Subtitles and Subtexts

If you were a teenager in London in the early 1960s and had a black polo neck pullover and a three-quarter length black PVC jacket, (I did,) you, your pullover and your PVC jacket had no place to be other than inside the Academy Cinema on London’s Oxford Street watching foreign films. Black and white foreign films, with subtitles. I saw everything by Alain Renais, Roberto Rossellini, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Chris Marker and, a private passion, Claude Lelouche. (“A Man and a Woman” 1966, in colour, watch it and weep.) Exotic foreign stories.

Those films were made and first shown in the pre-digital age and their slightly fussy, white-on-black subtitling burnt into celluloid 35mm film was the smart technology of the time. And although the first subtitled film was the American-made “The Jazz Singer”, subtitling was a very European activity due to the relative closeness of different-speaking people.

Watching subtitled films was a complex process, but it worked; you saw the action on the screen and you heard the dialogue spoken by the characters, but only as incomprehensible vocal sound, whilst the unfathomable words were provided by the subtitles, which you read. Three layers of activity in the name of entertainment.

But now, looking back, I realise that those scratchily etched words weren’t just translations of the words spoken by the characters, they had another role. Subtitles allowed viewers with other languages to access to the essential particularity of the place and time of the film, its zeitgeist. Unlike the alternative, much discredited process, dubbing, whereby the on-screen actors’ spoken words are removed and replaced by local actors speaking the native language, often making a nonsense of the non-verbal narrative.

When Dubbing had its Day

During the 80s and 90s, I found myself watching foreign films on French TV, i.e. American films, in which the American-English dialogue was always dubbed into French. But I was never convinced by American characters seemingly speaking French on the mean streets of New York. Not only did it not work; the mouths were always wobbly, it destroyed any narrative credibility. I suspected the heavy hand of the Academie Francaise at work defending the French language against cultural mission-creep by the perfidious Americans; those halcyon days and nights in the Academy Cinema told me that dubbing wasn’t how a film was meant to tell its story.

But nationalistic strictures work both ways. The English actor, Helen Mirren, who stars in the forthcoming film “The 100 Foot Journey” which is set in a Disney-fied “traditional” French village speaks fluent French and wanted to enhance the authenticity of the film by more-than-frequently using French as part of the narrative. But Disney, the producers, deemed that as it would then be necessary to subtitle those passages, a practice, up with which, the American mid-west would not put, Ms. Mirren has had to employ a rather awkward French-Eeengleesh accent throughout. Alors.

Full Circle

And now, firmly in the digital age, economic forces have brought about a new French telly-watching experience. As ever, following the eight o’clock news and the all-important weather forecast, comes the evening main feature – “CSI Miami”, “The Mentalist”, “Esprits Criminels” and every other American procedural plot-dump cop show imaginable, but, we now get to hear it in its original American English – with French subtitles. The streets of lower Manhattan now ring true. If you really want them to.

The cost of getting a tightly rehearsed cast of highly-trained dubbing actors into a Parisian recording studio equipped with a sync screen to provide credible lip-synced French for run-of-the-mill American-English copperamas, has become a cultural and economic requirement too far. All it now takes is an experienced translator to morph the spoken American words into easily readable French which is crisply displayed on the screen, for a nation to be both provided with an understandable narrative and, I suspect, I hope, a feeling that they are now more a part of the zeitgeist of an exotic foreign story. Just like I was all those years ago in the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street.