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     For film The meaning of "subtitles" is clear to the honchos who pick films for our theatres: depleted box-office, empty seats. "American audiences generally don’t want to go to the movies to read," the unnamed President of Exhibitor Relations Co. warns in a new book, Subtitles-on the Foreigness of Film (MIT Press). "Reading dialogue takes them out of the movie." What’s your take on subtitles? Are they a headache to deal with, a hindrance to movie entertainment? Or are they a promise of pleasure, a gateway into mind-expanding meetings with foreign cultures? Are they helpful, trustworthy guidances for mutterings in languages we don’t speak? Or are they obfuscations or even downright lies, imposing erroneous meanings on what’s happening on screen?

     Most subtitles seem reliable, which is the idea. Yet sometimes they are so obviously off, as with this English subtitle sighted in a Bulgarian western: "Don’t prank with me, you doddler!"

     The Monty-Pythonish quote above is a rare moment of amusement in this brainy and learned, though sometimes forbiddingly theoretical, anthology co-edited by two Canadians, filmmaker Atom Egoyan and academic Ian Balfour. Most essayists therein seem--by default?-- to favor subtitling of foreign-language pictures over dubbing. But being a media-literate and deconstructivist lot, they are inherently suspicious of those little white or yellow words snaking onto the bottom of the frame. Ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall summarizes the paranoia of Subtitles contributors, "Subtitles may induce in viewers a false sense of cultural affinity, since they so unobtrusively and efficiently overcome the difficulties of translation. They may reinforce the impression that it is possible to know other cultures without effort—that the whole world is inherently knowable and accessible."

     An entry point for this anthology is Henri Behar’s Cultural Ventriloquism, an autobiographical essay about being a subtitler-for-hire. Behar, who resides in Paris translating English-language films, was born in Cairo, and grew up in a Jewish household speaking French, English, Arabic, and Italian. Behar writes: "Although, intriguingly, an inordinate amount of subtitlers worldwide are Jews, I don’t know if Jewishness has anything to do with preparing you for this job, except that we have been expelled from so many countries that we speak a lot of languages."

     Subtitling strictures? No matter how much is actually babbled in the movie, there can be no more than two lines per subtitle, and less than 40 characters per line. Behar: "...(S)peed is the subtitler’s enemy. . . . David Mamet is a greater challenge than Shakespeare." Behar is committed to his task of providing appropriate French equivalents for Anglophile idiomatic expressions. He’s consulted with Gallic gamblers for analagous casino lingo, with gang members to find correlatives for American bro’-talk. It’s tough! What could Behar offer in French, he asks, to approximate Ice Cube, leaving the neighborhood in Boyz N the Hood, declaring, "Five thousand"? Huh?

     A big treat of Subtitles is the "art object" graphic design by Egoyan and Gilbert Li, beginning with the unusual horizontal shape of the book, the 1:66:1 aspect ratio of Cinemascope. Inside are beautifully rended movie stills, collages, and intriguing post-modern photographic exercises, such as one in which Russell Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter, places lines from his novel (subtitles?) on publicity stills of Atom Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter movie cast.

     My favorite essay? A fiery, pro-subtitle polemic by critic B. Ruby Rich (a friend) called "To Read or Not to Read: Subtitles, Trailers, and Monolingualism." Rich dismisses American aversion to subtitles as symptomatic of "a nation prone to global illiteracy, bound by linguistic leashes to a univocal universe, impervious to subjectivities not their own." She dares to call subtitles "an incipient anti-war gesture... Somehow, I’d like to think it’s harder to kill people when you hear their voices."

     Right on, Ruby! Did anyone poll Americans who get their jollies from subtitled movies? I bet they voted Kerry 10-1..

(December, 2004)


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