Speaking My Language: Context Specific!


[Flixist community member Panzadolphin56 wrote us an awesome blog about some of his experiences and thoughts about the uses of subtitles in movies. He did a great job! What do you think about subtitles? Let us know in your own community blog and keep an eye out for the next Bloggers Wanted assignment!]

Though we often think of subtitles simply as a way to bridge the gap between languages there’s often so much more going on when it comes to what they add and what they say about a film when they’re included; about culture and identity and about the type of film the director wanted to make as well as the kind of experience we will have watching the film.

When I think about subtitles in film the first film that often springs to mind for me is the Japanese original of The Ring, Ringu; the film itself didn’t actually do anything special with subtitles – it’s subtitles aren’t colourful, they’re not unique in any way, they’re just plain old white subtitles that are there to tell you what people are saying, but for me personally it represents the film that made me realise there’s often more to subtitles than just simply direct translation.


When we think about translation in film we often take it at face-value – from their language to ours with no loss of information, but there’s often more going on, that you don’t see – the unspoken in a language, that you have to take account of. Subtitles, often unwittingly, offer us a way to glimpse that world in a way that a simple overdub might not. This probably wouldn’t be the case if the film were either remade or redubbed; a remake – especially made in a different country, would potentially lose some of the cultural attachments that the original had, and a redub would likely lose the intonation and effect the original actors had when they said their lines.

In the case of a film like Ringu this matters a lot, because the film is very much centered in Japanese culture and the Japanese way of thinking, so a redub or a remake (and this is what did happen) would lose something of the original’s impact, precisely because of how intricately tied to being Japanese the effect that the film had was. That’s not to say that somehow anybody who’s not Japanese won’t get it, because a lot of what scares us about the film (motherfucking scary ghosts for one) is defined by our own human nature rather than culturally specific, so anybody can find it scary. I watched it first as a teenager and it still scared the living bejesus out of me, and I knew very little about Japanese culture or where the story elements came from.

With most films this doesn’t usually matter a lot whole, the really big budget and broad films don’t tend to appeal to specific aspects of culture but rather to general aspects of human nature that appeal to everybody – sex, war, power, etc; it’s only when a film tries to connect more directly with people, to take on very particular issues important to individual’s lives, that culture really comes into play. Films like Ringu or Let the Right One In, though of general appeal to almost everybody do touch on this cultural aspect to help give them impact.

I haven’t see the American remake of Let the Right One In, but having seen the original I did have the sense that part of what made the film so powerful was it’s sense of loneliness, the setting and the way the characters all felt a part of that unyieldingly bleak Northern European setting, had the film been set in inner London or somewhere in France it might not have had the same effect, at least for me.

In this respect subtitles were a saving grace, had either film been redubbed or had there only been a remake available to me I might have overlooked them or let them pass me by easily, rather than taking the time to examine how good they were as films.


Though subtitles are often about translating, and bringing a foreign film over to an English-language speaking/reading audience, they’re also sometimes used for realism reasons or to add a historically factual aspect – It doesn’t happen so much in modern films, mostly because Hollywood got lazy and decided everybody in history ever spoke English but at one point it made sense to have actors who were representing different nationalities speak that language.

It’s usually a war film thing in my experience, especially from the 60’s and 70’s but it continues to occur in some modern films as well; arguably a director wants to give an idea of the gulf between the two nations or just be factually accurate so they decide they want their actors to speak Japanese, German, Chinese, etc.

Though filmed decades apart both Tora, Tora, Tora and Letters from Iwo Jima do this; both depict conflicts between America and Japan in the Pacific theatre of WW2 – Tora, Tora, Tora, the initial surprise attack at Pearl Harbour and Letters from Iwo Jima, Japan’s desperate struggle to maintain control of a small Island some distance from the Japanese mainland, as it comes under increasing pressure from the American war machine.


Both films are not only about war but also about showing the war from both sides, and humanising both sides, rather than showing them as rabid animals desperate to war. As such we see a mix of both what we’d expect from a war movie – the action, the explosions, the military hardware but also more everyday aspects – Letters from Iwo Jima, for example, involves scenes where the Japanese soldiers talk about the conditions they live in, how they miss Japan and their families and their fears. Whilst Tora, Tora, Tora, has several notable scenes where both the Japanese and American military leaders sit and argue amongst themselves about what to do, how they should act, etc, with clear differences of opinion over the best course of action.

We’re not talking power rangers type evil here, where the lead villain declares they’ll destroy the world, cackles madly, and then everybody in the room cackles madly in response; no, like in real-life we see a disparate group of individuals with a range of perspectives on the conflict and how to go forward coming together. There is no right, no wrong, only different views. The fact they speak different languages, and as a consequence the film uses subtitles, I think helps to emphasis the differences between the two sides but also the fundamental similarities.

It’s also true of a number of historical pieces, some of which, rather coincidentally, also count as war films; The Warlords, for example, a film starring Jet Li, about the Taiping Rebellion era of Chinese history, is completely in Chinese, as is Red Cliff, directed by John Woo, set in the Three Kingdoms era. I’m sure this is in part because they’re both Asian filmed and produced movies, but I suspect a conscious decision was made to film them in Chinese. The English-speaking market is very large so undoubtedly in both cases consideration was made for that audience and whether or not audiences would go see a film with subtitles.

Choices like this made by directors, I think, to a large degree indicate the sort of film they’re making – if you’re making a popular film, that you want as many people to watch as possible, then often the first thing that goes out the window is factual accuracy, for the fact nerds out there this is the stuff regular people miss for the most part (did the Romans really wear that type of armor in that century? Are those uniforms made of the right sort of material?!? etc) but it also includes cultural aspects and language. It’s easier to dress some random American guys up in Nazis uniforms and just have them pretend as best they can to be German than it is to get properly German, or at least German-speaking, actors, to fill those roles, and it’s often cheaper. In doing so though the director/producers/whoever is making the film, defines the type of film they’re creating for us the audience.


Casual audiences don’t tend to want to be bothered with subtitles or concentrating on the screen to understand the events, they just want something to watch. An interested and well-informed audience meanwhile might demand or desire more factual accuracy, so films like Letters from Iwo Jima, and The Warlords, despite whatever historical inaccuracies they may in fact have, stand out more and define themselves by forcing the audience to read subtitles to understand the film properly.

On the opposite side it’s also true though that sometimes filmmakers try too hard to ‘Americanise’ their films, feeling that a dub is better than simple subtitles. This is actually one of the problems I have with a lot of 70’s and 80’s continental horror films, many of which rather than make an audience read subtitles chose to go with an English dub for international audiences.


Arguably very few of these movies were ever worth the film they were printed on, most being simply attempts to cash in on audiences hungry for more and more horror, with all-round mediocre production values, no attempt at decent story-telling and a cast usually heavily exploited (the magic word, as always of course being ‘boobies!’); they were bad films. But even so some bad films have found their way to becoming classics, and arguably many of these films have missed out on even being considered because they tried too hard to be American films, rather than stand out as products of their respective countries. In the end the dubs are terrible, and end up being worse for the film than subtitles would have been, at least in posterity.

It’s not universal though. If you’ve seen some of Dario Argento’s 80’s horror films for example, many of them have an English version in Italian with subtitles and a rather butchered English dub as well. Sufficed to say, the dubs are painful. His films were better produced though so generally they represented ‘Italian film’ more than just exploitation film, so though there are dubs, and they do feel like a concession to what studios thought international audiences wanted, you can still get subtitled versions that don’t ruin the film as much as the dubs do.


If anything it’s especially sad because in some respects holding onto that cultural enclave and forcing people to watch a film in your language with subtitles sometimes pays off a lot more than trying too hard to appeal to English-speaking audiences, because sometimes that means a film loses something of it’s identity. Perhaps sticking with subtitles for this reason might not have worked so well in the 70’s and 80’s but the 90’s showed that films could be appreciated despite the language barrier, with a number of European films gaining popularity and cult followings despite the language, in short it marked the era when subtitles became cool!

Audiences were no longer put off by subtitles – and indeed a significant minority of film-goers were actively interested in seeing films that ‘felt’ foreign, and a product of their particular country. So we saw films like Nikita (a largely French film) and Run Lola Run (a German film) gain international success and accolades, despite the language barrier and their use of subtitles, exactly because while they were identifiably French or German they also appealed to audiences generally, regardless of nationality. Indeed, in part why these types of films stood out so well is because they were identifiably foreign, they felt different, and represented French or German film culture in some respect.


And all because of subtitles!

I doubt if they’d been remade or dubbed they would have had quite the same impact.

In the end subtitles aren’t just about translation, they’re a way to get inside another world, to bridge the cultural gap that language and living in different societies creates. They make us outsiders but at the same give us a glimpse into different cultures and different mindsets, in a way that a remake or redub might not. They also potentially represent cultural identity, allowing us to engage with other cultures without either side having to compromise over language.