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The power of subtitles

The power of subtitles

When the South Korean film “Parasite” made history by winning four Academy Awards, including the award for the Best Picture, people started wondering if they have been missing out on some good foreign films that would undeniably enrich their cinematic experience.

Why was “Parasite” an achievement?

Bong Joon Ho, the director of  “Parasite” drew further attention to this matter by cleverly stating: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

The general consensus is that people have an aversion to subtitles because they draw the attention to the wrong part of the screen and are generally distracting and take away from the visual storytelling and experience. Therein lies that barrier.

But the issue goes even deeper. One could argue that the concept of subtitles couldn’t possibly be associated with politics. This would be wrong. The underlying issues such as racism, omnipresent prejudice and cultural differences are key aspects that fuel the general public’s dislike towards foreign films and, by default, subtitles. Despite winning numerous accolades, “Parasite” still struggled to make a complete breakthrough and earn recognition among the English-speaking audience. People argued that they enjoy watching a movie, not reading it. Some even wondered why the director chose an all Korean cast and why the director did the film in Korean instead of English.

It wasn’t until “Parasite” won the Academy Award for the Best Picture, when people had no choice but to give it the recognition it deserved. It can be concluded that, in order to get recognition in the entertainment business, a movie should be made in English.

Foreign films vs Hollywood

Foreign films often have smaller budgets than their Hollywood counterparts; therefore, the quality of production, costumes, special effects, marketing, etc. is not as mega costly as it’s often the case with Hollywood movies. The former simply can’t compete with the latter—production wise. But that is not to say that great budget equals great quality.

Certainly there are expectations the audience has from Hollywood productions and when a foreign movie falls short of the same expectations, the audience often generalizes the quality of all foreign cinemas. Some foreign movies are far superior and engaging than their Hollywood counterparts, but they are rarely watched due to the preconceived bias that foreign cinemas are bad. Such an attitude perpetuates prejudice towards foreign films, categorizing them as sub-par or low quality and therein lies an even greater barrier.

In fact, foreign films show and teach us obscure aspects of life and culture, making up for budget shortcomings in an innovative and creative way. Therefore, one could argue that the role of subtitles is necessary and a vital part of cinematic experience, enhancing understanding, not only of a language but of culture as well. That is why, for the people who don’t speak the language, subtitles don’t represent a barrier, but a tool, a form of aid that allows them to understand the dialogue and actually get a chance to fully experience the film.

The issue with subtitles

The mechanism of subtitles is a complex one. It requires the accuracy of a translation that successfully and effortlessly shifts from source language to target language, without losing or omitting the original idea and, as such, are crucial in delivering the nuances and hidden, as well as obvious, meanings that a director wishes to convey to foreign audience.

What role can the subtitles play?

Subtitles are crucial in the success of a movie, because badly translated or inaccurate subtitles limit and hamper the message a movie is trying to deliver. To further illustrate the importance of subtitles, we can have as an example of the persons who are deaf or hard-of hearing. For them, subtitles are a tool that removes whatever limitations they may have and that may hinder their enjoyment and are of vital significance in making movie content accessible and inclusive.

On a more technical note, subtitles also serve as visual cues that allow a viewer to focus on what’s being said, if we take into account background noise, a variety of accents and voice levels or even ambient dialogue, without missing visual information. They are a physical manifestation of auditory information, which constitutes a rather important part of a film. Furthermore, subtitles aid in learning language and improve reading abilities, which is often an underrated effect. 

Are subtitles necessary?

It’s always useful to be reminded that movies are not limited or exclusive to Hollywood. Keeping an open mind is necessary in every aspect of life and having an open mind makes a foreign movie more enjoyable. This exposes a person to a myriad of different styles of cinematography and talented directors and actors. It is inspiring as it is useful.

Pleasing everybody all the time is not possible but we must strive to understand one another, without jumping to conclusions and relying on prejudice when we are met with something that is unfamiliar. When “Parasite” won the Academy Award for the Best Picture, it broke the barriers and erased the boundaries imposed on motion pictures. It made the audience strive to understand the foreign culture. It truly made history. The cinema won that night, and cinema is not exclusive to a country, language or culture.

There are a lot of gifted filmmakers in so many countries, presenting us with outstanding films. It would be a waste to miss out on those amazing films just because they come with subtitles.

Subtitles have the ability to transcend, by means of making a part of a culture that is embodied in a visual storytelling accessible to everyone, therefore broadening the experience, which certainly demonstrates the resonance and power of that “one-inch-tall barrier.”

The writer is a Nepali subtitle translator and runs a Nepali translation company, Wordinvent