Block” we’ll be pretty shocked.

Russ Fischer at /Film:

Given that the film is unlikely to ever be more than a limited theatrical release in the US, going out sans subtitles — like almost every other film — seems to be the way to go. In the long run, most people that will see the film will catch it on DVD or Blu-ray, in which case they’ll be able to choose subs if so desired. But for the theatrical release, let’s allow people who want to see the film see it as is. No one watching it at SXSW seemed to have any problem — in fact, it is one of the most unanimously-praised films to screen at the fest. If that audience can handle it, every other audience in the US can, too.

Mike Sampson at JoBlo.com:

Have we really devolved enough and become so insular as an American culture that a film spoken in our own language needs subtitles? The difficult-to-understand-British-movie has become a running joke lately after movies like THE RED RIDING TRILOGY (even SNL got in on the gag) [...] Here a studio wants to make this decision for you and for director Joe Cornish. It's a slippery slope and if a British director allows subtitles on his movie, how long before we have title cards that explain ambiguous endings?


Anyway, it's an old debate, and for examples of English-language films like "Trainspotting" and "The Harder They Come" that needed subtitling, check out this 2007 conversation at Lonely Planet's forums. The best solution is for us to all learn as many languages as possible so we don't need subtitles ever. I know, it will never happen. I've taken years and years of Spanish and still can't understand more than a few words of a Spanish-language film. Of course, I bet I'd pick up and comprehend more if I wasn't too busy reading the English subtitles.



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6 Comments

  • Walter Skiba | April 1, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    I wish subtitles were displayed in larger, easier to read fonts on a black background below or, if necessary, within the picture.

  • jonkelland | March 27, 2011 3:39 AMReply

    i forgot to mention this on our brief twitter exchange, but i thought of this post watching THE ARBOR - it will kill you to know the film is subtitled. distracted me throughout.

    that said, as Jeffrey notes, deaf and hard of hearing folks likely benefit from subtitling. and i reckon this happens in most major markets (though i haven't noticed this for a while), but some hollywood fare would come through town with spanish subtitles.

    anyway, i think watching non-english films without subtitles would mostly kill the practice for me. too often i'll choose not to watch a non-english film because i am too tired to read the film - in these moments i'll also not watch films i expect to be rich, because i am too tired to "read" the film

  • Thomas Blomberg | March 22, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    it's rather irrelevant if this film is subtitled or not for the US audience, as very few will see it anyway. It doesn't depict a US environment, which means that most US kids aren't interested in seeing it. This is why Hollywood insists on making remakes of every successful foreign film or TV series, be it British, Russian, Swedish, French or German.
    You hatred of subtitles is obviously a result of not having seen a lot of subtitled films, and not having seen enough good subtitling. Most subtitling for the US audience is too rapid, because the people doing it (or commissioning it) don't understand the principle of reading speed: if the subtitles go so fast that people are forced to read constantly in order to keep up with the dialogue, watching the film very quickly becomes a tiring exercise. Subtitles should stay on the screen so long that the average reader could read them twice. If that principle is kept, the audience has time to both watch the action and read the subtitles - because all research shows that you can't do both at the same time, no matter how far away from the screen you're sitting.
    Yes, achieving good reading speed means condensing the dialogue, but that's usually no problem, as most film dialogue mimics regular speech (i.e. the way people speak when they don't have a script), which means that the dialogue is full of padding ("ah", "uh", "I would like to say...", "...if you know what I mean" etc) that you normally never find in written dialogue (e.g. dialogue in novels). Skipping that padding and unimportant interjections is usually all it takes to achieve a reasonable reading speed.
    Finally, ten per cent of the US audience is hard of hearing - and subtitles is the only thing that enables them to watch a film...

  • Steve Warren | March 22, 2011 4:21 AMReply

    You lost me when you referred to the visuals as "the most important part of the movies." Yes, that's true in some cases, especially the fanboy flicks; but the relative importance of words to images varies from film to film. It's important to me to hear the dialogue the way the original actors spoke it. I lived through the age when most foreign films were dubbed for American audiences; and even when it wasn't laughably bad, as Woody Allen lampooned in "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" the voice actors were almost never as good as the originals; and the fact that the words didn't match the lip movements (unless the translations were hideously distorted) was a huge distraction.

    Watch enough subtitled films and you'll get used to it. I realize subtitling English-language films is a separate issue, but as you seem to be condemning all subtitling I felt compelled to defend it.

  • Christopher Campbell | March 22, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    Thomas: I wouldn't say it's so obvious, because I have indeed seen a lot of subtitled films. And I've seen them done good and bad (the rushed jobs are expected at festivals).

    Steve: I don't get why fanboy films are the only kind where visuals are the most important element. Film is a visual medium above all. Yes, it's true in all cases, or should be.

  • Jeffrey Fearing | March 21, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    I wish all films were subtitled. I am American born and raised but watch all videos including English language ones with the subtitles turned on. I leave the close-captioning on for TV programs too. I am not hard of hearing but find that the voices are often too under-modulated to hear clearly (as the filmmaker intended). Additionally I find that the names of the characters in films are easier to learn and remember when I see them written. I started using subtitles when my daughter was a new-born so I could turn down the volume on the TV to get her to sleep. I soon found myself using subtitles full-time. I look forward to the video release of films I see in theaters so I can enjoy them again but with sub-titles. I watch a lot of foreign language films and have never had difficulty keeping up with the visuals. I find myself far more distracted by dubbed voices than subtitles.

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