The Practice Movies

The subtleties of subtitling

A light-hearted film like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is more challenging to subtitle.  

Some time ago, I saw an Indian short film at an international festival, screened with both English and French subtitles. After a few lines, I became suspicious that the French translation was not based on the original Hindi dialogue, but on the English subtitles. This practice, commonly known as ‘bridge translation’, is frowned upon by professionals but not uncommon in the audiovisual industry, especially with films originating from South Asia, which are often subtitled in English before they hit the festival circuit.

My initial suspicion was proven correct when the two main characters, a middle-aged woman and her young domestic help, started addressing each other. When the maid said aapke liye, her line was (arguably aptly) subtitled as “for you” in English. But it became pour toi in French, which is a form of the informal tu. But, like most Indian languages, French uses different pronouns according to familiarity, social status and age unlike English that gets by with the all-purpose “you”. The subtitle should have used the formal vous.

A specialised skill

The simple pronoun switch altered the relationship between the characters for the French-speaking audience, who decided the domestic help was the daughter, leading to a cascade of misunderstandings. When the young woman unrolled her bedding, puzzled French viewers wondered why she had been relegated to the kitchen floor.

Viewers never rely entirely on language to make sense of a film, and every frame is crammed with non-verbal cues. An Indian audience would have never misconstrued the relationship. The kind of jewellery, the draping of a sari, all this carry meaning. Such subtleties would often escape foreign audiences. Which is why no part of the dialogue, however small, can afford to be lost in translation.

The short film in question didn’t make it to the awards list. While it would be excessive to suggest that the French subtitles undermined its chances, it would be myopic to deny that substandard subtitling hampers comprehension and hence appreciation of a film.

Writing subtitles requires highly specific skills which, in France, are usually acquired through postgraduate studies. Apart from an excellent knowledge of the source language and culture (a must to make sure no nuance is missed), subtitlers must have impeccable writing skills in their mother tongue. As director Neeraj Ghaywan notes, a subtitler “actually becomes the dialogue writer for a film when it travels”. It takes creativity to deliver powerful subtitles that convey all the meaning and emotions of the original script.

Films screened at major festivals or acquired by reputable distributors must comply with stringent subtitling rules. These standards govern, among many other parameters, the maximum number of characters per line and second, must make for an unobtrusive viewing experience. In my experience, a fast-paced, albeit light comedy such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai has proved more challenging to subtitle than supposedly more intellectually engaging films like Titli.

Jugaad job

The French-speaking world has long been ignoring these standards when it comes to Bollywood. The appalling quality of subtitles in films like Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Umrao Jaan or Bobby are examples. In fact, a whole generation of French cinéphiles have been prevented from recognising, let alone enjoying, what are commonly regarded as gems of Hindi cinema.

When films by Kiarostami or Kurosawa are consistently entrusted to highly skilled translators , why should films by Anurag Kashyap be treated differently? The availability of English subtitles and the English proficiency of many people in the film industry have actually done a huge disservice to Indian cinema. Bridge translation may look like good jugaad but it is, in fact, the surest way to dumb down a dialogue, dilute cultural references and humour, and turn the most delicately spiced biryani into a bland kedgeree.

When it comes to subtitling, Indian films pose very specific challenges, that only experienced and culture-savvy professionals may successfully take up. What makes the task even more demanding is the songs. Lyrics translation just won’t admit mediocrity.

With increasing pressure on budgets and deadlines, delivering quality has become a challenge. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to substandard subtitling but good works are being harmed and India’s much talked-about soft power is being diluted.

As veteran translator Nasreen Munni Kabir says, “Good subtitles can’t save a bad film, but bad subtitles can ruin a good one.”

The writer is a translator, subtitler and Hindi film fanatic, who would gladly trade the whole of Hollywood for Pyaasa. @fxdurandy

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 11:49:28 AM |

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