Movie subtitles have been a perennial topic of discussion here at LH (e.g., 1, 2, 3), and Nate Barksdale provides another interesting link with his essay Subtleties. He starts off with a discussion of yellow subtitles (which I’m all in favor of, even if they’re occasionally obtrusive) and works his way via a history lesson (“They worked their way into the silent cinema as printed cards explaining or commenting on what was happening in the filmed sequences”) to the inevitable “moment[s] in which the subtle subtitle machinery has gone wrong”:
The film in question is usually from India; Bollywood movies (and their regional equivalents) present a unique subtitling situation. First of all, the target idiom is generally a variety of Indian English, which of course makes sense given the speech of both translator and average viewer, meaning that even perfect execution will often look odd to American eyes.
Secondly, Indian movies are generally quite long, and I’ve noticed that the quality of the subtitles generally plummets by the time you enter the third hour of the film: grammar goes slack, dialogue becomes terse, there are long awkward stretches where you hear voices but see no words. I figure the screen translation economics work out such that somewhere around the one hundred twentieth minute, anyone still watching is sufficiently committed to the film that there’s no additional return on investment for perfecting the subtitles that remain. I imagine a video editing suite somewhere in the suburbs of Mumbai or Chennai, where the key moment arrives and the lead translator hands off the balance of the film to some sub-subtitler and heads outside for a well-deserved masala dosa.
He says that “the greatest amount of South Asian subtitle strangeness” occurs in the songs, and presents a couple of wondrous examples: “On the tip of the noses love enjoys even the beauty of crows!” and “Thoughts of various spinaches make me yearn.” The latter is from from Mullum Malarum (Tamil, 1978), and I have to say, it tempts me to see the movie.