Less Than Two Thousand Words on Subtitles, Translations and Remakes

Conversation in the office has come round to television. Mainly, people are talking about two sorts of show: gritty European dramas that will eventually be remade with either an American or British setting, or the rarest of things, an American remake of a British show that has almost universally overshadowed the original in the public eye.

(I’m talking about “House Of Cards”. Yes, I know, “The Office” is out there. But it’s literally the only other one. I’m certain of this.)

It reminded me that this morning in the shower I got suddenly and passionately irritated with the very modern behaviour of attacking localised remakes of foreign films or TV.

This has become a much more mainstream gripe in recent years, because film and TV is looking further afield for content to revise and release than it did before, but it’s not really anything new – an older version of it is complaining about the dubbed versions of manga, martial arts movies, and about how X European movie is getting completely overlooked just because of the subtitles.

When someone complains about subtitles, we don’t have the slightest trouble taking the piss out of them, either to their face or behind their back on Twitter.

(Not Facebook. The people you talk to on Facebook are the ones who don’t like subtitles. The people on Twitter are the ones you bitch about the people who don’t like subtitles to.)

I’ve been one of the people who dismisses the subtitle-haters as lazy, and  will probably be one of those people again.

But this morning I got annoyed in the shower at myself and everybody else who does that. We really are just smug, self-satisfied cock-ends, aren’t we?

In the UK, around 16% of adults are “functionally illiterate”, which places their reading level as lower than that expected of an eleven year old. That number doesn’t even consider people who can read but don’t enjoy it, people with poor eyesight that just doesn’t allow for reading lots of text quickly while other stuff is going on, and people who already have trouble parsing dynamic visual narratives even without subtitles – which is almost everyone, if the amount of minds blown over “Inception” are anything to go by.

In short, subtitles aren’t actually easy for a lot of people, aren’t fun for a few more, and are actually impossible for around 1 in 6.

Film has potential to be the most immediate of all media, and little words across the bottom of the screen totally get in the way of that for many.

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Does that mean that those of us who can quickly read and absorb text, and take in a complex narrative at the same time, are somehow better people? Yes, yes it does. But only until we exploit our privilege to bully those who are less amazing.

The weird-but-true algebra of social interaction is that being good is better, but being an asshole about being better makes you worse.

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It’s a totally artificial metric to base one’s elitism on, anyway. Cinema and TV are still incredibly young media, and there isn’t anything that’s analogous with dubbing, remakes, localised remakes, and the apparent controversies of each, in other narrative forms.

At some point we started thinking of film as the one concrete art-form where language and lack of iteration mattered, despite the fact that adaptation and remaking were coded into the DNA of the medium from the start. The idea of purity of vision, and how that can be damaged by distance from the source, is one that comes up again and again in discussion of film. But film by its nature is a collaborative process, involving more people, with more agency to be creative, than any other… an uncompromised vision isn’t actually a thing that exists in the mix.

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I’m being arch when I suggest that this behaviour doesn’t exist elsewhere. Most people have met or know about someone who claims that you don’t really get the full experience of manga without learning Japanese and reading it in the original phone-books; that the language in Mein Kampf doesn’t really sing the same way in English as it does in German.

The key differences between those people, and us when we do this about films, are that:

  • It’s actually an achievement to be fluently multi-lingual. This doesn’t diminish the arrogance of these people, but it does at least give their elitism a solid foundation: they are in a small group who are able to do something that most of us can’t. It’s a slightly higher-caliber capability than “knowing how to find the World Cinema category on Netflix”.
  • We recognise what people who loudly say things like this are – pretentious hipster implements – and tend to avoid them. I’m sure there’s a part of the internet entirely populated by folks complaining about plebs who only read “Les Miserables” in butchered English translations, but we generally put those people in social isolation where they belong. Leaving the rest of the social internet free for us to bitch unashamedly about how the US version of “The Killing” was either redundant, or too different.

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Film is one of a cluster of art-forms that mix words and pictures inextricably – comics, theatre and prose (which counts, damn you, because any sequence of words that describes a setting counts as visual, for my purposes here) are all in the same club. In most of those media one measure of success is how many languages the work has been translated into.

In them, the subtitle doesn’t effectively exist: it’s a very specific solution to  problems inherent in the permanence of film, and doesn’t make sense anywhere else. The most closely related process to subtitling is translation. But translation isn’t simple a comprehension aid, like subtitles are… it’s an adaptation, and one that we understand as necessary in comics, and in books, and in theatre. The alternative option to translating works is exclusion – either the whole potential audience has to learn the native language of the work, or the potential audience is only speakers of that language.

Personally, when I read or watch a brilliant story, I want as many people as can possibly be reached by it to experience it, too.

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I’m not saying there aren’t bad dubs, adaptations or remakes – there are loads of incredibly shit ones – I’m just saying that these models aren’t inherently evil, and the smart, less obnoxious thing to do would be to make qualitative judgements on them on a case-by-case basis. If that doesn’t sound like too much work.

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So language is a very real barrier to universal consumption of stories, and one that subtitles don’t entirely fix. That explains dubbing, but why remakes?

Well, for a start, dubbing isn’t a particularly elegant solution. Not only is it notoriously hard to do well – and done badly it can be distracting – but it’s also far more open to creative interpretation than subtitles.

Written English can afford to be pretty direct in it’s translation, because it only has to be read, and reading is already an act that requires a bit of processing by the reader. But a dubbed script has to be said out loud, which means it has to get past actors. Actors will happily say some terribly scripted shit, but they have to be able to parse it phonetically and intellectually first, and it all has to fit in synch with the foreign actor’s mouths.

So what you get with a dub is often already a heavily mediated version of the original. Looking at the dubbed versions of both “Akira” and “Princess Mononoke” – the script for the latter heavily adapted by Neil Gaiman – alongside earlier subtitled versions show quite different storytelling.

Enthusiasts don’t have any problem with lip-synched audio, and in animation we’re already used to dubbing so we don’t notice it so much, but in live action, dubbing can create friction to the process of immersion that we hope for in our entertainment.

So there’s a potential gain in audience that producers balance against the cost of filming a new version, and if those sums work out, on a commercially viable piece, it makes perfect sense to do it.

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But language isn’t always the reason for a new version. Localised refits of a show or movie or story – especially ones that are in the same language as the original - really wind people up.

We didn’t like that John Constantine was American, in a US set movie, in “Constantine” – quite aside from the fact that we didn’t want him to be Keanu Reeves.

We were unhappy with the US version of “The Killing”, even before we’d seen whether or not it’d be any good. Most of us didn’t even see the original version of it until we’d heard about an imminent US version. We wanted to do our due diligence on why we desperately disapproved of it.

And what was the point of an almost shot-by-shot remake of “The Ring”, or “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, or “Let The Right One In”? American versions are rubbish – they change the character of the original, which has a certain amount of charm and character, because foreign cultures have their own charm and character.

But the reasons why we don’t approve of these adaptations are also the reasons why they’re a potentially really important way to engage a wider audience for a story.

Because one reason we don’t like the idea of these narratives changing is that national character, local cultures and social behaviours are important, and where they’re present in a work, they impact heavily on the way we identify with that work.

That same process means that for someone not as aligned with or interested in the cultures present in a work in it’s current form, these “alien” tropes can be a barrier to entry.

If the point of a work is to play with that feeling of alienation, or the exoticness of the Other, a remake can fundamentally break the work at it’s core.

But it almost never is the main thing the writers or makers were trying to say or do to their audience. It’s just a distraction for a potential audience that they will probably never get to engage with.

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And you guys: cross-cultural remakes can be awesome! ”The Magnificent Seven” is pretty cool, you know? Never mind “Battle Beyond The Stars”, which is basically the same film again, but in space, which makes it more awesome! And “Seven Samurai” still exists! You know, in case you really, really hate America. Or space.

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So, look, I’m still going to personally prefer to get as close to the source of a film or TV series as possible, and I may still complain sometimes about re-iterations that I think are doomed. I can’t change the way I’m wired, any more than anyone else can.

But at the same time, I’m going to get a dubbed version of “My Neighbour Totoro”, and be grateful for it, so that I can watch it with my son sooner, rather than later.

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Remember the mantra of the mentally healthy geek:
“The original still exists. Nobody is going to come round to your house and burn the original. Except maybe George Lucas.”