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.
The same year that Kubelka premiered Arnulf Rainer, the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote a bilious editorial attacking what he considered another unhealthy form of purism: “the somewhat specious and even snobbish notion that foreign-language films… are linguistically inviolable.” He too hated subtitles, but because, far from befouling films in their original states, they did those original states too much reverence. “The English subtitle,” he wrote,
is itself a thoroughly inartistic thing, when you come right down to thinking hard about it; [most American viewers] are compelled to accept a mechanism that inadequately and often ineloquently imparts what should be a very important element of the communication in a talking film… Now that the medium of motion pictures is becoming more internationalized, more eclectic in its expansion across geographical, artistic and commercial lines, it is foolish to hobble expression with an old device that was mainly contrived as a convenience to save the cost of dubbing foreign-language films when they had limited appeal.
This was itself a specious argument. The texture of a specific actor’s voice, the weight of a specific sentence, the way specific regional accents and speech patterns can set a tone: one can argue against Crowther that these features of a movie, which dubbing inevitably overhauls, are at least as much an “important part of the communication in a talking film” as the gratifying sense of immediate, unmediated comprehension you feel hearing an actor speak a language you know. Crowther was also writing when subtitling technologies were still at a relatively primitive stage of development. A given title couldn’t yet be timed to a given image with precision, which limited the number of titles that could be used and forced subtitlers to make looser, more approximate translations. Dubbing technologies were further developed than subtitling methods by the start of the Sixties, and Crowther ungraciously ignored the possibility that those for subtitling would improve in time.
One objection to dubbing is that it produces more opportunities than subtitling for things to go wrong: clumsy line readings; sloppy synchronization; inconsistencies of accent or tone. But even the most expressive and well-tuned dubbing involves excising a great deal from the original film. In a 1970 polemic called “Dubbing is Murder,” the filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub—who, with his wife and creative partner Danièle Huillet, used only directly recorded sound and preferred that the resulting dialogue tracks be only sporadically subtitled—quoted a statement against dubbing that Jean Renoir had made in an interview several years before:
It’s always a question of surprising life. Surprising life is also to surprise a voice, noises in the moment … I still belong to the old school of people that believes in the surprise of life, in the sigh that a young girl emits despite herself in certain circumstances that can’t be reproduced.
Unlike dubbed dialogue tracks and printed-out transcripts, subtitles don’t much hobble a filmmaker’s ability to “surprise a voice” in the moment and relay that voice to a viewer. Compared to these clumsier methods of conveyance, they are models of economy, discretion and good sense.
Today subtitlers can either work either as freelancers or in the employ of a post-production company. In some cases, the subtitles we see originate in a combination of freelance and institutional work: a hired translator renders a film in English using a transcript of its dialogue as well as any other previous translations that still exist, and, hopefully, a copy of the movie itself, at which point a post-production expert times the titles to the film’s speech. In the case of what’s called “soft-titling,” the subtitles are timed—sometimes by the translator—to an unsubtitled print of the film as it screens.
Subtitle translation presents many of the same problems as other forms of literary translation: finding corresponding idioms, deciphering archaic usages, reproducing subtleties in tone and implication. (“For Farewell My Concubine,” the translator Linda Jaivin wrote in a 2005 essay, “I had two Chinese-English dictionaries, two Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, two Chinese-Chinese dictionaries of Peking slang, one Chinese ‘professional jargon’ dictionary, a Chinese ‘dictionary of political language’ and a few more besides.”) But unlike literary translation, subtitling imposes strict limits on how long a given text will take to read. Not only does each line have to stay under a certain low character limit; in most cases, since a subtitle shouldn’t last longer than the shot to which it corresponds, it can only appear for a brief, fixed amount of time. This last restriction in particular makes subtitling an art of approximation—how much of the meaning and sense of a line can be packed into a form that viewers can consume unconsciously in a matter of seconds?
Professionally produced subtitles are only a subset of the translations available for spoken movie dialogue. Online, a robust traffic exists in subtitles made by unpaid film enthusiasts interested in making movies they admire more widely available. These “fansubs” circulate on file-sharing websites, where other users comment on them and moderators mark them as approved. As of this writing, the list of “most recent approved subs” on one such site include a Swedish movie from the mid-Thirties about a female artist whose fourth husband challenges her to a sexually suggestive sculpting competition; a German sci-fi fable from 1933 called “An Invisible Man Goes Through the City,” in which a taxi driver stumbles upon a device that makes him impossible to see; a 1969 feature described as one of the three extant films from twentieth-century El Salvador; and an erotic horror film by the Belgian surrealist Roland Lethem, whose odd Wikipedia page—itself seemingly in need of translation—says that he “wants to push the people to look at the things of which they say they are freed.”
Fans who make subtitles tend to belong to close sharing economies of online movie buffs who exchange rare films and titles directly. Most of the people reading these titles know who made them; some send public thank-you notes. In contrast, only a small proportion of viewers leave a public screening having seen or taken in the subtitler’s name, even in the case of those subtitlers closely associated with a given filmmaker or recognized as virtuosos in the field. If there were a canon of subtitles, it would have its own smooth professionals (the veteran translator Henri Behar’s French subtitles for Woody Allen and Atom Egoyan), eccentric visionaries (Andrew Litvak’s courageous titles for Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films, which abound in translation-defying multiple dialogue tracks and blocks of onscreen text), and finicky perfectionists (Barton Byg’s meticulous translations for Straub and Huillet, who often haggled with him over the sense of individual words). Prominent critics and writers such as Tony Rayns and Donald Richie have done subtitle translations from the Japanese.
There is no reason that these texts shouldn’t enjoy the same scrutiny that equally well-known writers’ translations of novels and poems receive, particularly since they can differ just as substantively from one another. In an excellent 2013 article, the French critic Bernard Eisenschitz described his experience presiding over Night and Fog, Alain Resnais’ legendary short essay film on the concentration camps. Resnais recorded a German narration track featuring a translation of Jean Cayrol’s text by Paul Celan, but no English track was recorded. For decades, British and American viewers only knew the narration in an unsupervised translation that, according to Eisenschitz, “doesn’t adhere to the literary nature of the text and eliminates many nuances, even pieces of information.” He quotes the last lines of the original translation, which some old prints of the film might well still carry:
There are those reluctant to believe or believing from time to time … There are those who look at these ruins to-day, as though the monster were dead and buried beneath them … Those who take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the scourge of these camps … Those who pretend all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place … Those who refuse to look around them … Deaf to the endless cry.
In 2003 Criterion commissioned a new translation of the film that better approximated Cayrol’s original, although, as Eisenschitz observes, it didn’t correct several errors in the transcript from which the first translation had been made. (Earlier in the film, for instance, “abort,” the German word for “latrine,” had been mistaken for the French “abords”—“approaches.”) In the 2003 translation, the last lines read:
There are those who refused to believe,
or believed only for brief moments.
With our sincere gaze
we survey these ruins,
as if the old monster
lay crushed forever beneath the rubble.
We pretend to take up hope again
as the image recedes into the past,
as if we were cured once and for all
of the scourge of the camps.
We pretend it all happened only once,
at a given time and place.
We turn a blind eye
to what surrounds us
and a deaf ear
to humanity’s never-ending cry.
When Eisenschitz, Florence Dauman and their collaborators retranslated the passage, it was with the goal—among others—of shortening the titles so that readers could keep up more easily with the brisk tempo of Michel Bouquet’s narration:
There are those who didn’t believe,
or only from time to time.
And us, who honestly
look at these ruins,
as if the demon behind the camps
lay dead beneath the rubble.
We pretend to regain hope
as the image recedes,
as though there were a cure
for that plague.
Pretending to believe it happened once,
in one country,
failing to look around,
not hearing the never-ending cry.
Not all subtitles vary as dramatically as these do, and the stakes of translating a line loosely aren’t always this high. But the fact that a new translation could so dramatically transform the ending of a film itself so preoccupied with the impossibility of finding the right words for an unspeakable subject—“on ne peut plus rien dire,” Bouquet mutters during one appalling passage—should call our attention to the translators who make it possible for English speakers to watch most of the world’s movies. We should know who they are.