Wednesday, 19 May 2010

subtitle textuality

It's so easy to think that the subtitles on the film you're looking at are *the* subtitles, the only subtitles, 'the' translation. The reality of course is that any text can be translated lots of times, and films are no exception. A film might be subtitled for a festival, resubtitled for DVD release, resubtitled again for television broadcast and, if it gets canonical, released again on DVD in a luxury edition with new improved subtitles for the conoisseur.

This was forcibly brought home to me when I watched an Italian DVD copy of Inglourious Basterds again recently, only to find that the subtitles were still the theatrical subtitles, and therefore invisibly small on our old-fashioned TV. If you know the film, you'll know that it's terminally talky and much of it is subtitled. My dad watched the film with me to the bitter end and was absolutely gripped but very frustrated because for most of the film he had only the haziest idea what the characters were saying. Please, where is the kind soul who will compile some Guidelines for Decent DVD Subtitles for idiot distributors?

Quite the opposite is the case with the Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), released on DVD in the US to a flurry of criticism from fans of the film who had seen it on its theatrical release and who resented the differences between the DVD and the theatrical subtitles (DVD subtitles tend to compress the dialogue more than theatrical subtitles). This post sets out the case, and links to useful pages including this one which gives you screenshots showing how the dialogue translation varies between the two versions (see what I mean about the size of the font?). Interestingly, in this case the distributors rethought, and apparently released a later version of the DVD with an option to view the theatrical subtitles. Fab, if you have a really really wide screen.

It would be nice to think that increased awareness of subtitle quality among fans would lead to positive pester power and better quality control by distributors, but then I'm an incurable optimist.

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