The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Subtitles as translation

with 6 comments

Continuing with the theme of translation…

If you have ever watched Indian movies with English subtitles, you will be aware of how uniformly terrible they are. Everything is usually translated over-literally, into phrases that make no sense in English even for ideas common enough that non-literal equivalents exist. (Remember those award-winning regional-language films that Doordarshan used to broadcast at 11:30 pm on Sundays, which you used to watch after your parents had gone to sleep, and where you always had to guess what was meant by translating the English subtitles back into an Indian language?)

Sometimes—very rarely—the subtitles are done with more care, and any successful translation is always worth applauding.

Here is a post on the subject by Carla FilmiGeek, where she mentions a trailer in which a character is in a screen test, saying lines like Kitne aadmi the?, while the subtitles have lines like “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender” and “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

That is to say, instead of literally rendering the famous lines from the Hindi films (“How many men were there?” &c.) the subtitler chose a conceptual translation that slipped the category of “famous lines from Hindi films” to “famous lines from Hollywood films.” This rendition conveys the force of what is happening on the screen – the dog is reenacting famous movie scenes – much better than could have been done by a literal translation. […] ; it is not a linguistic translation only, but also a cultural translation.

The comments there also mention this from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun:

“daal mein kuch kaala hai, bhaiyyaji”
“mujhe kaali daal to pasand hain”

Literally this translates to something along the lines of:
“there is something black in the lentils, brother”
“I love black lentils”

but the subtitles instead read:
“something is fishy!”
“I love fish”

This post was occasioned by the few Hindi movies I saw over the last couple of years—though I would have preferred watching them without subtitles, it’s hard not to read them when they’re forcibly displayed on screen—and was impressed by the English subtitles at times. I don’t think this is a general trend of better subtitles (though foreign markets are slowly growing in importance for Bollywood), but merely isolated examples.

The first was Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, where I was more impressed by the uniformly high quality of the subtitles than by the film. What I found most impressive was that the song lyrics were translated into rhyming verses while still remaining reasonably song-like: where the Hindi lyrics say:

Nazre milaana, nazre churana
kahin pe nigaahen, kahin pe nishaana…

the subtitles say:

The secret look. The stolen gaze.
Finds it’s mark, and yet it strays.

and so on. It may not mean exactly the same thing, but is close enough to whatever extent anyone pays attention to the meaning of song lyrics. Despite the “it’s”, I found it amazing how much care the subtitlers had taken throughout the film in finding the right phrases. Cliches are translated into cliches, colloquialisms into colloquialisms, and everything suggests much thought has gone into it. Subtitlers never get credit for their hard work, so let me acknowledge their names: the credits attribute “English subtitling” to “Renuka Kunzuru” and “Chirag Todiwala” (who also appear in the credits as the actress (“Renuku Kunzru”) who plays the character the film is being narrated to, and an assistant editor respectively).

The second example was the Munnabhai films. These are a special challenge because the films often rely for effect on slang Hindi, puns, cultural references and the like (you don’t realise how much until you try translating). The first film has passably decent and thoughtful subtitles, given the constraints, with even a few inspired choices. But the subtitles of the second film, Lage Raho Munnabhai ambitiously overextend themselves, often to lame effect. They so often make up new material that they seem to construct an entire (irrelevant) parallel literature: For instance, where in the original ‘Circuit’ politely explains at knifepoint to the professor that they should help each other in life, and that in exchange for information on Gandhi, he’d be perfectly willing to impart knowledge on “Shakeel Heda, Dagdu Dada, Afzal Tonda”, the subtitles mention “Franky four-fingers, Bullet-tooth Tony, Boris ‘the blade'”. This seems less an intentional tribute to Guy Ritche’s Snatch (nowhere present in the original) than simply a failure of imagination in coming up with gangster names, and distracts from what’s happening onscreen. Philip Lutgendorf seems to feel the same way; he dislikes Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar being mapped to Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and that “clever Hinglish puns are replaced by irrelevant and less-than-clever English word-play”.

The moral, I guess, is that though “cultural translation” can be better than literal translation in conveying the intended effect, and is always worth attempting, it is not the point in itself, and must be carried out only so far as the result is palatable, and the translation does not draw undue attention to itself.

(Aside: it is interesting to read about Bollywood from the perspective of non-Indians; one gets to learn about one’s own films by seeing what they “get” and don’t get, what they observe and find notable that we’d take for granted. Hilarious initial reactions are one thing, but for reviews by people intimately familiar with Hindi cinema (who have probably watched more Hindi films than I have), among the many many Bollywood blogs present online, I especially recommend Filmi Geek and “philip’s fil-ums”. Lutgendorf, for instance, seems to often pick up references to mythology that we’d not even notice, as we’ve internalized these stories so deeply.)

Written by S

Fri, 2010-08-13 at 16:20:40

Posted in language

Tagged with , ,

6 Responses

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  1. I was once going in a bus from Salem to Mettur, and they were playing some film songs on the video. You know that the average Tamil film song of recent times is decidedly third-rate. And they all had subtitles! Lots of opportunity for hilarity! But the best was the following:

    Hero and heroine are under a waterfall, striking some highly suggestive poses! The unusually coy lyricist has lines like “Enna appidi paakkare?” “Ennamo pannudhu!”

    The heroine is asking “Why do you look at me like that?” and the hero’s answer (according to the lyricist) is “Something is happening to me!” The subtitle? “I am hot!”

    S P Suresh

    Fri, 2010-08-13 at 22:10:21

  2. Very nice (as always), especially the aside.

    I have somewhat of an addiction to subtitles, even in plain-English films. Somehow the whole viewing experience seems to be a lot more ‘comfortable’ if the subtitles are on.


    Thu, 2010-08-19 at 03:55:32

    • Thanks. Yes, I like watching films with subtitles too. :-) I delay the subtitles by 3 seconds, so that they don’t come before the dialogue and ruin the film for me, and I look at them only when I want to.


      Thu, 2010-08-19 at 11:35:21

      • Whoa :) I couldn’t possibly do that.. I’d be forced to read the text and would be all confused.


        Fri, 2010-08-20 at 10:54:20

        • 2–3 seconds isn’t that long; try it sometime. :-) (Obviously I’d decrease the delay if watching something with fast-paced dialogue, say His Girl Friday. (One of the greatest comedies ever made BTW… it’s public-domain now and available online in several places.))
          It’s usually worth delaying the subtitles by about 1 second anyway, since otherwise they invariably come before they’re spoken… I don’t know why they make them that way. If you know they’re not going to “go away”, there’s less pressure to read the text before it’s too late. :-)


          Fri, 2010-08-20 at 13:33:08

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