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Marissa Lingen

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Subtitles: a request [Jul. 5th, 2013|06:46 pm]
Marissa Lingen

One of the great things about Netflix, I have discovered in the few months we’ve had it, is that I can watch a variety of foreign films and TV without having to pay through the nose for it. Hurrah, Netflix! Yesterday I watched a Chinese movie with my workout, and today a Danish cop show, The Eagle. Both were fun, and I am definitely continuing with the Danish cop show. I especially like to language-geek about translation choices: I only know about ten words of Chinese, but one of them is “kill,” so I can tell when the crowd is chanting that rather than the “Fight!” the subtitler has chosen to put at the bottom of the screen. And I love thinking about choices like that and when it’s a matter of bad translation, when it’s a matter of cultural difference being recognized, when it’s a matter of subtle shades of meaning.

But the last few days have given me a new plea for subtitlers.

Subtitlers: please, please, please indicate change of language in the conversations you’re subtitling. I can hear the difference between Danish and Icelandic*, but I’m not sure that should be your default assumption when you’re subtitling in English–especially when there’s characterization stuff about who reacts in which ways to the Icelandic. And once you get into Middle Eastern languages, I can tell you that the characters have stopped speaking Danish, but I cannot tell by ear what language they are speaking, except I can tell Indo-European from non-Indo-European given enough time and sample sentences, mostly, sort of. And therefore rule out Pashtun, Persian, etc. if I’m lucky. In the case of this show, I assume that the characters who were not speaking Danish, Icelandic, or Arabic (which was clearly labeled in the dialogue that the character would speak it and why, so good there) were speaking some dialect of Turkish, because culturally that is who is likely to not get labeled in Denmark as unusual or in some way interesting. But it still would have been nice to not be just completely guessing.

It is pure blind luck that I know enough Japanese language structure to be able to say, “Wait, that was Japanese, not Chinese,” and again: only if I am really paying attention to the dialog as it is spoken by the actors and not just as its meaning is conveyed by the subtitles. That is a level of attention I don’t always have available to use, and I can easily imagine situations in which I could not perform the analysis required to get there. And while it can be a fun intellectual exercise, it’s generally not supposed to be the point of the viewing experience for most viewers, I wouldn’t think. It makes the focus on the meta-story instead of the story.

So please. Use different colors of subtitling, or put the language marker in brackets at the beginning when they change, or something. Dumping it all into English–or whatever else you’re subtitling it in–is not enough. I get why, for example, in many Asian languages the translator will choose to use some form of the character’s name when that’s clearly not what the actor is saying: because many of the social-honorific forms don’t really translate to English without needless exoticizing. I just don’t think that switching languages within a subtitled work falls into that sort of subtle judgment category.

So what are your favorite subtitling problems, bloopers, or beautiful incongruities?

*Here is your quick and dirty, entirely parochial, guide to distinguishing the Scandinavian languages by ear: Danish is the one that sounds funny. Icelandic is the one that sounds fancy. Swedish and Norwegian both sound normal, but Swedish sounds the pointy end of normal and Norwegian sounds the squishy end of normal.** And Faroese sounds like you’re trying to talk with a sheep on your head. You’re welcome; don’t say I never gave you anything.

I have no idea whether this is useful to anyone but me, actually, but that’s how I do it.

**Once you’re distinguishing between Nynorsk and Bokmål, you’re a) very inside baseball, and b) really talking about dialect rather than language inasmuch as the two categories are distinguishable at all. So just give yourself a gold star at that point and move on, unless you actually, you know, speak Norwegian.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: tanac
2013-07-06 12:10 am (UTC)
Finnish counts as Scandinavian in most circles..... (It's the one that sounds oddly like Spanish unless you actually listen to it, wherein your brain days 'wait, what *is* that?')
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2013-07-06 12:33 am (UTC)
I think of Finnish as the one that sounds like Elvish. Though I know that's exactly backwards.

It's also in a completely different language group from Norwegian/Danish/Swedish/et al., so whether it counts as "Scandinavian" may be a controversial point.
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2013-07-06 12:41 am (UTC)
I've seen some Chinese movies where I could tell when characters were speaking non-Mandarin dialects of Chinese, because the subtitles there would be in both English and Mandarin. But, yeah, I would love to see it made general practice to distinguish somehow when different languages were being used.

If I ever travel to the Faroe islands, I'll be sure to pack a small ungulate along with my phrasebook.
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[User Picture]From: zelda888
2013-07-06 01:11 am (UTC)
No, no, you go to the Faroe Islands to *obtain* a small ungulate, or at least their products. Taking your own would be insulting, like taking your own sheets when you're a houseguest.

Tangentially, I want a translation of _War and Peace_ that translates the Russioan into English, but leaves the French as French. I've heard a rumor that such a thing does exist...
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2013-07-06 01:28 am (UTC)
Hebrew is the language I have the best hope of understanding, and I haven't watched many movies in Hebrew. But one of them, Sallah had a joke about water faucets (the immigrants from Yemen hadn't encountered them before) that wasn't translated exactly. Both versions were at least mildly amusing, but they weren't the same thing.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 01:47 am (UTC)
Do you think that the Hebrew version was accessible as funny to Americans who did not speak Hebrew? This is not a rhetorical question; humor is one of the things that is most difficult to translate.
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[User Picture]From: betedanslecoeur
2013-07-06 03:24 am (UTC)
This is more of a tangent, but I like to watch films with subtitles and then the same films with dubbing (where the dubbing is bearable). There are often fascinating differences.

I'm particularly reminded of Studio Ghibli's Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl's Moving Castle) here. I remember the tone and content of several jokes and flippant remarks being quite different between the subtitles and the professional dubbing by Disney. Mostly cultural, I think, with the subbing being more accurate to the Japanese intent. Definitely a different attitude toward old people between the two.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 11:43 am (UTC)
Oh, the differences in Studio Ghibli movies! Mostly I end up sputtering like a motorboat ("but--but--but--but--") at the dubbed ones. I find it really frustrating, for example, that they had to pin everything down in the dubbed version of Spirited Away and couldn't let the spirits that were weird and unfamiliar to the Japanese audience stay weird and unfamiliar to the Anglophone audience.

On the other hand, watching dubs of Totoro and Ponyo with the nieces is way better than not watching Totoro and Ponyo with the nieces at all.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2013-07-06 04:52 am (UTC)
Most of us, at least, read faster than people speak, so having additional information in the captions compared to the actual speech isn't obviously absurd. But I do like some time to look at the rest of the screen too.

(Hmm; various Google hits say the average adult reading rate is 250 or 300 words per minute, so not as much faster than speech as I thought; professional announcers can do 200 sometimes.)

Mostly it's European languages, or languages of people assigned to obvious ethnic categories already in the movie (Japanese soldiers in WWII, or something), so mostly they don't bother to label the language explicitly (apparently we're all supposed to recognize at least French and German). I suspect the proper solution is to have the language clues planted in the actual script, since if the movie is going to go to various audiences around the world it's just not reasonable to expect most of them to recognize more than half a dozen major world languages with any confidence, and it's hard to add that information later.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 11:56 am (UTC)
Well, and the thing about it in The Eagle is that there are several spots where there are references to the language that has been spoken--characterizing Danes differently based on their reaction to being in the presence of someone speaking Icelandic on his phone, it's really beautifully done--but only after he's done speaking it. And you can see why: the Danish audience can hear that he's not speaking Danish and see the subtitles, and having a conversation between the protag and his sister about them speaking their milk tongue when they're in the middle of a family crisis would be pretty clunky. But a very quick "[Icelandic] How's mom?" would solve this problem.
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[User Picture]From: markgritter
2013-07-06 06:41 am (UTC)
Thanks for the pointer to this comic, I'm enjoying it quite a bit (despite only having a Nordic background by marriage.)
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[User Picture]From: desperance
2013-07-06 05:36 am (UTC)
I have never forgotten the sheer complicated pleasure of watching a film spoken in Cantonese, subtitled in Mandarin, translated into English for me by a Japanese...
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[User Picture]From: rikibeth
2013-07-06 06:33 am (UTC)
FWIW: have just gone and looked up both the long letters. Paul's letter to Harriet is relatively transparent to my French skills, and not seriously explicit, though he's certainly talking to her about sex, and the very fact that he's advising a woman about the sexual approach to take with her husband is a little shocking. His advice also applies in a more general emotional sense.

His longer letter to Peter, two pages later, is a lot more taxing on my vocabulary. I can see how it starts, and I can grab out fragments in the rest of it, and he's ALSO advising Peter on the sexual approach to take with Harriet... mostly in emotional terms, but I get the feeling it wouldn't have flown in English at the time of publication. I would have to put in more dedicated effort with a dictionary to be able to translate the whole thing.

Important gist in his letter to Harriet: Peter needs you more than you need him, and he needs to give himself; don't deny him that pleasure. Don't be cold or coquettish, it will kill him -- he has no wish to impose himself, and he hates the idea of a struggle.

What I can get out of his letter to Peter: Harriet's only known the chagrins of love and it's your job to teach her the pleasures. She'll find delicacy in you and she'll know to appreciate it. But above all, no feebleness! This isn't a young girl (here is where I need a dictionary for the adjectives, but context suggests he's talking about a shrinking violet); this is a strong intelligence who loves to solve problems with her head.

And here is where I can't go word-for-word any more, but it seems to boil down to "don't be too timid with her, I'm convinced she'll give herself generously, she has a warm heart, but she'll reserve that for moments of conjugal intimacy -- in everything else, value her spirit of reason, and inspire her to respect you."

There are whole CHUNKS I'm not getting, but he is very definitely discussing both how they should conduct their sex life and how they should treat each other on an emotional/intellectual level. There's a passage about "at your age, you can't..." and I can't make it out at all.

One of these days I'll hit it with a dictionary. But not at 2:30 AM.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 11:45 am (UTC)
Very cool, thanks.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2013-07-06 08:43 am (UTC)
So what are your favorite subtitling problems, bloopers, or beautiful incongruities?

In the Gérard Depardieu Cyrano, at the end, when he says that all he has left is "mon panache", the subtitles say "my panache". Some concepts are untranslatable.

Speaking of yay for Netflix and furrin movies, I have that sitting on my shelf in a red envelope waiting for me to have a spare moment to watch it. I haven't seen it since it first came out. (It was glorious on the big screen.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 11:47 am (UTC)
I love the Depardieu Cyrano. Love love LOVE.

I was pretty sure I remembered what my translated copy has in that position, but I just went and looked to be sure: it was "my white plume." Which: okay with the metaphorical, maybe? But not really getting there. And also it comes wayyyy too close to "my white feather," which is...a very different cultural metaphor for historically aware Anglophones.
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2013-07-06 04:10 pm (UTC)
This spring I was introduced to the X-Men movies through X-Men: First Class, in the beginning of which there is a scene spoken in German. The subtitles made perfect sense as English sentences, while the German was technically correct, but on-the-nose and full of sentence construction and vocab which (while also technically correct) was as similar as possible to English. I noticed this because this is what I did as an intro German student: oh, these are similar, oh, I can make the same kinds of sentences...but that's not how someone who spoke German would construct the sentence.

(My Russian-major friend said that the scenes in Russian were similarly afflicted.)

Which is sort of the reverse of what you're talking about. The assumption is that people will pick up on the cognates, and get the general feel of "oh yes German," but they are not even trying to make the scene work for anybody who actually speaks the language. (I know, silly action movie about mutants--it still annoyed me.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-06 04:39 pm (UTC)
I think if you're going to make a silly action movie about mutants, it should be the best silly action movie about mutants you can make. Which includes having your foreign languages actually as spoken if they are being spoken by characters who are native speakers.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2013-07-07 02:53 am (UTC)
I have nothing material to add, since I seldom watch movies of any kind; have problems reading subtitles while also watching people move around and Do Stuff; and can recognize only classical Greek, should anybody ever actually speak it with the pronunciation I was taught, Spanish, French, and German. But I want to say that I love this discussion so much I want to make it a quilt with Sappho's lyrics on.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-07 02:54 am (UTC)
If you had a long history of quilting, I would now be urging you onward in this project. I am a bit more circumspect in encouraging people to take up life-eating hobbies they have not previously had (to the best of my knowledge).
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From: vcmw
2013-07-07 10:54 am (UTC)
I wonder if older subtitling conventions in film were different? Because I know the conventions in comics have shifted from when I was a kid. It used to be typical to do all the foreign-language-text in a comic in English, but in another font, or in square brackets, with a little note that said something like "translated from the Themysciran. ed.".

And then at some point they started putting in actual text in the real-world languages, generally with footnoted translations. And I remember reading some Vertigo titles in the late nineties that had ditched the translations entirely (100 Bullets, I think), which was notable because the French I could translate was full of dirty words, so I wondered very much about what the other languages were saying.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-07 11:32 am (UTC)
Yah, I don't know, I don't watch a lot of really old foreign films. Interesting question, though.
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