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.


  1. All due respect, and speaking as a soon-to-be translator (if I can just get through my MA project), I think you might be imputing a bit more rationality onto the subtitle machine than there is. You don’t mention the possibility that, in order to get good turnaround time on these films, they just hand it to a translator who sits down, and over the course of a day or a week, almost certainly under deadline pressure, cranks the translation out alone. In addition to a rational choice to focus less on accuracy, it may just be translator fatigue, similar to how Qaddafi (Gadaffi? Khadafy? The head of Libya) talked straight through one interpreter’s endurance at the UN. A different skill-set, to be sure, but I do know that there comes a point as you’re nearing the end of a text where the temptation is there to just say, “Forget this. If they don’t have the point by now there’s nothing for it.”

  2. So why does a Tamil movie have a Latin title? And what kind of silly title is Mullum Malarum, “The Evil Women’s Mullet”? And why is the mullet (the fish, not the haircut, by the way) accusative? Inquiring minds want to know.

  3. must be, my songs lyrics’ translations sound like this
    right yesterday, for example, in the fathers’ day song i wrote that the father in the song “nursed” his baby
    a friend corrected my mistake saying that that should have been “rocked to sleep”, i’m so grateful for the correction

  4. I’ve recently realized that I sometimes prefer good, well-subtitled foreign language movies to equivalently good American (or other English language) movies. Even watching a movie with good acting and a good script, spoken dialogue doesn’t always strike me as particularly real or human. By reading dialogue instead of hearing it, there is more room for interpretation and I can create a movie that means more to me.
    I don’t suggest that anyone else should feel the same way, of course.

  5. There was a movie with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan(Dragons Forever, I think), with a pop song. One line was translated memorably as “Love is a conveyor belt of warmth.” Yeah, tired, underpaid sub-titler makes sense.

  6. I’m in favour of yellow subtitles. Constrast with the background is usually better than plain white, and the brain soon adapts so that yellow is its “new white” for the duration, without any lessening of that contrast. One could be opposed on theoretical grounds (colour being, of course, an essential element in the scene itself); but experience shows that it works and is unobtrusive.
    Australia’s SBS (Special Broadcasting Service: a second public broadcaster, after our ABC) is renowned throughout the world for the quality of its subtitling, and it uses yellow with a fringe of black.
    The unit responsible for this work (SBS In Language) offers many other language services as well. We are dismayed to hear that it is being cut back drastically. All part of the creeping ordinarisation of something unique and wonderful. We saw the writing on the wall (not in yellow) when SBS started running advertisements. First they were just between programs or at key breaks; now they interrupt programs just as in Everything Else, Everywhere. Almost everything else, that is. The ABC remains free of paid advertising. It is one of the last hold-outs in the world. If that ever changes, my people will meet at the barricades. (Will you join us? ¡No pasarán!)

  7. There was an article on IMDb a couple of years ago about the effect of cost-cutting on the quality of subtitles/trandlation of Indian films. Generally speaking, most old Hindi films have VERY good subtitling, with some being very skilled translations, except that many don’t have subtitled songs at all. This is a powerful incentive to learn the language to get the most out of the (largely) Urdu poetry of the golden oldies.

  8. The BBC’s subtitles on digital TV are still very fine, but they seem to be heading towards voice recognition systems — introduced for live sport, they are now used for other stuff too, including pre-recorded shows. It is very irritating to read clunky subtitles a few seconds late, for sure. They use a broad colour palate for different speakers and background noises, though, and that is all fine by me. France 2 seems to have much the same technology, which is a boon to those (dont moi) who read the language much better than they hear it.
    The quality of Dutch subtitles for English programmes varies a lot, with jokes inevitably suffering most. And it’s always white text on a black background.
    (I now find it bizarre to watch TV without subtitles, whatever language the programme is in. My ears are bad, my attention is rarely undivided and my environment is often noisy.)

  9. a broad colour palate for different speakers and background noises
    For the deaf. That’s a great idea.
    I too like all my films & tv programmes to have subtitles, for the same reasons as Des.

  10. marie-lucie says

    a broad colour palate
    You mean palette. The palate is the “ceiling” of your mouth.

  11. On TG4, the national Irish-language broadcaster, the subtitles are white on a grey translucent background, which works very well, generally. No subtitles on the live feed right now, though (Wimbledon, with commentary as Gaeilge; I’ve no idea if it’s IP-restricted to .ie.)

  12. Alan (28481k) says

    Just checked from my seat in the United Kingdom, I can confirmed that it’s geofenced at the moment, unlike the normal TG4 programmes

  13. Alan (28481k) says

    One more tidbit about subtitling: in Hong Kong, subtitles are simply white text over whatever is on the screen, usually just with thin black bordering on the font to aid readability.

  14. I assume I’m not the only one here to sometimes turn on both sets of subtitles; on Chinese DVDs, for instance.

  15. Sorry, Miss. It’s that Des, my mum says he’s a bad influence.

  16. I told you to stay away from that Des! ‘E spends ‘is time with Scandinavian princesses and suchlike trash, ‘e does!

  17. Though not a Hindi speaker, I’m a Bollywood fan and enjoy the movies as much without subtitles. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on (a wedding usually).
    Were the subtitles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon accurate? I felt as if I had missed half of what was said.

  18. “It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on (a wedding usually).”
    I’m not going to hijack LH’s blog defending Hindi cinema, but if you ever get to watch classics like Pyaasa (1957), Teesri Kasam (1966) or even films from this century like Dor and Dhokha, you might notice an absence of weddings. Pyaasa in particular has some inspired subtitling, too, to stay on topic 🙂

  19. I’m not going to hijack LH’s blog defending Hindi cinema
    Feel free! You may have noticed that sticking to the topic is not a prime directive here at LH.

  20. “not a prime directive here at LH” – for which latitude may you live long and prosper.

  21. The quality of Dutch subtitles for English programmes varies a lot, with jokes inevitably suffering most. And it’s always white text on a black background.

    Idiom is often a victim as well, especially on the cheaper channels. I’ve seen things like chewing the fat translated literally. But there also seems to be a trend for dubbing rather than subbing lately.

  22. There are Hollywood movie DVDs from countries in Asia that even the movie is in English the subtitles is really far off from what is being said in the screen.

  23. Hindi movie classics and arthouse movies screened at film festivals usually have decent subtitles prepared by professionals (I believe researcher Nasreen Munni Kabir has done quite a few). It’s the local DVD/VCD releases that get it all wrong. Terrible if you want to follow the story, very useful if you want to pick up Indian English terms like ‘shoebite’ and ‘one tight slap’ (I have a post on my blog that takes you to more examples, just follow the link)

  24. michael farris says

    For native anglophones who can read another language well enough to follow subtitles, here’s a challenge:
    Watch a bollywood movie with subtitles in some other language and see how long you can stand it. The reason for this (IME) is the English codeswitching which isn’t horribly distracting when you watch with English subs but the random phrases in English are (for me) really, really annoying when I’m trying to follow subs in another language. The fact that much of the codeswitching seems random (and unconnected with the Hindi dialogue) doesn’t help.

  25. Curious about this. Are Bollywood subtitles as eccentric in other languages? If yes, I can imagine codeswitching would be quite a distraction.

  26. mollymooly says

    I went to see “The Man Without a Past” in the IFI in Dublin. We knew that the dialogue would be in Finnish, but not that the subtitles would be in French. It took a couple of minutes to realise this was a distributor’s mistake rather than a postmodern joke. Only about half left for a refund. They might have stayed; it’s not a dialogue-heavy movie.
    Even with widescreen TVs, anamorphic movies have letterboxing space that’s the ideal location for subtitles; most TVs have a subtitle mode to shift all this space towards the bottom. Which is fine until a clever-clever subtitler puts one character’s words at the top of the screen and the other’s at the bottom.

  27. Was “With Folded Hands” the first use of “Prime Directive” in the SF sense?

  28. Yes, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, it was.

  29. But the sense of Prime Directive in WFH has nothing to do with its sense in ST, which is the usual one nowadays. It’s “To serve and obey and guard men from harm”, which is much more like the First and Second Laws of Robotics.

  30. First cite for ST use:
    1966 B. Sobelman Return of Archons (“Star Trek” script) (Dec. 1) 50: KIRK: Landru must die. SPOCK: Our prime directive of non-interference… KIRK: That refers to a living, growing culture. I’m not convinced that this one is.

  31. You might find this movie delightful:

  32. Here‘s the direct link; the movie is Bienvenue chez les Ch’ti!

  33. “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.

    There’s nothing all that strange about the translation — the song is about various foods, sung by a poor girl who is considered a bit lazy and gluttonous, and sung on her wedding night (so there is a trace of double entendre).

    It’s a well-respected movie.

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