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Beyond Subtitles: Some Thoughts on Viewing Foreign Language Films

It’s the visuals, stupid

I was recently working on an article about Korean film at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The article was written for a Korean website, in English, and required some research. Since Korean films seldom appear on a cinema repertoire and are rarely available at video stores, I rented five videotapes from the local Korean grocery store. None of the tapes were subtitled; however, they served the purpose. This prompted me to offer some thoughts on viewing foreign language films “beyond subtitles.”

“The world is a bridge” (a Turkish saying)

A Case Against Subtitles? Lost in Translation

One would argue that, even with the most accurate and perceptive translation, the viewer is bound to miss out on the linguistic subtleties in a foreign language film. A non-English speaker, for example, would, without a doubt, miss the details and nuances in the breakneck exchange during the first encounter between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), in Billy Wilder‘s Double Indemnity (1944, above right). The tone, mood, fast-paced interjections, and witty syntagms of the 1940s vernacular are very difficult to convey in the several lines of subtitled translation.

Linguistic and grammatical intricacies of the French underworld argot can be equally demanding and challenging for a translator. A veteran actor, André Bourvil, who appears in the role of Captain Mattei in Jean-Pierre Melville’s heist film, The Red Circle (1970), was instructed by the director to change his pronunciation of syllables.1 Instead of pronouncing them in a standard manner (“Je vais”), Bourvil contracted them (“J’vais”), creating a particular effect with his urban expression. The distinction was omitted in the subtitles.

In other cases, the viewer can, in spite of the best intentions and abilities of the translator, miss out on the specific cultural references in a foreign language film. Eva Ras plays Isabela, a Hungarian switchboard operator, in Dusan Makavejev‘s Love Affair (1967), one of the masterpieces of Eastern European cinema. Ras speaks Serbo-Croatian in her native Hungarian accent, yet only a vigilant viewer would realize she also exposes the prejudices of the local population against Hungarian women as “easy.”

Western audiences viewing Hong Kong films about immigrants from mainland China are frequently oblivious to the social, economic, and cultural references, problems of status and identity, brought about by the distinctions between Mandarin and Cantonese. In some cases, subtitles make things worse, as in a number of popular, hastily translated Hong Kong films, where the translation from Cantonese only complicates matters. Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins provide a number of interesting examples of fractured English subtitles: “Beware, your bones are going to be disconnected!”2 (Saviour of the Soulabove). “Sex fiend, you’ll never get reincarnated” (Banana Spirit).”3 “The bullets inside are very hot. Why do I feel so cold?” (The Naked Killer).4

Nevertheless, these and other examples of inadequate translation do not serve as evidence that a viewer can grasp the meaning of cinematic texts in a foreign language more comprehensively by completely ignoring the subtitles. The audience may benefit from using subtitles only as one of the references in interpreting film, rather than a definitive and sometimes misleading set of interpretive guidelines to the basic plot and the characters. Consequently, one might ask what other aspects of the cinematic narrative should a viewer take into account in order to understand and appreciate a foreign language film?

Beyond Subtitles

Observing different forms of nonverbal language can often be more revealing of the relationship between characters in a given sequence than the exact translation of their words. There is nothing in the dialogue between Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) and her brother-in-law Ethan (John Wayne), in the opening sequence of John Ford‘s western The Searchers (1956, right), that denotes an emotional bond between the two. Nevertheless, the non-English-speaking audiences often grasp the subtext of Ford’s scene, recognising a sense of emotional unease/lifetime regret in Ethan’s posture, attitude, and behaviour.

Nonverbal communication in a foreign language film could be equally misleading as inaccurate translation, leading to assumptions that contradict the place of a particular character within the narrative structure and the way he/she relates to others. However, observing spatial positioning, movement, gestures, and facial expressions may reveal important aspects of character biography, emotions, mood, and relationships with others, information that is frequently concealed in rigid, inflexible translation.

In the opening of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece, Rocco and his Brothers, the Parondis, a poverty-stricken family from the Italian South, arrive in Milan and unexpectedly interrupt a celebration at the in-laws’ apartment. When it turns out that they intend to move in with their brother and son, Vincenzo, a heated argument between the two families erupts. The distinction between the Milanese idiom of the “respectable” hosts and the rural dialect of the ‘Southern savages”5 is largely lost in translation. On the other hand, the body language of Visconti’s characters, accompanying the cacophony of the family quarrel, reveals the social and cultural disparity between the Southerners and Northerners, as well as the significance of familial loyalties in postwar Italy.

Various modes of nonverbal communication can afford alternative subtexts to the narrative and add new meaning to the translation. In Eric Rohmer’s meticulously composed conversation pieces, the dialogue between his characters frequently stands in opposition to their body language. Verbal indifference masks longing for love and attention, while displays of physical affection frequently conceal secrets and stratagems employed in their quest for personal happiness.

The rhythms, cadences, accent, pitch, and inflection are among the most ignored production elements of the cinematic narrative, inherent to an actor’s performance. Nevertheless, they often provide important information about the characters in a foreign language film, their personality, status, relationships, temperament, mood, and feelings, as well as the broader cultural contexts in which they are situated.

In the notable scene in Abbas Kiarostami‘s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, right), a melancholic filmmaker from Teheran, stranded in a small village in Iranian Kurdistan, recites a Forugh Farrokhzad poem to a peasant girl in the darkness of her stable. For Western audiences, largely unfamiliar with the opus and the tragic life of the poetess, the reference to Farrokhzad’s work emerges as a metaphor for the elusiveness and absurdity of the human condition, and the futile attempts of the artist to leave a meaningful token of existence in such a world. However, one would argue that the cadences, pitch, and inflection in the director’s interpretation of the poem afford all that and even more to the audience — the essence of Middle Eastern poetry, inextricably binding the literary acumen of the urbane, educated, middle-class artist and the oral, folkloric traditions in a region untouched by the advent of modern technology.

A dramatic pause in a foreign language film can assist the viewer as a cultural reference, demonstrating in what manner and how long it takes for a participant to “take stage” in a conversation. On another level, this essentially theatrical device6 helps to convey meaning, adds to the situation, and prompts imaginative response from the audience. Most important, a pause intensifies the audience’s attention to a character, revealing important information about his/her state of mind. Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, renowned for his uncompromising directorial style,7 once remarked that contemporary cinema rarely provides time or space to understand a character and understand “what’s going on under the surface.”8

In Satan’s Tango (1994), Tarr uses lengthy shots and minimal dialogue to create a compelling sense of doom and isolation.9 In Hana-Bi (1997, right), Takeshi Kitano uses the language of silence in the conversation between the detective and his dying wife to accentuate the tragedy of the couple enjoying their last moments together, before carrying out their suicide pact. The long periods of silence in subdued, fragmented dialogues in WongKar Wai‘s In the Mood for Love (2001) suggest a sense of despair of the couple whose intense and passionate love affair never materialised.

The comic effect of dramatic pauses in foreign language films is also frequently overlooked. In Milos Forman’s Firemen’s Ball (1968), the language of silence serves to expose the “individual flaws” of ordinary people living in a society obsessed with its collective aura. In Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1971), the pauses emphasise a sense of discomfort of his characters, striving to maintain a façade of composure and concealing a sense of inadequacy typical of the whole social class.

The key to viewing a foreign language film is the active participation of the audience. Observing subtitled translation in conjunction with other forms of verbal and nonverbal language broadens the scope and assists the audience in grasping the core of a filmmaker’s ideas. Students accustomed to dubbed translation on commercial channels who have yet to see their best foreign films may benefit from occasionally switching off the subtitles on their remote control. This may assist them in closely observing other aspects of the cinematic narrative, equally important for understanding a foreign language film. Nevertheless, for an avid cinephile, interested in grasping the core of a film in any language, there is only one advice: Enjoy the benefits of multiple viewing.

  1. An interview with Bernard Stora, an assistant director on Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (right). Criterion Collection DVD, 2003. []
  2. Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head. London: Titan Books, 2003, 83. []
  3. Ibid, 68. []
  4. Ibid, 112. []
  5. Monica Stirling, A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti. New York and London: A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book & Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, 143. []
  6. Pauses have been long considered a “theatrical” device in film, somewhat of an intrusion. Unfortunately, since the early days of Soviet cinema and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s diatribes against literature in cinema, to the present-day zealous film and DVD critics, the eagerness to disassociate the two has been stronger than common sense. Consequently, the “theatrical elements” of a film text — dramaturgy, subtext, dialogue, and dramatic pause — have not been given much prominence in film literature.The dramatic pause has been a popular performing device since time immemorial. At the end of the 19th century and the introduction of naturalism in theatre, it has gained prominence in the dramas of Ibsen and, in particular, Chekhov. It is not surprising that Visconti and Bergman, masters of film dialogue who have long been associated with theatre, use this device to accentuate the subtext and emotional state of their characters. []
  7. Béla Tarr directed a 450-minute-long Satan’s Tango (right) emphasizing lingering, strangely compelling shots conveying a sense of gloom, deprivation, and hopelessness. His most recent film, Werckmeister Harmonies is shot in a similar style and consists of 38 shots. []
  8. Peter Hames, “The Melancholy of Resistance: The Films of Béla Tarr,” Kinoeye, vol. 1, 1, September 2001. []
  9. John Cunningham, Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004, 154. []


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