Bong Joon Ho, the Academy Award winning South Korean director, in his Golden Globe acceptance speech for Parasite, put a spotlight on the cinematic world that lay beyond the "one-inch barrier of subtitles". Subtitles and streaming have come hand-in-glove introducing an anglophile viewer in India, to Mexican drug cartels in Narcos, the French PR machinery in Call My Agent, the Dutch Politics in Borgen and even extremely rooted Malayali dysfunction in Kumbalangi Nights.
But subtitles are hard because language, humour, idioms, and cuss words are local, but subtitles that translate them are by definition, global. Mira Nair noted how she insisted with BBC that the music in A Suitable Boy be subtitled for it is as important as dialogues in building a milieu. But sometimes subtitles can be too literal, and this becomes fresh fodder for memes. pagalsubtitle.tumblr.com has documented some of these gaffes.
Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has subtitled over 800 films since the 1980s, notes "A bad subtitle can ruin a film but a good subtitle cannot save a bad movie. In Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) there is a chorus "Mangal Mangal Mangal". The subtitle read "Tuesday Tuesday Tuesday!" So the subtitler didn't even get that Mangal is a name. It ruined the film!"
But when done right, subtitles can be a window to a new culture. I grew up requiring subtitles to understand American and British movies because the accent seemed as much a barrier as a foreign language would. Subtitles helped bridge that gap.
Nasreen Munni Kabir has subtitled not just the stalwarts like Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor but also iconic films like Sholay (1975) for Channel 4, a British television network. When confronted with iconic dialogues like 'Kitne Aadmi The', she is unfazed about retaining the iconic-ness of it, "You go straight- "How many men were there?" "3 master!" You don't play around with it. The iconic status of it has come from the scene and from the Hindi not from the subtitles! So don't be clever, be straightforward. Javed and Salim saheb have also written it in straightforward language. It's not Ghalib's verse. It's straight Hindi- you and I could say it. It's the context that the reputation comes from, not just the words."
In Shakuntala Devi (2020) Vidya Balan replies to a foreigner who is trying to teach her 'Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter butter…' with her own homespun tongue twister:
"Oonth ooncha, oonth ki peeth oonchi, oonchi poonch oonth ki"
This would literally translate to "The camel is tall, the back of the camel is tall, and tall is the tail of the camel."
Jahan Singh Bakshi who subtitled the film noted that his initial reaction was to not subtitle the tongue twister at all, "because the whole joke is that [the foreigner] doesn't understand the language, and she's retaliating. But the producers thought it might be odd to not have it subtitled." In the final edit, he came up with his own tongue twister, trying to retain the rhythm, keeping the camel reference. It required a bit of innovation.
Vivek Ranjit, too, had to be innovative when subtitling the Malayalam film Kodathi Samaksham Balan Vakeel (2019) where the lead character stammers, "So when he's saying K..K…K… the other person guesses some other word, a wrong word like … Kuppi? But the meaning won't be the same in translation. So I have to change the entire word, but make it start from K, make humour out of some other word. The wrong and right guesses both had to start from K."
Similarly while subtitling Lucifer (2019), he and the writer Murali Gopy had long discussions about subtitling Tovino Thomas' speech that he delivers in bad Malayalam. How to translate bad Malayalam, pronounced incorrectly, with an American accent?
"In the subtitle, I misspelt the words instead. So, in the film when the other people are correcting his speech, I spell it out with hyphens, and then he says it correctly. This was Murali's idea. When the film was being uploaded on Amazon, the people called me to ask if there was a mistake in the subtitle."
Kabir is fervent about subtitling song lyrics. "You must subtitle the songs, even if they don't say anything. Sahir Ludhianvi or Shailendra… you cannot not subtitle them- they carry a lot of the narrative, a lot of the intention of the character- romantic or moral. If you take out the song, you have taken out a scene," she says.
But even in subtitling songs, subtitlers differ on whether to retain rhyme or not, whether to be literal or just keep the essence.
Jayashree, who subtitles Tamil songs for her YouTube channel Kollywood Subtitles, prefers interpretation, and not translation. When subtitling the romantic song 'Unakaaga' from Atlee's Bigil (2019) starring Vijay, she kept the essence of lyrics.
"For example, the second line goes 'Usuroda vasam pudikkiren' which literally means 'I smell your soul'. But the interpretation of it would be, 'I seek the essence of your soul'" The official subtitle from the film reads "I inhale the scent of your soul daily."
She also insists on keeping the rhyme intact. For example in the song 'Kadhaippoma' in Oh My Kadavule! (2020), there are two lines:
"Unnodu Naan Pona Dhooram Yaavum Nenjile
Reengaara Ninaivugalaaga Alaiyai Ingae Minjudhey."
This would literally translate to: All the memories I have traveled thus far with you are buzzing, beyond the crashing sound of waves. But Jayashree's subtitles eschews this for rhyme, maintaining the essence of it.
"Memories of the past we took from the start
Are creating an overwhelming buzz at heart."
Kabir disagrees with this, preferring not to rhyme her subtitles, "because then the viewer is looking for the English rhyme, they are not looking at the image. A subtitle to me must be clear, but quiet and allow the image and performance to speak. You are at the service of the film, the film is not at the service of the subtitle."
For example when she was subtitling 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' from Dil Se, one of her most difficult translations, with its lyricist Gulzar, she emphasized more on retaining the meaning than the rhyme. The lyrics go:
"Gulposh kabhi itraye kahin
Meheke toh nazar aa jaye kahin"
She subtitled it thus:
"The One draped in flowers comes into view
When the fragrance spreads."
Kabir clarifies, "The One is God!"
Bakshi subtitled Raj Babbar to Al Pacino. Similarly, Ranjit in Jacobinte Swargarajyam translated Edavela Babu, a Malayalam actor, to Jack Black. His rationale is that outside of Kerala, the name Edavela Babu does not have any significance.
Ranjit who often has to subtitle some colourful cuss words from Malayalam is careful about its sound and discretion. Since 2018 the subtitles of films too have to be submitted to the censor board, so there aren't as many examples today. "In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, the 2017 Fahadh Faasil movie, there's this phrase in Malayalam called "Kazhuveride Mole". Kazhuveride means someone who is being hung to death, and mole means daughter of… or girl of… You can write son-of-a-bitch or son-of-a-gun you can't write daughter-of-a-gun! It doesn't sound right. In the movie it had to be specific because the father himself is calling the daughter that and she is saying that he is correct!"
But what is interesting here is that one need not be adept with the local language to subtitle it. The late John Minchinton subtitled over 1500 films from Ray to Kurusowa, from a dozen languages, despite not knowing the language itself. He's still considered a gold-standard among subtitlers. What is important, and Kabir emphasises this, is "You must get the English right, the punctuation. Five exclamation marks is a comic book, not a subtitle. I always ask to see the film, because I want to hear the film, listen to its intonations. You're translating something with picture and sound, so you must work with that medium."
But it's not just the medium, but also the era you have to work with. Kabir notes than in the 50s the dialogues and edits were slower. Today we have fast cuts and quick dialogues. Subtitles too should be crisp, and not linger on the screen after the person stops talking. "It's like an elegant telegram," she notes, "well… an elegant text message."