Some Thoughts on Subtitles

I’ve mentioned before how I prefer, while living in Belgium, to watch English-language films in English with French and Dutch subtitles, though that’s not always easily available.

I also mentioned recently that I was going to see Blade Runner 2049 (which is good, but could never be as good as the first film). One of the advantages of watching films with subtitles is that it reveals interesting differences between the two or three languages involved, or gives you interesting translation choices to ponder.

That was certainly the case this time, and I noticed one particularly curious side-effect of subtitling I’d also noticed on a few other occasions: sometimes you get more information with the subtitles than without. I mentioned this previously in relation to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Blade Runner 2049 demonstrated a common, slightly different way in which non-English speakers get a little more information than native speakers.

As in the first film, quite a few characters speak some lines in languages other than English. In Blade Runner these weren’t subtitled into English, and this is presumably the case in the new film in English-speaking countries (let me know if you’ve seen it and can confirm). But, in the Belgian subtitled version at least, these lines were translated into French and Dutch.

I first noticed this when a character speaks briefly in Finnish (I won’t pretend I recognised it as such: I checked IMDB afterwards). I assumed it wouldn’t have been subtitled in English because her tone is quite clear and she helpfully said blade runner in English right in the middle. It was interesting to know exactly what she was saying by reading the French subtitles, but an odd feeling knowing that I wasn’t really supposed to know.

Later, Ryan Gosling’s character is talking with a character who replies in (possibly) Somali (again, I didn’t recognise it, but the actor is Somali). Once again, all the dialogue was subtitled in French and Dutch, but I’m pretty sure it’s not subtitled in English, as the dialogue is quite important, and Ryan helpfully repeats the most crucial things the other character tells him.

It’s a slightly odd experience, as you’re getting more than you’d bargained for, and I confess I was slightly worried that some of the non-English dialogue would contain spoilers, but then any speakers of these languages watching would understand, so I don’t think many filmmakers would “hide” information like that.

The first time I encountered this phenomenon I wondered why the subtitlers translated the dialogue at all. If the desired effect for English speakers was that they wouldn’t understand these passages, why not maintain that effect for everyone? But having watched quite a few English films with subtitles now, I think I understand. It’s obvious to me when the dialogue switches from English to another language, but then, I’m a native English speaker. Would it be so easy though, for a French speaker with little knowledge of English (though such a person would probably go to a much more common French-dubbed version: watching a film in the version originale in Wallonia is a bit, well, ooh la la)?

The translation of non-English dialogue is therefore to avoid confusion for people who aren’t aware the dialogue isn’t English, and might worry they’re missing out on something important. Considering that though, I still feel like I’m not watching the film as the director intended by getting extra information from the French subtitles, but that’s just me being pedantic.

Sometimes though, subtitles go a bit far in making sure that everything is understood. I’m pretty sure that early in the film, the on-screen text Los Angeles, 2049 appears, which was exactly replicated by both sets of subtitles (and yes by the way, they do take up an annoying amount of space).

Later in the film, a date appears in a text, written in the American middle-endian style (month/day/year). Let’s say it was 06/09/49. This was also subtitled in both languages, by writing it out thuswise: 06 juin, 2049. I thought this was a bit much: it was stated in the dialogue that it was a date, and surely everyone is aware of the American date format.

But then perhaps I’m being Anglocentric in thinking that. Being Irish I’m more exposed to English-language culture from different English-speaking countries, and am therefore more used to these little differences. I’m also more likely to read American websites and encounter their somewhat infuriating date format there.

But perhaps, for example, a French speaker isn’t going to be so exposed to the American format. Plus, when you’re watching a film with subtitles, you’re spending a lot of your time looking at them, and are thus trained to get your important plot information there, rather than from the film’s visual details. So to play it safe, it probably does make sense to subtitle the date too.

It might seem like a simple thing at first glance, subtitling, but like translation in general, it’s surprisingly complicated. Maybe next time I’m at the cinema, I’ll train myself not to look at the subtitles: they just distract me and give me too much to think about.

5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Subtitles

  1. The Finnish and ?Somali were subtitled in English here. I commented on my blog that there is no indication in the movie about how Ryan Gosling’s character knew what the ?Somali speaker was saying (because he actually had a conversation with him). On the other hand, I don’t think he was meant to understand the Finnish speaker. I don’t think he replied to her.

    The date was 6 . 10. 21 (6 October v 10 June). The movie opened here last Thursday (5th October).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Somali conversation was interesting, as I also wasn’t sure if he was supposed to understand or not. I think he was supposed to understanding fragments of what he was saying. Surprised that he understands more Somali than Danish!


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