We apologise for the fault in the subtitles. Those responsible have been sacked.

One Friday night in the early 1990s, my family rented an old black-and-white foreign film for our weekend's entertainment. I don't recall the movie's title, let alone what any of us thought of it when we viewed it, but I remember very clearly a bit of promotional copy on the front of the VHS cassette's cardboard slipcase, in the space usually reserved for Siskel and Ebert's thumbs: NOW WITH YELLOW SUBTITLES!

I'd never thought of subtitles as having (let alone needing) colouration. It was like being told that you can pour lemonade on your breakfast cereal: I guess it's technically possible, but what would be the point? Now, many years and Google searches later, I realize that those yellow subtitles did merit at least some of the excitement. For decades, the standard way to apply subtitles to a movie had been an intricate process in which tiny two-point letters were etched into a finished print of the movie using a combination of letterpress plates, chemical washes, and—as technology progressed—lasers. Subtitles were white because the film emulsion beneath them had been scraped or burned away—the light shone through the letterforms' pure celluloid. It worked well enough for a dark scene shown in a darkened theater, but less so on television, and woe to the foreign film that ventured into the bright outdoors: translations hid out in the grass, got lost in the snow.

I guessed this latter bit during the course of the film—apparently to the exclusion of forming any long-term memories about plot or title—and by the time the credits rolled, I'd concluded that the yellow subs' reason for existence was also their downfall: they kept the dialogue legible at the expense of never letting you forget that you were reading something foreign to the original film. Though they solved a technical problem, the yellow video subtitles undermined one of the main attractions of movie subtitles: the assumption that we can dive into another culture and, aided by comfortable, transparent technology, breathe as we're accustomed.

Still from Fellini's (1963). Not the movie I've been talking about, but you get the idea.

All stories, even true ones, become fictions in their telling. Cinema is fiction upon fiction, making use of compressed and guided views, techniques of editing, novel ways of seeing, all of which have grown and evolved over more than a century of story upon story, film upon film. Subtitles, at least when they're not included in the initial release, scrape out their own fictitious space. You have all the challenges of translation—how to transfer the content and nuance of speech from one voice to another—with the added technical constraints that whatever's said must fit into short, center-justified, grammatically correct semantic units of no more than two lines, to remain on the screen for no less than one and no more than six seconds.

I got those last bits from the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation's "Code of Good Subtitling Practice," which makes for interesting reading. The stipulation for grammatical correctness, for instance, references subtitles' role as a model for literacy. And it's heartening to know that there's a robust spoiler-alert clause in article 15 of the Code: "Subtitles must underline surprise or suspense and in no way undermine it."

Character exposition via subtitle, in Buster Keaton's College (1927)

Subtitles precede the movies, having had a long and healthy career in printed matter of all types. They worked their way into the silent cinema as printed cards explaining or commenting on what was happening in the filmed sequences. Now these title cards are called intertitles, but in the day they were simply subtitles. For instance, in her 1916 book How to write for the "movies", Louella O. Parsons offers what might be the earliest version of Rule 16 of the Subtitler's Code, about the dangers of the too-long subtitle:

You cannot be prodigal in your language and interpose any unnecessary flowery phrases; footage is too precious. Neither must you express yourself in the stilted words of a child just learning to talk.

As an apt illustration of the too long subtitle we might give:

"It is surely the inevitable will of God that has brought this affliction upon us. We must in this adversity bow our heads to His commands."

That is all very well if you have one thousand feet of film at your disposal to give to your subtitle, but when you have a limited amount of footage why not be sensible and merely say:

"God's will be done."


A year later, Everybody's Magazine ran a glowing profile of Anita Loos, who made her name subtitling Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers and D.W. Griffith epics. Loos's subtitles for Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages even employ footnotes to help viewers keep track of the film's millennia-spanning quadruple-plotline. Of Loo's craft the journalist writes:

The subtitle has only been in vogue a few years. It differs from the title—the wording between scenes which describes the action of the picture that is to come—in that it need not attend to business. It is meant only for the audience, and though at times in the supposed speech of the characters in the film, it may be a mere comment outside the picture and addressed to the audience like the aside of our fathers' theatre.

Silent film subtitle with explanatory footnote, Intolerance (1916)

That's what I miss about the post-talkie school of subtitles. Often, waist-deep in the swamp of some obscure foreign film, what I want most is not to know what the characters are saying but to get an explanation of what's going on, or just an acknowledgement of the strangeness of the story and the oddness of the foreign film-watcher's predicament (which, among other things, keeps us from really looking at the actors' faces). The only time this sort of meta-commentary comes in the sound era is in cinematic spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or the films of Carl Reiner.

A rare humourous subtitle from the sound era. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Generally, though, when looking for subtitular humour, it's up to the viewer to discover his own. Subtitles, once suitably legible, generally do their best to disappear; it's only when something goes wrong in the presentation that their workings and complexity become apparent.

Bollywood superstar Sharukh Khan: Not as good as Michael Jordan, but good enough in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Hindi, 2000)

Every month or two my friends will get a late-night email from me containing a fuzzy picture of my TV screen frozen in a moment 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.

A third-hour subtitle from Alai Payuthey (Tamil, 2000)

Finally, though, the greatest amount of South Asian subtitle strangeness often boils down to Article 12 of the Code: "Songs must be subtitled where relevant." It's in their songs that Indian films dip deepest into translation-defying metaphor. There's only so much that can be done: the words may correspond but the underlying sentiment remains amusingly, thrillingly novel.

Romantic song lyric from Mullum Malarum (Tamil, 1978)

"I love watching movies with subtitles," a friend told me recently. "They make me feel so smart!" There's something to that observation, especially when one knows enough of the film's language to pick out familiar words as the translations flash by on the screen's lower third. When I watch a film like Fatih Akin's wonderful The Edge of Heaven, my high school German comes streaming back. At least, it seems that way. I get the pleasant surface recall without the work of actually stringing sentences together on my own. Das wird viel, um, schwerer sein?

Speaking German in The Edge of Heaven (2007)

Sometimes I take the smartness game too far and try to watch a film in one language I've studied, with the DVD subtitles set in another (say, a Hindi film with Spanish subs). The end result is usually a headache-inducing mental tug-of-war that yields, if such a thing is possible, negative comprehension. I ask myself, why would a person do that? Not to feel smarter, certainly not to get more out of the movie. Could it be that I love watching movies with subtitles because they make me feel dumber?

There's something to that as well. Watching movies that take place outside the realm of one's cultural fluency always involves a tension of desires: we want to be transported, we want to fit right in. There's something comforting about not-quite-comprehension, about speech in all its nuance whittled down to one or two lines on the screen, coloured for contrast but still—when it works out right—invisible.

Topics: Arts
Nate Barksdale
Nate Barksdale

Nate Barksdale is a writer and graphic designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is curator and a regular contributor to, bringing together inspiring and arresting words, images, and artifacts that highlight the goodness and challenges of creation and cultivation. In the past he's edited theology and travel guides, taken buses and trains from Cape Town to Kampala, and circumnavigated the Sea of Galilee on a bicycle. He studied the history of science at Harvard, where he wrote his honors thesis about Swahili technical dictionaries, a surprisingly useful topic. His essays for Comment have been linked by blogs like LanguageHat, The Browser, and the New York Times Idea of the Day.


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