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The Torch: In the crux: subtitling

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Any film by nature is an entity in its own right, carefully created by people who have given their all (and some extra) to bring about a silver-screen realisation of their original vision. There’s real passion involved and so the whole endeavour hopefully leads to a reward to justify all that nerve-wrecking effort.

But as with any party, there’s always someone or something lying in wait to spoil the thing. And the same goes for the other side: the viewer, who in turn has every right (and hopefully enough reason) to expect nothing short of a film that is worth their time and money.

Whatever differences in taste and understanding may be (and both do vary enormously, as we all know), there can be no arguing this: amidst all the strife for unattainable perfection, it can be the neglected detail that blemishes the entire work. It’s mostly technicalities that can do this ruinous job and today, it’s subtitles that I want to talk about.

It would be quite superfluous to extensively cover the sad history of bad subtitling, since every production that comes out of Singapore and almost every production squeezing itself in with the city’s crowded theatres has their part in the mire. Either it is all too much text on the screen all at once or it’s too little, too hasty, too big or too small, too much use of colloquialisms and swearing and slang, or too stilted, ill-phrased or even outright wrong or misspelled words altogether.

Yes, we have seen (and suffered) it all. We know by experience how bad subtitle translation can ruin carefully crafted dialogue, virtually kill every sharp line that was supposed to cut like a knife but comes across sheepishly plain instead in the subs.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, especially as it could be so easily helped, there is one additional point to be raised when speaking of how relevant such a minuscule thing as the proper use of subtitles can become. For subtitles may be crucial in gaining international exposure to a variety of audiences abroad — they in part determine how successful a film actually has a chance to ever become.

Most may think it fully sufficient to ensure that the English lines stand on guard, properly polished to happily march their way across the screen without stumbling along like linguistic invalids. With audiences spared this distress and the filmmakers saved from embarrassment, many would reckon this gets the job done, wouldn’t they?

But here’s another line of wishful thinking on the matter: imagine a film from Singapore that aimed at getting recognition in non-English countries and tried its hand at winning over those audiences whom it could not address in its native language (and it is mainly European countries I am speaking of here). Little wonder to me that any such undertaking couldn’t hope for doing any better than having limited releases here and there, probably no further than Scandinavian countries.

Nothing to be said against those northern lights here, they certainly do shine. But if indeed you have anything even remotely reminiscent of commercial success on your mind, you’d better think twice before presenting a French crowd of weekend moviegoers with English subtitles. As far as I can tell the same holds true of the Spanish, the Italian, the Polish, the Greek and yes, we Germans also.

Of course you’ll always find your peers among film festival enthusiasts wherever you go, for sure. But beyond this amicably elitist circle? I doubt it, and I know for a fact that in my home country Germany for one, no Singapore feature film has enjoyed nationwide theatrical release ever. None!

Reasons are manifold, I know, but my point is this: If you target France, go French. If you target Germany (like I hope some will!), go German (and don’t wait to actually come over, it is rewarding, it is!). Just step back for a moment if you will and try to bring a thing called “national pride” into the equation. With most nations that variable seems pretty constant to me. The formula is simple and I would expect it to work — not outright miracles, but on a small, moderate scale. Apart from this, don’t overestimate English language proficiency (by the way, this also applies for Singlish, I guess … ) among people of continental Europe.

To sum it all up, the crux with subtitles in my estimation is not only the well-proven fact that they possess the power to render a telling tale unspeakably dull. But also does catering to the nationally proud in the case of subtitles would enable a film to reach out considerably further than it would otherwise. The cultural difference is challenging enough as it is, so lower the bar of entering into your story if you can, by giving it subtitles as your market demands them.

Every single extra dollar you put into good translation will eventually pay off. Since Singaporean filmmakers typically have to work on English subtitles anyway, why not go the extra mile and add your preferred target languages, too? And in doing so: go for quality only, cause nothing is worse, really (and won’t be forgiven by any audience around the globe), than crappy sentences and countless misspellings; for even unintentional laughter and disapproving head-shakes following on the heels of ridicule is truly universal a tongue.

Look out for mo’s comments on the arts, film and filmmaking in “The Torch”.

Previous columns in “The Torch”: Can we sell it in pieces?, Bridging the gap, Introduction

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