Wouldn’t it be nice if...more DVDs came with a choice of subtitles?
You may say – but look! DVDs usually already come with a choice of subtitles!! Indeed as I write, I have in front of me a copy of a Region 2 Special Collector’s Edition of Chinatown that offers subtitles in English, Danish, Dutch, French, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired. An embarrassment of subtitling riches. Yes indeed. But this is not quite what I mean.
I mean subtitles which are addressed, not to different audiences (French-speaking vs. German-speaking; hearing vs. Deaf, etc.), but to the same audience who might simply wish for different experiences of the film.
This is something that DVD should be an ideal format for. And yes, there are many comedy films which feature special feature subtitle tracks of various sorts on DVD. (My favourite is probably the Ultimate Definitive Final special edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (2002), which includes in the (unbelievably) Special Features ‘NEW! Subtitles For People Who Don’t Like The Film’ which are a remix of lines from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2.) But these are gag tracks, détournements, rather than ‘translating’ subtitle tracks. In 2010 we saw Jean-Luc Godard fulfil what was, apparently, a long-cherished dream by releasing Film Socialisme at Cannes with audience-unfriendly subtitles. When the film was released on DVD in the US by Kino Lorber it came with more conventional titles too – but the choice to watch Godard’s ‘Navajo English’ titles was still there.
Once viewers cop on to the fact that one translator’s set of subtitles might not be the same as another’s, they often turn out pretty intrigued. And a few, brave distributors have taken up the challenge.
I’m thinking of the subtitles offered on the 2007 Discotek Region 1 DVD release of Herman Yau’s Ebola Syndrome (1996). This offers both ‘crazy Hong Kong subtitles’[i] and more recent conventional English subtitles:
I was, admittedly, a little suspicious; some of the craziness in the ‘Hong Kong’ subtitles seemed a little too good to be true, as with the following double entendre (the first title is from the conventional subtitles and the second from the 'crazy Hong Kong subtitles'):[ii]
But both sets of subtitles can be used to watch and follow the film.
Ebola Syndrome is not the only Hong Kong film to offer this feature on DVD. Wilson Yip’s Bio Zombie (1998, released on Region 1 DVD by Tokyo Shock in 2000) also offers a choice of English subtitles (though it does not make a feature of this on the cover of the DVD). Apart from the Cantonese original dialogue and the English dub, viewers can choose Cantonese dialogue with English, or with ‘Engrish’ subtitles:
The Engrish subtitles are the original subtitles for an earlier, Mei Ah DVD release. These two subtitle tracks are entertainingly different, as we can see if we look at a short sequence from one scene where the two anti-heroes properly launch their careers as zombie killers. Here are the conventional English subtitles:
The same scene with ‘Engrish’ subtitles goes as follows:
In some cases, it is impossible to tell from the Engrish subtitles what the intended meaning of the dialogue is, for instance, in this remark (the ‘correct’ subtitle is the first one):
Cantonese speakers who know the film are welcome to write in and explain how both these translations can somehow be of the same Cantonese line of dialogue. In some cases, the subtitles actually achieve the feat of saying the opposite to each other:
Nevertheless, viewers of the Mei Ah DVD with only the ‘Engrish’ subtitles seem to be pretty philosophical (see here and here), counting the DVD release’s low price as a trade-off for the rather exotic translation.
Another example of ‘alternative’ subtitles, which I have commented on before, is the 2003 Criterion Collection edition of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which was published with two sets of subtitles by named subtitlers: Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie.
The two subtitlers also contribute short pieces about their approach to subtitling in the sleeve notes to the DVD. Hoaglund’s subtitles aim to achieve a slightly archaizing register; Richie’s are intended to be fluent and easily readable. Their subtitles are distinguished by different fonts:
A last, and very pleasing, example of customer choice is the 2005 Region 1 Animeigo release of Incident at Blood Pass, also known as Machibuse, which offers ‘Japanese with full subtitles’ and ‘Japanese with limited subtitles’:
I got very excited about this; I thought that perhaps the ‘limited’ subtitles were ordinary dialogue subtitles and the ‘full’ subtitles were the ones which included headnotes for culturally specific concepts, explanations etc. In fact, on enquiry to Animeigo, the ‘limited subtitles’ turned out to be the headnotes only, plus titles for in-vision verbal material, without any dialogue titles:
The ‘full’ subtitles included both:
In a helpful email, the company told me they included this feature as a response to customer feedback; they have many viewers with enough Japanese to enjoy listening to the dialogue, but not necessarily enough Japanese to read Japanese script in inserts and captions easily, or catch cultural references. Apparently this is now a regular feature on Animeigo releases.
But, readers may say, these are really marginal examples, from a few films, most of them aimed at a pretty niche audience. Are they really relevant?
Yes, I think so, for several reasons:
1) Providing a choice of subtitles underlines the fact that all translation is based on choice and interpretation, and therefore good-quality screen translation cannot be taken for granted.
2) It helps to remind viewers that the quality of the subtitles has a direct impact on the viewing experience. Many DVDs seem ‘thrown together’ with little thought to the quality of the text, much less the usability of menu design or, perish the thought, the appropriateness of the translation choices. Thinking about subtitle choice could be part of an overall awareness of the importance of DVD design (and yes, I’m aware that DVD sales slipped nearly 20% in 2012 on the year before – nevertheless, I have faith. Like books, I think that just because they’re not the only game in town doesn’t mean they are about to disappear).
3) Naming the subtitler, as with naming any translator of a text, is good practice, as Chris Durban has repeatedly argued. Good quality should be appropriately rewarded.
4) Seeing translation prominently featured in the options and extras of DVDs helps people to be aware how indispensable translators are in the making and distribution of film.
5) Subtitles are a potential site for play and 'added value' entertainment; in this sense, the more craptastic, the better.
Is it ‘the way of the future’? Probably not; we know from tired experience that distributors and DVD publishers are pretty cavalier about subtitles. But there are a number of films which are crying out for a nice premium rerelease with added translationy goodness: think Mädchen in Uniform – wouldn’t it be great to be able to access the original French subtitles by Colette, or the scattered English subtitles – all 124 of them – which appeared on the first translated print screened in the UK in 1932? Or what about Bekmambetov’s Day Watch, whose UK and US releases disappointed viewers who had been looking forward to the funky theatrical subtitles? Where subtitles have generated controversy and complaint, DVD would offer a nice opportunity to compare and contrast – for instance, the much-complained-about version of Les 400 coups rereleased by the BFI in 2010 which had to be resubtitled when audiences pointed out that quite a lot of the dialogue in the film never made it as far as the subtitles.
In the meantime, I’d settle for companies providing a choice between subtitles for the hearing impaired, and subtitles for the hearing. Too many companies cut corners like this. You know who you are. (Please feel free to name and shame offenders in the comments.)
Carol O’Sullivan(c) 2013
UPDATE 2014: Delighted to say that there is a French translation of this post on Les Piles Intérmediaires under the title 'À quand des "sous-titres pour ceux qui aiment vraiment le film"?'.
[i] ‘Hong Kong’ subtitling is a recognized phenomenon in which subtitles are produced by non-native English speakers and as a result feature startling, and sometimes hilarious, translation solutions. For more on this see David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Institute Press, 2011, p.78
[ii] For interested French speakers, the French subtitle for the Metropolitan DVD release (2006) reads “Li, va jouer dehors, / je dois parler avec Kai” (titles by Jean-Marc Bertrix).