On Subtitles: Notes from the Periphery

Hollywood likes to think that it’s a beacon to the world, and in many ways it is. But though a film stays the same no matter where it goes, its reception is profoundly affected by different cultures and languages. I’m an English-Mandarin translator and interpreter living in Taipei, and my translator brain refuses to shut off whenever I walk into a cinema, compelling me instead to read and check every subtitle. Subtitles, as the means of bridging languages and cultures, are the first to suffer relevant distortions, and as the North American cinema market shrinks, some of the following observations may prove interesting for filmmakers setting their sights abroad.

Taipei occupies a unique position as the cultural capital of the only full democracy in the Chinese-speaking world (I’ll add Singapore to the list when the ruling party loses a general election). We host two major film festivals each year—the Taipei International Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards and Film Festival—as well as a couple of smaller film festivals in various genres. For an island of 23.5 million people, we boast quite a few auteurs: Ang Lee (who abandoned us for Hollywood), Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and the recently-deceased Edward Yang and documentarian Chi Po-lin immediately come to mind. We also have our popular directors, people such as Wei Te-sheng, Giddens Ko, and the all-around superstar Jay Chou, whose sole directorial effort (Secret) was a huge hit. We even have our own version of The Room: Huang Ying-hsiung’s Story in Taipei. And yet, like in most places around the world, I suspect, when we go to the cineplex (a vertical affair due to spatial constraints and land prices), most offerings are Hollywood fare; here, it’s seasoned with popular films from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, the occasional film from the Mainland, and the rare non-American foreign film—but only if it’s been nominated for an Oscar. I seldom see more than two Taiwanese films being shown at the same time, whereas Black Panther was playing every 20 minutes the day it premiered.

We also have a few arthouse cinemas, including one that mainly shows foreign arthouse films, but no repertory theaters that I know of (though a couple arthouse theaters show old classics from time to time). It pains me that we lack the market size to adequately support the wide range of cultural strands that intersect here. In the more rural counties, they weren’t even showing films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or I, Tonya during Oscar season. I recall, during a Q&A with Hou Hsiao-hsien following a screening of The Assassin, someone asking him why a film with this subject matter didn’t use more dynamic camerawork. Hou answered, with palpable anguish, that ideally it would, but that he wasn’t able to find a cinematographer who could realize his vision. Such is life on the periphery.

It’s likely not surprising that films in English come with Mandarin subtitles here in Taipei, but what many people might not realize is that Mandarin films have subtitles here as well. English has many dialects that are mutually intelligible; Chinese dialects, however, are like different strands of Arabic, in that the written language is (more or less) the same, but the spoken dialects are completely different. So, no matter the dialect, all films in Chinese come with subtitles. Of course, the written language isn’t exactly the same, and you’ll often see a Cantonese film dubbed into Mandarin with dialogue that matches only the gist of the subtitles, which have also been translated. And issues like different Mandarin accents (as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), or different dialects altogether (as in the Chinese film Drug War), are disregarded as a matter of course, the same way you never doubt that, say, Rey can understand BB-8.

Translating between any two languages is a fraught enterprise, especially for an immersive multimedia cultural product like cinema, and it’s quite in the natural course of things that I’ll often catch more jokes and allusions than my monolingual fellow viewers. The things that elevate a film and allow it to become more than a mere record of things said and done are the very things that are most vulnerable to the distortions of the language barrier, which is one reason why local films often perform better than one might expect judging by the film alone. Moreover, transcribing from spoken to written language comes with its own distortions. Hearing something and reading it are two drastically different experiences, which is why something like War of the Worlds was so much scarier over the radio. What’s erased as fast as you can read is the tension between how you think the sentence will progress and how it actually unfolds, a tension heightened when the pace of the unfolding is out of your control. Combine the cultural and textual distortions, choose a non-English language from a completely different language family, mix in some majorly underpaid translators (long story), and, more often than not, you’ll wind up with a cocktail of distraction for your moviegoing experience. As a translator-interpreter, this can of worms hits me especially hard, as my brain compulsively compares the (visual) translation to the (aural) original. A few examples might help you feel my pain; all translations are my own.

A perennial conundrum for translators to bemoan is how to convey humor. In fact, the situation can actually be encapsulated in joke form: A visiting Japanese dignitary, proud of his sense of humor, sprinkles his official remarks with numerous jokes. To his surprise, every single one lands, and the crowd is in stitches. Afterwards, he turns to his interpreter in awe, asking, “How on Earth did you translate all of my jokes so well?” The interpreter replies, “Oh, I just told them that you were telling a joke and that they should laugh.” Bully for interpreters, but unfortunately, sprinkling subtitles with “[joke, please laugh]” is not established practice (yet). Just try to imagine how to translate the following exchange from Pitch Perfect 3 into Chinese, a language with no case markers for parts of speech:

Calamity [introducing her band, Evermoist]: I’m Calamity. This is Serenity, Veracity, and Charity.

Fat Amy: If I joined your group, I could be obesity.

If I recall correctly, out of the packed theater, I was one of only a handful who laughed.

A more specific problem arises when translating jokes that depend on the hard left turn at the end of the sentence, a common format for jokes in English. English tends to put adjunct dependent phrases at the end of the sentence, phrases that provide information about who, what, when, where, why, how, and so on. Mandarin, however, tends to put this information near the beginning, so that a sentence like “I had dinner with my boyfriend” would be translated as “I with my boyfriend had dinner.” This poses problems for certain jokes, such as this one (again from Pitch Perfect 3):

Emily: [proposes a plan of action]

Fat Amy: Emily, I can’t believe that a half-decent idea came out of your dumb mouth.

The kicker is the unexpected presence of “dumb” near the end of the sentence (though honestly it’s not a very good joke), but in Mandarin the syntax would be, “Emily, I can’t believe your dumb mouth spit out this not-bad idea.” The punchline is moved to the beginning, and the rest of the sentence then becomes too predictable to provoke laughter (“not-bad idea” is idiomatic Mandarin). Even if the audience were to find the subtitled joke funny—which I recall was not the case—presenting the entire sentence in one go would incite laughter long before the punchline, thereby telegraphing the fact that there’s a joke coming at the end of the sentence, and literally ruining everything. Another solution would be to reverse the Chinese proverb, “No ivory comes from a dog’s mouth,” which basically means crappy people say crappy things, but this would kill the joke entirely. What fun.

Another problem, most often encountered in dealing with languages like Chinese and French, is numbers. In Chinese, it’s large numbers in particular that are mangled on the regular. English uses the thousand as the base for large numbers, with every three zeroes bringing a new unit—million, billion, and so on. But in Chinese, the base unit is the wàn, which used to be known in English as the myriad (10,000)—so a million is a hundred wàn, a billion is 10 (two wàn), and it’s only once we arrive at trillion that we find a whole unit: zhào (three wàn). To give you some scope of the problem, just try this one on for size: 175 million translates to 1 7 thousand 5 hundred wàn.

Translators in Taipei are criminally undervalued, and are often tasked with doing the transcription as well, so it’s no wonder that large numbers are often mistranslated here by orders of magnitude. Just imagine me, a compulsive translator, sitting through The Big Short and compulsively checking the work of the poor, underpaid, overworked subtitle translator by converting from one number system to another, all while still trying to enjoy the film. No joke, I’m actually getting a headache as I write this.

Another problem specific to Chinese (and readers of Egyptian hieroglyphs) is names. The Chinese writing system—unlike those based on Phoenician, Greek, Cyrillic, Semitic, Devanagari and Brahmi Sanskrit, Hangul Korean, or Hiragana and Katakana Japanese scripts—is not phonetic but ideogrammatic (as are Hanja Korean and Kanji Japanese—both “Hanja” and “Kanji” mean “Chinese characters”). This means that there’s very little connection between how a character is written and how it’s pronounced. (Connoisseurs of Chinese historical linguistics will object that there is a class of characters formed partly on phonetic principles, but even for these characters, which include a pronunciation radical, you still have to know beforehand how to pronounce that radical—and which radical is chosen for pronunciation purposes from the notoriously homophonic Chinese language is a question of semantics.) In practical terms, this means that Chinese readers need not subvocalize each character, and can instead jump from the visual perception of a character straight to its semantic meaning without passing Go and collecting pronunciation.

Until, that is, one encounters a transliterated name. Chinese names are chosen for their semantic meanings, with some characters associated with masculinity, others with femininity, and still others denoting virtues or descriptions equally applicable to both. Avoiding unfortunate homophones is the main phonetic concern, with ease of pronunciation being a distant secondary consideration. On the flip side, Western names are not so clearly connected with referential meaning, so it’s extremely difficult to translate most names according to Chinese naming conventions. Instead, names are transliterated by picking out a few characters to convey their significant phonetic aspects. Mainland Chinese Mandarin tries to be as phonetically accurate as possible, but in Taiwan we also attempt to be economical and somewhat aesthetically pleasing.

To give an example (bear with me now), “Reese Witherspoon” is transliterated using five characters as rèisī wēisīpéng, where is a weird vocalized s that’s not a z; the second character means “silk,” the third means “rose,” and the others are gender-neutral. (The Mainland adds a character: rèixī wēisèsīpéng, where x is pronounced like sh; of these six characters, one is feminine but two are masculine, which to me seems like someone over there owes an apology to Ms. Witherspoon). For the sake of gender parity, let’s look at “Leonardo DiCaprio,” which is transliterated as (deep breath) lǐàonàduō dícǎpíōu—eight characters, three of which are masculine. (The Mainland uses a whopping nine characters, the same number as for Apichatpong Weerasethakul: láiángnàduō dícǎpúlǐào, of which three characters are masculine, and láiáng is conventional for Leon; some young tyro in their first year of studying Chinese will object that should in fact be , but they would be forgetting that, counting backward, for each pair of falling-rising tone characters, here denoted with the caron, the first character is pronounced with the rising tone, denoted with the acute accent. So I’m wrong, but I’m also right.)

That feeling you just got from being stopped in your tracks by meaningless letter combinations, and having to slowly sound them out, is very similar to what I often feel when my semantic-reading progress is interrupted by a series of nonsense characters, forcing me to string together pronunciations without meaning. Fortunately, being bilingual helps with this, as I can link a string of characters to its aural referent, and whenever the name appears again, as soon as I recognize it, I can refer my brain to my ears without having to subvocalize all the characters. But Heaven forfend the film have two or more similar names, like the lovebirds in Call Me by Your Name, Oliver (àolìfó, second o unrounded) and Elio (àilǐōu; Mainland: àolìōu). At that point, I just give up entirely and think “Armie Hammer” and “Timothée Chalamet.”

The final thing I want to gripe about is something that’s not unique to Chinese, but perhaps is something you have to be bilingual to suffer through: on-screen text. Film is primarily a representational medium, so when a signifying medium such as text appears on screen, filmmakers tend to want to minimize how long it stays there and cut quickly to someone doing or saying something. (Western) people don’t go to the cinema to read, whereas for me something like Molly’s Game is an exercise in speed-reading and rapid number conversions. On-screen text also needs to be translated and subtitled, so in effect I’m reading both the original text and the subtitled translation, along with the subtitled dialogue.

The first, obvious, problem is one of time: I just don’t have enough of it to read everything, which is how I missed eight out of the 10 items on Logan Lucky’s bank robbery to-do list (a list that’s inexplicably hard to find online). You can experience this for yourself by watching Shin Godzilla, a film about bureaucratic meetings that features rapid-fire dialogue and rapid-fire on-screen text, setting out each speaker’s name and government title. Assuming you don’t read Japanese, as I don’t, this would be one of the few instances where you can relate to the predicament I often find myself in. (Even so, it’s a spectacular film.)

And this brings up yet another issue: Where to put translations of on-screen text? The standard practice when you need to have subtitles on top of subtitles (e.g., for one of the non-Portuguese languages spoken in The Ornithologist) is to put the second set directly above the first, which is a perfectly acceptable position for translations of on-screen text as well. But for films like Shin Godzilla, or programs like Sherlock, with lots of dialogue and lots of text arranged in block form somewhere in the middle of the image, another option is to place the text translations adjacent to the originals. The upside is that the viewer is less likely to be confused by what is dialogue and what is text; the downside is that the empty visual space reserved for the text may not be large enough to include the translation. And sometimes, moving the subtitles around for a non-obvious reason can be intellectually distracting. For the opening shot of Phantom Thread, focused on Vicky Krieps’ face bathed in firelight, the Mandarin subtitles in Taiwan were positioned in the bottom left. This mystified me for a full 20 seconds, before the camera pulled out just a bit, allowing the subtitles to fit under her chin, upon which they moved to the bottom center—whence I understood that the subtitle editor just couldn’t bring themselves to tarnish such a beautiful image with tacky Chinese characters.

Lastly is the issue of attention. Textual shots, such as shots of text in documents or books, often don’t show you only what they want you to see; rather, they draw your attention via cunning arrangement and leave in the surrounding text, like in Rat Film. Subtitles, however, cut out the noise, making the message unambiguously clear and erasing its context in the process; it’s good for communication, but bad for art. (Something similar happens when overheard news reports are subtitled: Tenuously relevant background noise is foregrounded as of the same importance as the dialogue. The opposite can happen, of course: The lone sound of a wandering salesman hawking his wares in the night was conspicuously unsubtitled in An Impossibly Small Object.) Remember the opening scene of Amour, in which the couple is seated in a packed theater, yet we can spot them immediately? The analogous effect of subtitles would be if they were pinned down by a spotlight. The message becomes too loud, too clear.

Hopefully, my message is just clear enough. The seventh art is a perceptual assemblage born of collaborative effort, and it can pay to consider some of the less prominent elements. Cinema can be an eye-opening window onto the world, and a showcase for not only how different peoples live, but how they in turn view the lives of others. If we believe in the movies as more than escapist distraction, then it behooves us to get the details right, especially when it comes to communicating the films themselves. So here’s to subtitle translators—what would we do without you?