Joined-up Reading: The Problem of Subtitles

By Jane Giles

with thanks to John Minchinton[1]

Jane Giles squints at the problem of subtitles

As the National Lottery looks to take on the US cinematic hegemony by increasing homegrown production, it should be noted that the crisis in UK independent distribution and exhibition is perhaps less around opportunities for British work than in the economics of presenting foreign language films.

The Media II (formerly EFDO) print and advertising bursaries aid the annual distribution of a handful of new European films. But there is no such scheme to help revivals or world cinema, and the distributors’ problem remains that the cash-flow of theatrical releasing is too often dependent on a sale of television rights. Although both BBC2 and Channel 4 were set up with remits to show world cinema, each now acquires significantly fewer foreign language titles. In the case of Channel 4, subtitled films are unable to achieve the viewing figures demanded by commercial advertisers. Its competitor BBC2 is also ratings-led, responding to the majority requirements of the licence payers. For example, in the week of 23-29 July 1997 the five territorial channels broadcast a total of 73 feature films: 56 North American; 14 British; 2 Indian; 1 Finnish. The three foreign language films were all shown in Channel 4’s post-midnight ‘graveyard slot’. In the age of the VCR, the assumption may be that the core audience will record these films for later viewing. But this excludes discovery by casual browsers or channel-surfers, and – as we all know – people tape more than they watch [2]. The absence from our television and cinema screens of foreign language work creates a situation whereby unfamiliarity with subtitled films feeds into a downwards spiral of further intolerance. This narrowing is doubly problematic. What can we expect of future film-makers who have no knowledge of the classics of world cinema? And how can we further respect for racial difference without democratic access to its cultural representations?

The problem of subtitles is not straightforward given that the interplay between written words and moving pictures has always been part of cinema’s visual vocabulary. Silent film used subtitles (now known as intertitles) to paraphrase dialogue and other bare-bones information about the story not apparent from visual clues of the mise-en-scène. These minimal titles could be replaced in different languages at modest costs, but the advent of the talkies caused a crisis in the economics of international distribution. Some early sound films were shot in dual language versions: Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera (1931) was simultaneously produced in German (Die Dreigroschenoper) and in French (L’Opéra de quat’sous) with different national actors in the leading roles [3]. This unwieldy practise was not sustained for long, and international distribution tackled the language barrier of dialogue by either dubbing or subtitling.

In the early 1930s the more expensive process of dubbing became the norm in countries with either a greater extent of subliteracy or a political dictatorship aiming to suppress ideologically undesirable material. National audiences brought up on the flat, post-synched sound characteristic of most Italian, German and French productions have little problem with the concept that the actor’s voice is not necessarily his own (such as that of Sophia Loren, dubbed by a man until she became a star). Some international distributors have welcomed recent developments in the computerised morphing of an actor’s mouth to make dubbing more convincing, but there is little here to celebrate if one believes in the theatrical through-line – that the essence of a performance comes from the guts, the toes, the full-blooded whole being.

Although viewers in the UK consume more post-synched dialogue than perhaps we realise, European-style dubbing did not become established due to the industrial predominance of American cinema. Here the gulf opens up between notions of high and low cinematic art, as private members’ societies were established to show films from other countries in their original language. In addition to questions of literacy, the physical challenge of reading subtitles has historically deterred a wide audience. The first subtitled film shown on television was Der Student von Prag (1935), broadcast by the BBC in 1938. As television screens were then little larger than a postcard, the experience of reading the text was probably not a happy one. But even on the cinema screen the visibility of subtitles is not always good. Low-raked seating causes heads to obscure the words at the bottom of the screen, while white subtitles are prone to disappear against a light background. The inevitable sounds and movements of a public place distract the eye as it travels constantly around the screen, literally hard at work in search of meaning.

Film societies avoided the legislation of public exhibition premises and dodged the censorship inflicted on movies for mass consumption. The anomalies of classifying foreign language films remain, as the sensitivity of the BBFC and ITC to the scato-sexual ‘Bigsix’ (piss, fart, shit, fuck, cock, cunt) denies the subtitler the opportunity to translate these words literally, characteristically resulting in parental guidance certificates for ‘adult’ material. (The Academy Cinema’s George Hoellering won the first subtitled word ‘fuck’ – and an X certificate – for WR Mysteries of the Organism in 1971). But the art of subtitling is one of interpretation rather than literal translation. Although English is a fairly concise language (more so than French, Italian or German, for example) there remains a finite space on screen for subtitles, however verbose the original dialogue. The challenge of the subtitler is to represent the meaning and texture of the spoken language in an abbreviated written form which keeps pace with the action and takes into account that the dialogue will still be heard and understood by the audience in other ways (such as through the actor’s intonation).

While it belies the traditionally cavalier use of the film script during production, the written word on screen has an historical authority, representing what we know (as opposed to what we see). However in cinema’s hierarchy of truth, speech may be suspect and perhaps this is the problem of subtitled films which are narratively driven by dialogue rather than images. The fundamental enigma of film may exist in the gap between what we see and what we know, but here also are the suspect corners of the foreign language and the shadowy presence of the anonymous subtitler. When the process breaks down through spelling mistakes, illegibility or unintentional howlers, subtitles (and their creators) commit the sin of calling attention to the medium. Alternatively, experimental films may play with the on screen relationship of written words with images for precisely this reason. Perhaps most famously Godard has clashed elements of classical narrative with the sloganeering characteristic of the Situationist and Lettriste movements, changing or challenging meaning, undermining concepts of authority or truth. John Minchinton is sure that Godard thinks words before pictures:

Les Carabiniers has twenty-seven texts inserted and eighty-four subtitles for speech listing war booty (researching the English names for these items took days). Weekend also has texts inserted, one being subtitled as PHONYGRAPH.’


[1] John Minchinton (b.1926) has subtitled nearly two thousand feature films and television programmes during his distinguished career of over thirty-five years. One of a team with Tom Milne and the late Peter Seward, these subtitlers have interpreted some of the most significant foreign language films in cinema history (such as A Bout de souffle (1959), Otto e Mezzo (1963)...) but their names remain unknown to the public. Mr Minchinton confirms that the work of subtitlers should not be ‘authored’, as such, as this calls attention to a medium striving for illusion. Much of the information in this essay is based on John Minchinton’s unpublished (and ongoing) manuscript, Subtitling, a fascinating, pragmatic and witty account of the history of the medium, its mechanisms and the character of the subtitler. Professionally known for his expertise in subtitling Eastern European films, Mr Minchinton claims to know only one language (English, because ‘the others are all vocabulary and no grammar’). He paints a portrait of the subtitler as a linguistic Epicurean with a ‘Professional Dirty Mind’, neurotically over-sensitive to double entendre, amongst the other possibilities of sabotage by mistranslation. The subtitler is the collector of a hair-raising research and reference library full of drugs, weaponry, motor vehicles, WWII and Biblical quotations, reflecting the enduring preoccupations of screenwriters. We struggled for a while to define the essence of what appeals to him about his profession, finally agreeing on the deceptively simple point that it is the pleasure in doing a job well.

[2] The late 20th century living room may be characterised by shelves littered with ubiquitous black plastic cartridges, greasy labels scribbled over, contents unseen. So why do people tape more than they watch? A straw poll revealed some of the following answers:

i. A film sales agent said that we’re acquisitive, wanting to capture and keep the movies.

ii. A video publisher said that he tapes films to show to his children between 4-6pm, when television programming is culturally dismal.

iii. A film editor said that people are lazy, abdicating the choice of watching an interesting taped film in favour of what the schedulers give us.

iv. A television executive said that we don’t have enough time to do or see everything we’d like to.

[3] One of John Minchinton’s current projects is the subtitling of both French and German versions of The Threepenny Opera. Pabst was sued by Brecht and Weill over what they considered his manhandling of their musical; the director rewrote the script – which Brecht had adapted from his own play, itself a variation on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – and dropped or changed the words of several songs. The first verse of the German version of ‘Mack the Knife’ is as follows:

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
Und die trägt er im Gesicht
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht

But the first verse of the French version features neither Macheath, nor a shark, his teeth or a knife:

Sombre est la nuit,
Un éclair luit,
Un homme fuit,
La mort suit.
Un corps tombe
Dans la tombe.
Sans un bruit.

Since then other versions of the song have been popularised, such as that of Louis Armstrong. Minchinton’s problem is to balance the rhythmic demands of the musical’s verse with the authenticity of the original material and the contemporary audience’s expectations, a concept which perhaps only begins to suggest the conceptual – let alone practical – complexities of subtitling.