The subtitles that appear under most foreign-language films in British and American movie theaters tend not to call attention to themselves. Moviegoers only notice them when something goes wrong—when they’ve been rendered bulbously large, or when they’ve been colored a sickly yellow, or when they disappear against a white object, fall out of sync with the dialogue, flit abruptly to another region of the screen or bear the goofily garbled translations of which a Google search for “bad subtitles” gives you hundreds of examples. Possibly because they’re designed to go unremarked, subtitle translations remain one of the least studied and most overlooked features a film can have.
The average English subtitle is a modestly sized, pleasant-looking bar of thin sans serif text between 32 and forty characters long. Unlike its ancestor, the silent film intertitle, which was often bedecked with illustrations suited to the movie and sometimes included fonts and effects that matched the words it showed, the subtitle can’t be incorporated into a film’s overall design. In that event, it would become part of the film; it, too, would need to be subtitled when the film was screened for other markets. As a visual element, the subtitle is extraneous, replaceable and unassimilated into everything else in a given frame. Critics of subtitles have protested that they seem stuck onto films where space wasn’t made for them, as if they need to atone for defacing the movie by doing their business as quietly and modestly and unobtrusively as possible.
Unattributed translations of novels tend to be imprecise hack jobs or unrevised reprints of inaccurate texts in the public domain. But subtitles sometimes do go unsigned. More often, they are credited to a company or discreetly attributed to an individual after the last line has run. Boutique home video labels such as Criterion, which often advertises that their loving DVD releases contain new subtitle translations, have better records of crediting subtitle translators by name. Even then, critics and casual moviegoers hardly ever discuss subtitlers as creative contributors to the films they translate.
Why shouldn’t subtitlers—who generate the specific words and sentences through which many of us come to know many of the films we watch—be held more accountable for the creative choices they make? If, say, Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, a talky film in which characters make nuanced, complicated arguments in a language (Danish) many American moviegoers don’t understand, appears on DVD with one subtitle track and screens at a repertory theater with a second one, why not treat the two versions as variants separated by important, maybe decisive differences? It might seem obvious that Dreyer admirers would benefit from comparing two—or three, or four—English renderings of the film, much like English-language readers compare translations of Dostoevsky or Proust. But lingering on a film’s subtitles involves entering a contentious debate over what can be done to movies in order to equip them for international export—what affronts to a movie’s purity translators should be permitted to make.
That debate has been active since talking pictures debuted at the end of the 1920s. “The first answer,” the pioneering subtitler Herman Weinberg recalled in his 1982 memoir A Manhattan Odyssey, was to splice “full screen titles” into the print at wide intervals “giving the audience a brief synopsis of what they were going to see in the next ten minutes.” It quickly emerged that audiences wouldn’t tolerate untranslated dialogue as they’d tolerated the speechless lip movements silent film intertitles were required to explicate; they knew that they were missing something. The popularization of the Moviola, a film editing device that resembled a kind of miniature projector, solved that problem by letting potential translators “stop and start a film at will” and measure the length of each line of dialogue on the soundtrack.
Weinberg boasted, perhaps histrionically, that he had a kind of monopoly on the subtitling business in its early years. “I seemed,” he wrote, “to be the only one willing to go ahead with the actual writing and make something out of it.” He was, in any case, prolific. In the course of his career, Weinberg translated films not only from the French and the German but also—having taught himself some basic grammar—from Urdu, Greek, Czech and Japanese. Native speakers were consulted, but the resulting titles were still, sometimes by his own admission, approximate and impressionistic.
In the decades after Weinberg began his career, subtitles developed powerful enemies. What might be called the translation wars reached their height at the start of the Sixties, when subtitles were criticized both as overly purist and not purist enough. The oracular Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, whose early short film Arnulf Rainer (1960) consists of solid white and black frames strobing at delirious speed accompanied by equally vigorous on-and-off spurts of sound, has always insisted that subtitles spoil the integral construction that is a movie’s image. “In order to understand a film, even if it contains foreign-language dialogue, you can’t have subtitles,” he insisted in a 2012 interview. “You can destroy a film in several ways: cut it up, burn it—or subtitle it.” For many years New York’s Anthology Film Archives, of which Kubelka was a co-founder, refused to subtitle the European narrative films it regularly screened in its “Essential Cinema” programs, instead giving printed copies of the dialogue to patrons without enough Swedish or Dutch to follow them unassisted.