Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film

By Chris Darke


The subtitled film is a celluloid curse, a box-office hex. Cinemagoers stay away, firmly believing that cinema should be about seeing a story being told, not about having to read it. Some film industries have long understood this popular aversion to the subtitle and opt, as in Italy, to dub foreign-language films. It follows, then, that the subtitler, that word-wrangler, should be among the most neglected of cinema’s ancillary workers. In Subtitles: on the Foreignness of Film, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and York University English lecturer Ian Balfour seek to celebrate the neglected art of the subtitle by using it as “a point of departure in exploring the idea and the varieties of foreignness in film.”

Henri Béhar, a professional word-wrangler who has subtitled over a hundred French and English films, contributes an insight into the practical business of subtitling, which he describes as being “like playing 3-D scrabble in two languages”. An intricate and laborious task “about as seductive as plumbing”, subtitling is equally “a form of cultural ventriloquism and the focus must remain on the puppet, not the puppeteer ... we want not to be noticed.”

Not being noticed comes with the territory as regards the distribution of subtitled films; Béhar notes that they account for less than 1% of the US domestic box-office figures. But even that relatively tiny audience has been historically significant, as Egoyan points out when he states that his “love of cinema is founded on subtitles […] they were my passport to an exotic world”. It’s a declaration repeated by the American film critic B. Ruby Rich who recalls how subtitled films “were the sign of hipness when I was coming of age”. Rich supplies a revealing account of what she dubs the “bait and switch” tactics used in the marketing of foreign language films in the US from the 1980s onwards.

Orion chose to market Kurosawa’s Ran with a trailer that contained no Japanese and thus rendered subtitles unnecessary in the hope that the film might be mistaken for an English-language picture. The ruse worked and distributors adopted a similar approach for other foreign language titles including Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern and Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, each proving to be a major success. The ‘no-foreign-tongue’ trailer was taken up by Miramax where, to quote Rich, it was “adopted, sanctioned and virtually put on steroids”. However, Rich’s essay suffers when she attempts to extend her consideration of America’s ‘English, first and only, please’ monolingualism into the context of the nation’s politics, with George W. Bush characterised as “the worst manifestation of this same sense of exceptionalism, turned into an offensive rather a defensive strategy”.

Rich rests her argument on the corporate slogan of the French subtitling company Titra-Film, ‘Toute l’émotion de la V.O.’, which she mistranslates as ‘All the emotion of a voice-over’. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with French cinemagoing knows that ‘V.O.’ translates as ‘version originale’ (meaning ‘original language’ as opposed to V.F., ‘version francaise’, French-language version). Unfortunately, in illustrating her point she reveals herself to be guilty of similar monolingual tendencies to those she chastises in her chosen political targets. One would have thought that in a book about subtitles, where the intricacies of translation are central, a howler like this would have been ironed out in the copy-editing.

Several contributors point to the increasing use of subtitles on television in the now ubiquitous spectacle of endlessly scrolling onscreen ticker-tapes. In an example of the sort of academic writing that depends more on allegorical and rhetorical legerdemain than on analysis, Eric Cazdyn proposes a reading of CNN’s use of such subtitling, calling on Walter Benjamin’s writing on translation and the figure of the benshi, the live in-house commentator who was a feature of early Japanese cinema. In an interesting discussion of the Pentagon’s subtitling of a videotape of Osama Bin Laden discussing the bombings of September 11th 2001, Cazdyn succeeds in shooting himself in both feet and then his head by choosing, as benshi to OBL, someone he calls ‘revisionist historian’ David Irving.

‘Revisionist historian’ sounds a little more respectable than ‘convicted Holocaust denier’ or ‘neo-Nazi sympathiser’ I suppose, but what Cazdyn describes as Irving’s ‘scepticism’ towards the authenticity of the Pentagon’s subtitling sent this reader off to do a spot of googling to dig up the author’s sources for his extensive Irving quotations. What Cazdyn fails to mention is that Irving, on his website, describes his “impressions” of the tape as being “…very raw [and] have not benefited from either knowledge of Arabic, video or technical expertise, patriotic prejudice or academic input from others”. The question as to whether such an avowal of complete ignorance can ever properly be described as ‘scepticism’ irretrievably undermines the credibility of Cazdyn’s curious essay and one wonders how such shoddy scholarship could possibly pass muster.

Apart from these substantial glitches, Subtitles is an interesting collection. The editors’ chosen format is one that lies somewhere between an art book – imaginative layout and design, many high-quality images, interventions by artists and filmmakers – and an academic anthology. In this latter respect there are interesting essays from various scholarly luminaries including Fredric Jameson writing on Balkan cinema, Slavoj Zizek on ‘the foreign gaze’, Raymond Bellour on Borges and cinema, and Hamid Naficy on ‘accented cinema’, each a valuable contribution to the growing corpus of intercultural film theory.

Subtitles: on the Foreignness of Film, Edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour (Alphabet City Media & The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 2004). 568 pages. ISBN: 0-262-05078-1. £22.95.

Chris Darke is a writer and critic. He is the author of Light Readings (Wallflower Press). His study of Alphaville is out now from IB Tauris and he is currently writing Flashpoints, a cultural and political history of the Cannes Film Festival, with Vertigo regular Kieron Corless.