13 September 2010

A Short Guide to Subtitles

When you begin to explore foreign cinema, you're eventually going to have to deal with subtitles. It's an inevitable part of the process. What I've prepared here are a few guidelines for the world of subtitles.

Why do people use subtitles?
Many people prefer dubs (where the vocal track is redone in English) over subtitles, so why use subtitles at all when that is an option? Well, for one, subtitles are more prevalent than dubs. Not everything has been dubbed in to English, as it is a more involved and pricey process. Thus, while you may be able to get away with dubs on more popular foreign works, the more you pursue these films, the less that will become a valid option.

But aside from that, the primary reason that many people such as myself prefer subtitles is that it keeps the work in its original form. The newly recorded voices may not accurately reduplicate the same tones and emotions expressed by the original actor. Furthermore, the language itself may add character and mood to the film that can be altered when a new language is introduced. For example, German, French and English all have very different cadences.

Likewise, dubs can create odd situations or changes from the original. For example, in the Japanese version of an episode of Excel Saga in which Excel visits America, she speaks in broken and misguided English to the Americans, which is the source of a great deal of humour. However, as in the English dub she is already speaking English, she instead uses broken Spanish, which makes significantly less sense. Enough so to ruin some of the comedic potential.

Likewise, Japanese characters with the Kansai dialect are frequently rendered into a Southern drawl, which doesn't carry the full cultural implications of the original dialect. In fact, it pretty much just fits the "country folk" stereotype, it does not fit the idea of "comedian," nor does it match the original cadence. The result is that it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The cowboy-hat-wearing Osakan businessman in Ghost in the Shell may work okay with a Southern drawl, but it does not suit the spacey Ayumu "Osaka" Kasuga nearly as well.

Animation vs. Film
As you may have noticed, I've mentioned a lot of anime. This is because it is primarily in anime where the subs vs. dubs debate rages the most, while fans of foreign films tend to be fairly accepting of subtitles from the beginning.

I think part of this might have to do with the fact that it is much more obvious when film is dubbed. Everyone makes jokes about the dubs in old Godzilla movies or kung fu movies for a reason. It's so painfully obvious that it's been dubbed because the photographic method captures all the intricacies of the mouth that occur during speech and even the best voice actors will not be able to sync the dub perfectly. It's impossible.

Animation, on the other hand, simplifies the mouth movements a lot, and we are more willing to accept that the new words fit as well. After all, the animation and the voice were created independently, while that is film were (usually) created at the same time.

Don't fear dubs
That said, do not always insist against dubs. While I think it is good practice to watch things in subtitles on your own if you are comfortable with them, dubs are still a valid way of watching foreign works. For one, dubs can provide an interesting new look at a favourite film or series. In some ways, it is just interesting seeing how something you enjoy was reinterpreted. Many dubs, especially more recently, are very, very well executed. A lot of work went in to them, at its worth it just to see what was accomplished.

Furthermore, not everyone is comfortable with subtitles. Sometimes, you may want to show a work you really like to a friend, but if they aren't a fan of subtitles and they aren't comfortable reading them, they arenðt going to fully enjoy the experience. You want them to be able to enjoy it too, and maybe that means turning on the subs.

See, not everyone likes to read while they watch a film or a show. And it's not just because they are lazy. Reading subtitles involves additional skills beyond just reading. For one, you must be able to read, at the very least, at the same speed that the language is spoken. This isn't usually too hard in and of itself, but if you can only read at the same pace as the text is displayed, you are just speanding your entire time reading a script.
Subtitles are enjoyable after you have become accustomed to them. You have to be able to not just read them, but be able to read them while simultaneously taking in the visuals. At a certain point, you are able to sort of read the subtitles out of your peripheral while you watch the film normally. It takes time to get to this point.

How to become comfortable with subtitles
Of course, some people may be interested in using subtitles over dubs, but they just aren't as comfortable with them yet. The only way you'll get better, though, is if you practice. But it can be frustrating to do so when you aren't really proficient in the skill yet. I know, I had to go through that too. To a large degree, I just suffered through it at first and I got better that way, but since then, I've been able to think of some tricks to help make it more bearable.

If you have a foreign film or show that you really like and have watched the English dub enough time that you generally know most of the plot and lines and so forth, try watching it subtitled. You're going to be a lot more familiar with what's going on and the gist of what people are saying, and you'll have already seen the visuals many times, so you won't feel like you're missing out as much. This will cut down on frustration.

Another technique, which I heard from an old coworker of mine, is to turn on closed captioning when you're watching English television. He watched TV this way when he worked as a guard on duty, and so he had to have the volume very low. Using closed captions helped him follow the dialogue better when it was barely audible. However, even with louder volume, it'll still get you used to reading while you watch, but whenever you get tired of frustrated with always reading, you can stop for a little bit and just watch.

At any rate, I hope this has been somewhat useful.

1 comment:

  1. I don't mind subtitles but when it comes to animation there really isn't much of a difference (as you pointed out) the dubs are generally well done. And at the same time there are certain things you can't really put into subtitles.

    Oddly enough, the only example I can think of right now is "Legend Of The Overfiend" so i guess bear with me.

    The main characters of LOTO are super naive. the dub voice actors portray this uncomfortably well. Although, I should note the Dub for LOTO isn't something I would call 'High Quality'. It's rather poorly acted, but it works for the source material (It's the "You don't want good actors for 'Street Fighter: The Animated Series' argument) While i have only seen clips of the Japanese track, they don't have the same effect for me. Sometimes things can mean more when you actually hear it as opposed to reading it.

    And when you're dealing with material of the caliber of Legend Of the Overfiend...