The second in a series of articles published in Mangrove magazine in 2004. These are not deep in academic research, but a fun read.
Movie subtitles, intended to facilitate the enjoyment of foreign films, often hinder more than help the purported aesthetic experience. Who decides on the type, placement, and contents of these words on the big screen? Most people have no idea, and those who do it don’t seem to either.
Cynthia Joyce (“Why do movie subtitles stink?”) brings up the example of a former dentist who has translated hundreds of American movies for Latin American distribution, including “Star Wars”. Responsible for how millions of Hispanics understand films, Dr. Luis M. Rodriguez argues he rarely receives a copy of the film to be translated. Instead, he is handed a “spotting list” telling him the time and number of frames awarded for each subtitle. He is given only one week to deliver.
No wonder there are no credits for these “traduttori, traditori” at the end footage, and yet you have never heard of angry translators demanding otherwise. Are they embarrassed for granting a shorthand version of the original dialogue expounded on the screen? Ask about it to bilingual speakers, who often laugh at mistakes and literal translations that go unnoticed by movie distributors.
To add insult to injury, the language intrusion often becomes a visual one.
When subtitles claim more than one line in the small screens at Fine Arts Cinema, they cover almost a third of the frame. Maybe that is why we pay $6 here for a movie ticket, instead of $9, the new Mainland standard… Are we only paying for the 2/3 of the screen we actually see? Think how much better “The Motorcycle Diaries” could be have been, if we had been allowed to enjoy the expansive landscape cinematography.
Lacking any relationship to the quality and intent of a film, subtitles may interfere with its message or mood. In “Open Water”, one of the final scenes takes place in complete darkness, but the intended blackout effect is never fulfilled since the screen is infested by tall white Futura (maybe quirky Avant Garde) Bold subtitles. “The Blair Witch Project” was afflicted by the same curse.
Subtitle sizes are increasing. Maybe we are not supposed to notice and support those for whom they are being made “easier to read”. But bigger does not mean more legible, for larger sizes take longer to read. And when subtitles take up more space, most end in the screen’s most neutral and non-stimulating area, low at dead center.
Subtitles have a rhythm of their own and call for attention. There is no need for making them bigger or bolder. Even in movies of one’s own language, the eyes are directed to them. Why haven’t we encouraged caption-like subtitles, running at the bottom of the frame and non-interfering with the moving image? Photographers have argued and complained for years about running text getting in the way of image and meaning. Maybe the Movie Industry has been missing the picture, having yet things to learn from Photography.