is a Serbian-American journalist, blogger and translator, who wrote a regular column for Antiwar.com from 2000 to 2015, and is now senior writer at RT.
A quip by the Korean director of 2019’s Best Picture has touched off a debate in the US over dubbing versus subtitling of foreign films – a subject on which Hollywood is surprisingly un-woke and prefers cultural appropriation.
“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barriers of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” Bong Joon-ho said on Sunday – via translator – as he took the Academy Award for best picture for his movie Parasite. Presumably this was a reference to the fact that most foreign films that are shown in the US tend to be dubbed in English. That is if they are imported at all – more on that in just a moment.
On Monday, this was followed by an absolute garbage take by a Mother Jones blogger, who declared that “no one likes subtitles,” which are only used in poor markets where studios can’t recover the cost of dubbing.
Subtitles “eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t—or doesn’t—matter,” Kevin Drum argued.
Drum may be the pioneer of ‘Friday catblogging,’ but on this particular subject he’s as out of touch as, well, a California liberal that he is. While I am an American now, I grew up elsewhere. My country, which no longer exists, had a habit of dubbing only cartoons and shows for children, while grown-up fare was always subtitled. Adults were expected to know how to read, after all.
It was subtitles that allowed us to experience the original actors delivering their lines, in their original languages. Many of us, myself included, developed an ear for other languages by hearing them on-screen. Ever wondered why so many Italians or Germans mangle English so much? It’s not their fault; their countries dub.
While the cost and foreign language immersion both favor subtitles, the real case for them is on artistic principle. Drum is correct that acting is about delivering lines, even as he argues – in a true example of “faux sophistication” – that foreign actors should be robbed of their contribution to the craft, so the people too lazy to read can hear voice actors deliver them in English instead. Say, wasn’t there a term for that sort of thing… “cultural appropriation” perhaps?
In fact, what Hollywood does to foreign films goes way beyond dubbing. Only a handful of foreign-language movies even get imported and shown in US theaters. Most of the time, their soul is surgically removed as they are “remade” in English, with a US cast and setting. To say that something gets lost in translation along the way would be a colossal understatement.
By way of just two examples, the French time-traveling comedy Les Visiteurs (1993) was absolutely hilarious, while it’s American remake Just Visiting (2001) was a forgettable dud. Only the acting chops of Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon saved Taxi (2004) from the same fate, though it never got anywhere close to the cult status – and several sequels – of the French original from 1998. The list goes on and on.
There are obviously issues with subtitles, beyond people’s unwillingness or inability to read. Watching a movie made in a truly foreign culture for the first time, it is difficult to grasp the nuances, inflections or emotional expressions when they don’t match the visual and audio cues from one’s own. This actually gets easier with repeated exposure to the language, however, and that ought to be easy enough in this era of on-demand video.
If anything, between a newfound preference for local dialects, lazy sound design, and the fact that a lot of actors simply mumble their lines these days, sometimes subtitles are helpful even if the movie itself is in English!
At the end of the day, I am simply shocked that after all this talk about the importance of multiculturalism, diversity and representation, the very same people think nothing of saying “nah, just dub it, we’re too lazy to read” and insist the only linguistic representation that matters is English. How very woke of y’all.