The South Korean genre-bending thriller Parasite made history at the Academy Awards earlier this month as the first ever non-English language film to win the best picture Oscar.
In the words of Bong Joon Ho, are we ready to overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles?
Being native English speakers, we often forget how easy and accessible much of popular culture is for us – a comfort that not everybody in the West, let alone the rest of the world, get to enjoy. In France, dubbing is the norm for virtually all of Hollywood’s imports, to the point where the vast majority of the French public never get to hear the real speaking voices of Hollywood actors.
In fact, a friend I met when living in France once told me how it wasn’t until he was around 18 that he felt confident enough in his English language skills to watch Die Hard, his favourite film, in the original version – and was subsequently disappointed to discover that he much preferred Bruce Willis’s husky French voice to his actual one.
Here in the UK, very rarely do we see successful dubbed versions of a film end up on the big screen, as Hollywood tends to either disregard the international cultural imports in its original state or go full force by remaking it into a version that is virtually unrecognisable. We’re in an endless ocean of remakes and reboots that there’s probably versions that you have mistakenly thought was an English original. Three Men and a Baby, Some Like It Hot, The Parent Trap – the list goes on and on. Only a few successful international films get imported in its original state which is what makes the accolade for Parasite all the more deserving. Hollywood has normalised stripping a film of its soul so routinely that we are oblivious of all the nuances that, for lack of a better term, get lost in translation. What made the French original film Les Intouchables so charming is something that cannot be authentically reimagined even with the help of a star-studded cast led by Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.
So, the question remains – if not dubbing, are subtitles the best way forward?
For some filmgoers, subtitles are much more than just a one-inch barrier, they’re an annoying scribble that are simply too much of a distraction. For others, subtitles don’t go far enough in capturing the subtle tones of the original actor’s delivery of the line. But dismissing subtitles as being just words across the screen would be a complete understatement. Subtitling is more than just translating the dialogue but finding the right balance between comprehension and creativity.
Knowing how to translate a character’s personality, social class, humour, and the cultural context in which it is set in a way that’s appropriate to the target language’s cultural context and doesn’t betray the original version’s intended impact? That requires native level fluency in several languages. Knowing how to do all that concisely enough to fit in with the pace of the scene, the reading speed of the audience, and with limited line space? That takes real linguistic mastery.
One of the biggest, and largely overlooked advantages to normalising subtitles in films is that this is a conversation that those with hearing impairments can join in on. Introducing subtitles into not only non-English films, but incorporating them into all films, can only be a good thing.
Of course, subtitles are no new phenomenon. But maybe now we’ll see subtitling shed its wrongful rep as the snobby stamp of art-house films and propelled into the movie mainstream. With the rapid rise of xenophobia and dwindling intercultural dialogue, we need to do everything we can to encourage movie enthusiasts who are ready to explore life and culture outside the realms of tinsel town.
Thanks to Parasite, the once-inch barrier has been broken, and the path to a world full of refreshingly original and groundbreaking works of art awaits us.