The Case for Subtitles

92nd Annual Academy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Feb 2020

When Bong Joon-Ho won his Golden Globe for Parasite last month, he gave a piece of advice to the audience: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” he said, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

With Parasite‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars last night fresh in the public mind, I have seen several articles and commentaries criticizing the use of subtitles in movies. An article by Alissa Wilkinson of Vox wrote about Bong’s advice: “The challenge was simple: Americans just don’t like reading subtitles.” A follow-up by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum read: “No one likes subtitles. They’re only common in markets where film revenues aren’t high enough for studios to recoup the cost of producing dubbed versions.”

Drum went on to say: “After all, they eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t—or doesn’t—matter.”

It is with this last line especially that I would like to take exception.

Full disclosure: I am a foreign language aficionado. I love hearing and speaking foreign languages, learning grammar rules, syntax, and vocabulary. I speak 5 foreign languages in addition to my native English. By default, my view of foreign language films is filtered through that lens, but my views are grounded in respect for the art of film as well as for the languages in which it is created.

I agree with Drum that one of the key aspects of the acting craft is reading lines. When a film is dubbed, the original inflection, tone, and emotion of the actor is lost. A line reading is an integral part of a scene. Regardless of what language is spoken, the emotion in an actor’s voice is universally understood. A performer spends countless hours perfecting their lines, their pacing, their interactions with the others in the cast. All that work is for naught when a different actor dubs the film for a foreign market, and ultimately does a disservice to foreign audiences in addition to the actor’s creative process.

Last weekend I went to see the Swedish version of A Woman’s Face at the Castro Theatre as part of the Noir City festival. It was not the first time I had seen it, but I was excited to see early Ingrid Bergman on the big screen. It is a breathtaking film in many ways, and one of the things I was most looking forward to about the experience was hearing Ingrid Bergman speak Swedish. I have noticed that when playing a role in Swedish, she conveys rawer, more intense emotions and seems freer, less encumbered by the restraints of a foreign language. Ingrid Bergman is a marvel in any language, but there is a marked difference when she acts in her native tongue. If the powers that be had chosen to dub A Woman’s Face, it would have been as if they were cutting half of Ingrid Bergman out of the film entirely.

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Ingrid Bergman in A Woman’s Face (1938)

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Jean Seberg’s distinct American accent is what gives the film, and her character, heart. There is no replicating Jean Seberg’s accent, and her Americanness is a large part of what drives the plot forward. A dubbed English language version of Breathless is inconceivable, it would become an uninteresting shell of its former self, as the language of Breathless is at the core of what it is.

Parasite is a phenomenal and important film. Bong Joon-Ho is doing groundbreaking work in the industry, playing with genres and labels and making bold class commentaries where no one else dares to. I know that many people have been driven away from Parasite due to its subtitles, and it not only saddens me that they’re missing this magnificent piece of filmmaking, but it makes me fear for what a vast swath of this country is not seeing.

We live in an increasingly connected world, but one fractured by nationalism and xenophobia. Film is one medium by which we can come together and share universal themes, stories, and feelings. Insistence on hearing our own language in a film from a different culture only serves to drive us apart even further, stifling the power of film to unify a world that needs it so much.

5 responses to “The Case for Subtitles

  1. Yes!!!!!Thank you for this.

    Sent from AT&T Yahoo Mail for iPhone

  2. I agree with you entirely. I find dubbing distracting as, however skillful the voice artist, it’s never possible to match the mouth movements precisely. And, as you say, so much that’s indefinable in a great performance is inevitably lost.

    However, unfortunately subtitling isn’t always done well which probably puts some people off. For example, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s ”The Devil’s Eye” last night and it was marred, partly because the subtitling was in white and often on a pale background so it was difficult to read but, even worse, the translations sometimes didn’t make any sense. Quite often on streaming services like Mubi and Netflix the name of the subtitle provider is given at the end of the credits. It seems that when no name is given, the subtitling is very poor which makes me think that Google Translate or something similar has been used.

  3. Oh yes, I know what you mean—I’ve seen some REALLY poor subtitling jobs. But ideally, a professional company is contracted to do that work. And sometimes things are extremely hard to translate from one language to another.

  4. Subtitles can take a little getting used to, but once you do, they’re a breeze–wish more folks would realize that! Am 1000% agreed that dubbing is the devil.

    What DOES take a little getting used to–going to YouTube and watching a fuzzy old print of a 1910s silent film with French title cards with modern Portuguese captions copied onto it with the English closed captioning turned on…I’ve achieved Subtitle Pro status. 😉

  5. Agreed on all counts!

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