Whoever said telly addicts aren't the reading type? Well, whoever said it certainly did not take into account the hugely distracting and all too often ‘wide of the mark' subtitles that have become part of our television viewing, or should we say TV reading.

Almost all television programming in English, including movies, are now broadcast with subtitles. And you just can't switch them off!

Then again, if you think a Rs. 300-‘gold class' ticket at your neighbourhood multiplex is the perfect escape hatch, then think again! Many multiplexes too have recently begun to screen movies with subtitles, some of them far more error-prone than their small screen counterparts.

All this, of course, makes sense in a country like India where a substantially large section is sure to find alien accents a tad stressful. But for those who have crossed that stage — perhaps by watching one episode too many of F.R.I.E.N.D.S or Baywatch — the sub-titles are nothing short of frustrating.

Those of us who've watched foreign language films are used to reading through an entire movie, so it can't be all that taxing on the eye. But subtitles on most of these channels, particularly on the movie ones, are often ridden with errors, typos, wrong translations and — the mother of all frustrations — those ‘milder' alternatives to the mildest of ‘abuses'.

The other day, in a harmless Tom Hanks movie, the word ‘idiot' was substituted with ‘dumb'. How idiotic! Another pet gripe; for many shows the subtitles appear a few hundred frames before the dialogue is actually delivered. And believe you me, it is a near-mesmeric pull that draws our eyeballs to the print, however small or far down the screen it may be. Like every other point, this one too has a counterpoint, and a very valid one at that. We aren't really required to understand those accents you know. After all, they're bombarding us with a diverse lot of them, what with Australian and British shows making it big here. So, a few subtitles don't really kill.

Subtitling is done by local agencies, using software translation, vetted by employees. An executive from Star World, where all shows are subtitled, says that subtitling has indeed increased its viewership.

Letting on that a local agency is in-charge of the translation job, the executive explains: “An unfamiliar accent, heavy ambient sound (mostly seen in action sequences), complex/ lengthy dialogues are some of the big reasons a viewer may not be able to enjoy viewing to the maximum.”

An executive from another leading network agrees. Several American shows have become part of popular youth culture and there is an expanding audience for them, she says. “Our viewer surveys, particularly in tier-II cities, revealed that many people want to watch movies, and some of the shows. This is our way of making life easier for them.” Fair enough, what say?

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CultureJanuary 13, 2011