The rest of the subtitle

Movie subtitles are often missing something important.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw Ai Weiwei’s The Rest. It’s an excellent documentary, and I feel a little bad criticizing it about anything, but its subtitles really needed one more thing – though, to be fair, very few movies include it.

I’m not talking about tone of voice. You can hear the people speaking, and while intonation varies across cultures, you get some idea. I’m also not talking about nuances of meaning, or about some literal sense or figurative connotation that’s being missed. There will always be something missing. Translation is never exact. There’s a reason for the Italian saying traduttore, traditore. (That means “translator: traitor” or “to translate is to betray” or any of several other translations that help to prove the point.)

No, I’m talking about what language they’re speaking.

If the subtitled movies you’re used to seeing are monocultural films from Germany or France or Italy, this may seem stupid. They’re all speaking the same language! Well, yes, in those movies they are, usually. But in many movies they aren’t. And that difference is important information.

If you’re watching a movie in English and there’s a character who speaks some other language, that sticks out, right? Hell, man, even if they speak with a different accent it sticks out. These are key points of identity and social relation.

The Rest is about refugees, in particular refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq as well as parts of Africa; it follows them as they seek refuge in western Europe, many of them via Turkey and Greece. In an early scene in the movie, we see a young man doing an Islamic recitation in Arabic at a makeshift graveyard in Greece. Then we see him talking to the camera (in an interview) for a few minutes. I’m lucky because I’m a language geek: I noticed something many people in the audience wouldn’t have. I leaned to my wife and said, “He’s speaking Greek.”

He was an immigrant (perhaps refugee) from an Arabic-speaking Muslim country, but he was in Greece and he was speaking Greek. Fluently. This matters in terms of his presence and social relations – in terms of how the people there will see and treat him, and in terms of his own history.

Throughout the movie, there were several languages that could have been flagged on the subtitles but weren’t. We heard people speaking Arabic (more than one kind – there are quite a few kinds, and I’m not good enough with Arabic to identify which is which), Turkish, Greek, Italian, German, and French (including a refugee from the Middle East in Turkey who was speaking stripped-down French, presumably because that was the European language he knew any of; also, nearly all of the refugees from Africa were speaking French fluently but with accents from various parts of Africa). Many people don’t know them all well enough to identify them, especially if the speaker has an unexpected accent.

The difference matters. Language is an expression of identity – yours or the one you’re trying to fit in with or accommodate or not accommodate. We understand this by reflex in a context where our own home language is involved.

Think of Star Wars: In the cantina scene, do you think it would matter if viewers of the movie in a non-English-speaking country couldn’t tell that Greedo and Han were speaking different languages but understanding each other? If you say no, let me introduce you to some people who may disagree.

The distinctions can cut even finer than that. You may not have seen the movie The Square (if you haven’t, that’s OK, seriously), but it takes place in Sweden, and it’s all subtitled, and you might think, “OK, fine, they all speak Swedish. No big deal.” But let me tell you something. One of the important themes running through this movie is immigrants. Now, all the immigrants in the movie are speaking Swedish whenever we see them – except one. The lead character is the director of an art museum in Stockholm. He’s Scandinavian. But – and the subtitles give no hint of this – he speaks Swedish with an accent. A Danish accent. And when he’s at home with his kids he speaks Danish. You may be rolling your eyes and shaking your head, but consider a movie in which a director of a Canadian art museum, who has problematic encounters with immigrants, is speaking with a Scottish accent, and at home speaks to his kids in Scots. Danes are similar to Swedes, but they are not Swedes and don’t sound like Swedes. It’s an important point that the director is also an immigrant, and perceptibly so, but of a more privileged kind.

This is thematically important. The subtitles elide it. They could have made it clear.

I can think of one film I’ve seen in the past few years that made a clear labelled distinction between languages. As it happens, it was set in a country where numerous mutually unintelligible languages are spoken: India. If memory serves, it was That Girl in Yellow Boots. Some of the characters were speaking Hindi, and some others were speaking Kannada, which, aside from being from the same country, is not nearly as closely related to Hindi as, say, English is. The subtitles set the Kannada in a clearly different font, and on introduction labelled it (“[In Kannada]” if I recall correctly). As a result, even those of us who couldn’t tell Hindi from Kannada knew who might not be understood by whom and who was associating with which socioethnic group.

It’s not hard to label the language. It’s a key signifier of identity. Quite a few films have characters speaking different (and often mutually incomprehensible) languages. Take this as my recommendation to label them in the subtitles.

Here’s the audio version:

2 responses to “The rest of the subtitle

  1. I honestly had never considered this, but as soon as you mentioned it I could see how it would make a huge difference. I might even add that now, after this flood of immigrants has hit Europe, this is a theme that will be coming up in movies more frequently. I hope they do address this.

    Honestly, it’s about design and typography. You mentioned using different fonts for the different languages, and that is a perfect way to distinguish and an excellent way for typography to make itself felt in the world again.

    It seems that I have seen things like *In an accent* when reading subtitles, but that might have been closed captions, which would be a different thing entirely.

    Great idea!

  2. Closed captioning is even worse than the film-authorized subtitles. I have seen films in which the cc says “speaking in Spanish” or “speaking in French” or whatever, without actually providing a translation!

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