On Subtitles

A few days ago I happened upon a brief essay by Borges called “On Dubbing,” in which he lambasts the then-recent Hollywood invention (the essay was written in 1945) of  devising “monsters which combine the illustrious features of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo.” Borges calls the mechanism “a malignant artifice” (un maligno artificio). He asks, sarcastically, “How can we fail to profess our admiration for this painful prodigy, for these ingenious phono-visual anomalies?”

I, too, dislike dubbing. In the Spanish-speaking world, it is an infrequent practice on TV or on the silver screen—except in Spain. I will never forget seeing Manhattan in Madrid when it first came out, in 1979, with Woody Allen parading an atrocious, if not incomprehensible, Castilian accent. In Mexico, where I grew up, I could watch Star Trek and Lost in Space in dubbed versions only, so I naturally became convinced that the language of astronauts and space aliens was the same one I heard on the street.

I have less aversion toward subtitles and, when attending a foreign film, I rarely think about the fact that I’m not only watching but, at the same time, reading. In this I’m aware I’m in the minority among American moviegoers, since the appetite for subtitled features constitutes a fraction of the overall annual box office. When a non-English-language movie is—or is likely to be—successful, producers in the United States quickly move to redo it, as in the case of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Why are many Americans allergic to subtitles? Laziness, for starters. As a student of mine put it, “We go to the theater to enjoy, not to do homework.” This allergy, of course, is evident in other aspects of life. In fact, foreign languages in general, whether in higher education or among immigrants, may be viewed with suspicion. The same student says, “Why doesn’t the entire globe just learn English, and stop wasting energy and resources on the issue?”

Although I’m used to them, subtitles, I must say, can be a malignant artifice too. Punctilious as I am about language, I often get distracted, while watching a film, in a passing subtitle mistake, especially when it deals with slang. (Quick: How do you say “jíjole” in English?) Or else, when it appears as if the subtitler simply gave up rather than embarrass him- or herself.

When a novel is rendered in another language, seldom is it featured side by side with the original (unlike poetry). Most readers, in other words, see the translation as an original. The translator, as a result, is freer. In contrast, because of the mechanics of subtitling, the translator is quasi naked before the public, since his work appears side by side with the original.

Borges, in his essay, wonders if, as part of evolution, “soon we will have to choose between watching dubbed films and not watching films at all.” Seventy years later, the statement might sound preposterous, but it is important to keep in mind that, with the monopoly of Hollywood movies, unabated for more than a century, most people around the world indulge in the cinematic experience, if not through dubbing, surely through subtitling.

Is reading subtitles a distraction which, in the end, makes an audience work twice as hard? Answer: Who cares? After the Tower of Babel, there is really no other option.

In sum, I’m a devotee of this type of artifice. Actually, I am puzzled by how infrequently artists explore the endless possibilities of subtitles. In Israel in the eighties, a foreign movie could be shown with three lines of subtitles: Hebrew, English, and Arabic, with Russian either added or substituting for one of these languages. The effect, needless to say, was delicious if also maddening. Unhappily, such endeavor is now passé. (Arabic is seldom included.)

On another plane, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) starts by translating the credits into pidgin-English-Swedish: “Mønti Pythøn ik den Hølie Gräilen Røtern nik Akten Di Wik Alsø wik Alsø alsø wik Wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër?” Plus, a new edition of the film has actual English subtitles, except that they come from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 and, thus, have nothing to do with the plot.

Correction (11/17/2014): This post originally appeared with the wrong byline. It was written by Ilan Stavans, not Heidi Landecker.

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