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.

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“I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That.”

On Sunday, I naturally found myself thinking about how scary a mummy actually is, as a horror character. I think I’m with Homer Simpson on this one:

Ooh, pretty creepy. Still, I’d rather have him chasing me than the Wolfman.

Even more naturally enough, for me anyway, this in turn got me thinking about how we talk about being afraid in English. It’s quite easy to translate adjectives like afraid, scared and frightened into other languages because fear is such a primal feeling that we tend to think of it in the same way across languages. Terror and horror might be more complex, but the basic sense of fear is one we all recognise. A sentence like…

I’m afraid of spiders.

… isn’t hard to translate, or for a learner of English to understand. But what about this famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that. 

Imagine you’re an English teacher and you have to explain a) what I’m afraid means in this case, and b), why we specifically use I’m afraid instead of other phrases. The first task’s not too bad: you could just say it means I’m sorry, and that’d be good enough. But what about explaining why we use it?

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Film or Movie?

Do you want to catch a movie? Or maybe you’d prefer to watch a nice film? Of course they’re the same thing, objectively, but they’re not really the same, are they?

Strictly both movie and film are synonyms, but in reality, the word film has a much greater sense of sophistication than movie. Why is that? Continue reading

I Shall be Released

Browsing the internet yesterday, I noticed an article headlined thus: Marvel’s Dr. Strange has already released in the UK (and here in Ireland too, so I might catch it soon). Nothing  too strange (no pun intended, but gladly accepted) there, you might think. But that has already released… really bothers me. It shouldn’t, but it does. Why? Because every fibre of my pedantic being tells me that it should be:

Marvel’s Dr. Strange has already been released in the UK.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at the grammar behind that feeling. Continue reading

Ambulance Chasing

An ambulance passed me by yesterday, and as I was looking at the word written on the side, I got to thinking about its etymology. Ambulance: surely there’s some association with walking in its history, considering similar words derived from the Latin verb ambulare (to walk) still exist today. To amble is an obvious one, but also the adjective ambulatory (associated with walking) Less obvious is pram (stroller or baby carriage in American English), a short form of the now outdated perambulator. Continue reading


Lately, I’ve been watching the Marvel TV programme Luke Cage on Netflix, when I can find a spare moment. One thing that’s quite apparent early on is that it’s heavily indebted to, and deliberately homages, the blaxploitation genre of movies. In the 1970s, these films were cheaply-made, stylised (and stylish) films featuring African-American protagonists, usually fighting back against oppression from The Man, and looking quite cool while they did it.

This genre was a sub-genre of the exploitation film. In a way the exploitation film had been around since the birth of cinema: cheaply-made films with risque topics aimed at teenagers. What we now recognise as the archetypal exploitation film (cheap production values, questionable acting, sexy young people, violence, more sexy young people) came to prominence in the 70s. Continue reading