Often lost in translation

Subtitles are our point of entry into world cinema and regional Indian films. But a lot is not quite right with them. Nasreen Munni Kabir explains how the art of subtitling has to do as much with knowledge of languages as of editing

Updated - February 09, 2016 04:54 pm IST

Published - February 09, 2016 12:00 am IST - MUMBAI

As she takes us through the opening sequence of Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur on her MacBook Air, Nasreen Munni Kabir says, “Subtitling means imposing another layer of narrative on the film.” Besides the audio and visuals, you also have the text fighting for the viewer’s attention, one who only has a second and a half or two to read a plate, she explains. It can both, enhance or ruin the film-viewing experience.

For Kabir, the well-known author and documentary filmmaker, the sub-titles rolling on the screen are not aiding but distracting from what she considers a brilliant scene in Badlapur. “They are making it more frantic and manic than it is,” she says, and then goes on to show how things can be improved. ‘Jaldi jaldi jaldi’ is rendered into just one precise ‘Faster’ rather than getting repeated thrice. “The urgency is getting communicated in the scene,” she says. Instead of saying ‘Take the gun’, she just makes it ‘Here’, as the viewer can anyhow see the gun being offered and handed over on screen. “There should not be too much text when things are visually obvious,” she explains, in what turns out to be an impromptu masterclass on subtitling for us.

Kabir is also an expert in subtitling, having worked with biggies like Yash Raj Productions, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Mani Ratnam. Kabir’s tryst with subtitling started in 1982/83 in France when she worked on the African documentary Geti Tey by Samba Ndiaye. The first Indian film she handled was Sholay for UK’s Channel 4. Since then, she has subtitled 600-700 Indian titles for the channel. Currently, she is editing and reworking Badlapur’s subtitles to make them more concise and coherent for a forthcoming screening on the same channel.

So what are the requisites to become a good subtitler? The knowledge of the two languages is obviously essential: the target language even more than the source one. One shouldn’t translate literally but stay as close to the intention of the scene as possible. She gives an example from Andaz where Nargis realises that Dilip Kumar is in love with her. Nargis isn’t and hopes she hasn’t been leading him on. So she tells him: ‘Aap kahin galat fahmi mein nahin aayiyega’. “The obvious subtitle would be ‘I hope you don’t misunderstand me’ but a better one would be ‘I hope you don’t misconstrue things,’” explains Kabir. A common mistake is translating ‘Chhod do mujhe’ as ‘Leave me’ while it should be ‘Let go of me’. Things also have to be in tune with the mood, atmosphere, culture and period of the film. She explains how ‘Kya miyaan’ from Chaudhavin Ka Chaand got subtitled as ‘Hey dude’ in one of the prints. “You can’t Americanise like this,” says Kabir.

There are other rules of punctuation. Songs have to be italicised. Ditto the voice on the other side of a telephone conversation. Anything being shown on TV has to be within quotes or italicised. Also, no exclamation marks or all caps to overemphasise a situation when you can see the actor emoting it on screen.

But that is not all. Subtitling is not like translating a book or an article. An understanding of the film medium is essential. “You have to catch the rhythm and spirit of editing,” she says. Apart from a linguistic aspect, there is also a technical one to it, called spotting, i.e. putting the text on the film. Which is where contemporary films with fast cuts prove to be a challenge. “A subtitle should not go over the cut,” says Kabir. “If you do so, the viewers might miss the cut, you are spoiling the editing for them.” If 60 per cent of subtitling is about translation, then 40 per cent has to do with editing.

For subtitling Indian films, songs offer a big challenge. The translations can often make the songs sound stupid and comic. She gives an example of how the song ‘Mangal Mangal’ from Mangal Pandey: The Rising , got subtitled as ‘Tuesday Tuesday’. “How would you subtitle something like ‘meri aankhon mein bas jao’?” Kabir asks. Keep it straight, simple and elegant rather than using complicated and intrusive language or try desperately to rhyme: that is the best policy. The example of the classic ‘Jaane kya tune kahi’ from Pyaasa follows. So, instead of a literal translation ‘Sansanahat si hui, thartharahat si hui, jag uthe khwaab kayi’ gets turned to ‘I felt my heart awaken, I felt an elation, my slumbering dreams were awakened’.

In the west, subtitling is considered a skilled profession; only a handful of experts are given the job. One of the leading subtitlers is John Minchinton with 8,000 films behind him. In fact, the subtitlers in the West are fighting for royalties. However, in India, it is yet to emerge as a career.Some directors, however, are getting serious and often sit for reviews. Mani Ratnam, for instance. He sat with Kabir through the subtitling of Raavan . “It was a pleasure,” she says. “It helped one get to know a director’s sense and intention for a scene.” And what if they suggest changes? “I go by what they want. After all, a director has lived with a film. He has the best understanding of it,” she says.

In a nutshell, a subtitle is on screen for limited time. “You can’t linger on it,” says Kabir. For that, it must not be too complex nor should it simplify things so much as to make them sound idiotic. Ultimately, the best subtitle is the one that is invisible. Then, it has done its job well. Says Kabir: “A subtitle should never grab attention.”

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