A Comedy of Subtitles

Unless you’re used to watching foreign films or you have a hearing impairment, you probably don’t find much use for subtitles.

Neither do I—unless, of course, I’m watching a historical drama set in 1800s lower-class England, where everyone has a thick Cockney accent. Then I need subtitles. (More on this specific drama to come in a later post!)

Oh, but I learned something from this experience! It’s remarkable what watching an entire 10-part series with subtitles can reveal about the sounds you otherwise took for granted (or always wondered about).

Below is a list of actual subtitles that accompanied the (mostly) nonverbal sounds in this anonymous historical drama:

“Heavy breathing.” Seriously? I thought it was the wind.

“Soft sobbing.” I mean, at least they’re not ugly-crying…yet.

“Indistinct profanity.” I’m pretty sure I recognized at least one of those swear words, but if you say so!

“Somber music.” Well, I knew the scene was serious, but this really takes it up a notch.

“Lips smacking.” Thank you for clarifying—I really wasn’t sure what that slurping sound was when that couple kissed. Must have been those lips.

“Plucky music.” Not sure I knew this was a thing, but I’ll assume it’s the opposite of “somber music”.

All right, the subtitles didn’t enlighten me as to what those fairly recognizable sounds are. But they did remind me about something we often forget: the power of subtlety.

Reading a blunt narration of literally every sound actually detracted from the emotional effect of some of those scenes. Instead of feeling my heart torn in two as a couple kissed goodbye, I found myself reading up on their lip-smacking—and then laughing about it! All whilst “heart-wrenching music” swelled in the background. While the presence of subtitles didn’t ruin the plot at all, it did rob the film of its sentimental impact. Why is that?

Plot can be communicated in much more concrete terms, while emotion is cultivated through covert tactics—one of these tactics being sound.

What we hear in a film plays a HUGE role in how we interpret each scene, and yet there is no one telling us what we are hearing and how it is supposed to make us feel.

Subtitles kill subtlety. As soon as we are told how to feel, we sense we are being manipulated (film is, after all, a master at manipulating). What subtitles on nonverbal sounds do is draw attention to the factors we aren’t supposed to consciously notice, making our emotional journey somewhat flat and prescribed—not organic and personal.

That all said, I have also realized that turning on subtitles for no reason is a great way to get a laugh out of even the most “somber” moments in a film. And so I issue you a challenge!

If you dare, try watching your favorite movie or show with subtitles on. Unless it’s already a comedy, I can almost guarantee it will not be the same experience!

If you have already discovered the comedy of subtitles, please share some of the best subtitles you have noticed!!

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3 Comments on “A Comedy of Subtitles

  1. I mostly notice translation subtitles that are inaccurate.
    The examples you shared made me laugh. Good ones!
    I guess we take being able to hear for granted more often than not. Not everyone’s that lucky.

    • Hm, yes, those are often quite inaccurate! And it really is a reminder of what we have to be thankful for, which we often overlook.

      Speaking of faulty translations, I ordered a drone for my company a month ago, and when it arrived, it came with a manual that had been Google-translated from Chinese to English. It referred to the drone as a “flying saucer,” “UFO,” “airplane,” “vehicle,” and a number of other non-drone titles. It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever read, but the humor value was worth every penny!

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